Iranian-backed militant group in Iraq is recasting itself as a political player

Karim Kadim/AP - Followers of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr prayed recently in Baghdad. Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a former militant group composed of disgruntled former Sadrists, is entering politics and is seen as a counterweight to the cleric’s influence.

BAGHDAD — The Iranian-backed Shiite group responsible for most of the attacks against U.S. forces in the final years of the Iraq war is busily reinventing itself as a political organization in ways that could enhance Iran’s influence in post-American Iraq — and perhaps beyond.

In recent months, Asaib Ahl al-Haq — the League of the Righteous — has been rapidly expanding its presence across Iraq, trumpeting the role the once-shadowy group says it played in forcing the departure of U.S. troops with its bomb attacks against American targets.

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The group’s chief officers have returned from exile in Iran, and they have set about opening a string of political offices, establishing a social services program to aid widows and orphans, and launching a network of religious schools, echoing the methods and structures of one of its close allies, the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.

At one of the group’s offices in the Baghdad neighborhood of Kadhimiyah, portraits of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and of the Islamic republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, hang on the walls, alongside those of Iraqi Shiite religious figures and of the group’s leader, Qais al-Khazali. He is among those who have relocated from Iran, where he took refuge in 2010 after nearly three years in U.S. custody because of his alleged role in directing a raid that killed five Americans.

The immediate goal is to raise Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s public profile after years of secrecy necessitated by the war against the Americans, said Sheikh Mithaq al-Humairi, 30, the youthful cleric who is in charge of the office, located in a small house on a quiet residential side street.

“Asaib Ahl al-Haq was founded as an Islamic resistance movement to fight the American occupation, but now this stage is over,” he said. “Now we have entered a new phase, which is to make people aware of Asaib Ahl al-Haq.”

The rebranding dates back to the departure of U.S. forces in December 2011, when Asaib Ahl al-Haq first announced that it would enter the political mainstream. But its activities have been intensifying ahead of a busy election schedule in the coming year, with provincial elections set for April and parliamentary ones due in early 2014 that will provide an important indicator of where Iraq is headed after the American exit.

The group has a powerful ally in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, who has embraced its entry into politics as a counterweight to the influence of the mercurial Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a longtime rival who has proved an unreliable partner in the coalition government.

Though Maliki’s aides and Asaib Ahl al-Haq officials deny any formal relationship, they acknowledge friendly relations and don’t discount the possibility that they could strike an electoral pact.

“There is no public alliance, but nothing would be wrong if they have one, and I expect them to do that,” said Ghaith al-Tamimi, a Shiite religious leader who has close ties to both groups and who heads the Center for Religious Rapprochement in Baghdad, an organization promoted by the prime minister. “Maliki needs Shiite figures to split the Sadrists.”

Success would put at the forefront of Iraqi politics a group that openly boasts about its role in killing Americans, something that a former U.S. official who served in Iraq at the height of the attacks described as “deeply problematic.”

Once a threat to U.S. forces

After its creation in 2006, Asaib Ahl al-Haq claimed more than 6,000 attacks on U.S. forces, including some of the most sophisticated roadside bombings of the war and multiple mortar and rocket attacks against U.S. facilities, including the embassy in Baghdad. Though there is no count of the Americans killed by the group, after the defeats inflicted on al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2008, U.S. officials identified Asaib Ahl al-Haq as the biggest single threat to U.S. forces.

Asaib Ahl al-Haq was also responsible for the 2007 kidnapping of a British contractor and the deaths in captivity of his four British bodyguards. Peter Moore was freed after negotiations with the U.S. military for the release of Khazali and hundreds of Asaib Ahl al-Haq operatives, an outcome Khazali touted as a major achievement in an interview last month with the Alsumaria TV network.

“This is something we are proud of, because we forced them to negotiate with armed groups, which it is their policy not to do,” he said.

So close is the group’s relationship with Iran that a political role would “enhance Iranian political and religious influence in Iraq and greatly augment Iran’s regional proxy strategy,” according to a report in December by the Institute for the Study of War.

Indeed, said Sam Wyer, the author of the report, it is hard to separate Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s political aspirations from Iran’s regional ambitions. “With this dramatic shift towards politics, they are attempting publicly to frame themselves as something other than an Iranian proxy, but I don’t buy it,” he said.

Iran initially sponsored and funded the group, composed of disgruntled former Sadrists, to establish a more reliably loyal alternative to the mercurial Sadr and his undisciplined Mahdi Army militia, according to U.S. officials. At the time, officials portrayed the group as an Iranian attempt to create an Iraqi version of Hezbollah, which successfully leveraged its part in driving occupying Israeli troops out of Lebanon in 2000 to play a commanding role in Lebanon’s government.

Building on its close relationship with Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq opened an office in Beirut last year, and it is suspected of dispatching volunteers to fight in Syria on behalf of President Bashar ­al-Assad, suggesting that its ambitions extend beyond Iraq.

At a time when Iran’s regional reach and the standing of its ally Hezbollah are threatened by the revolt against Assad, Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s resurgence looks a lot like a renewed attempt to create an alternative vehicle for projecting Iranian influence, said the former U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the issue.

“I see them first and foremost as an Iranian proxy. Their nature is such that I don’t think they ever gave up their aim of being an Iraqi analog to Hezbollah,” he said. “They will always be a danger to kidnap Americans, conduct bombings against U.S. consulates or do other kinds of activities.”

‘It’s just the beginning’

Whether Asaib Ahl al-Haq can build a significant support base in Iraq’s crowded political field is in question, however. In one sign that its efforts have not been productive, the group has decided against fielding candidates in April’s provincial elections, ostensibly to focus on the parliamentary races next year.

“It’s just the beginning,” Khazali told the TV interviewer when challenged on whether the group feared a poor showing.

Lawmaker Sami al-Askari, a member of Maliki’s parliamentary bloc, who led the negotiations with the United States for Khazali’s release and has a close relationship with Asaib Ahl al-Haq, predicted that the group may win “two or three seats” but not enough to secure a post in the government.

The group’s public association with Iran may also work against it. Iraq fought an eight-year war with its neighbor in the 1980s, and Iran’s efforts to influence Iraqi politics since the fall of Saddam Hussein have intensified the lingering resentment among Shiites almost as much as Sunnis.

Asaib Ahl al-Haq tiptoes around the nature of its relationship with Iran, but it does not deny its sympathy and affiliations. Khazali said in the interview that his reconciliation initiative was not prompted by Iran, but he added: “We welcome the positive interference of neighboring countries.”

Humairi, the cleric who heads the group’s Kadhimiyah office, said funding comes from a variety of religious contributions gathered in mosques, including those provided by Khamenei, the Iranian leader.

He said he would like to see the Iranian system of religious governance applied in Iraq, but only if other Iraqis supported it.

“Iraq is a democracy,” he said, “but if the majority votes for it, why not?”

 
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