Who is Qais al-Khazali, and Why Should You Care?
By Jonathan Spyer
December 15, 2017
Last Saturday, a recording
emerged of an Iraqi Shi'a militia leader called Qais al-Khazali visiting the
Lebanon-Israel border area.
The short video shows him in the company of two other uniformed
men. They are in the village of Kafr Kila, which is adjacent to Metulla.
At a certain point in the recording, Khazali addresses the
camera. '"I'm at the Fatima Gate in Kafr Kila, at the border that divides
south Lebanon from occupied Palestine," he tells his listeners. Khazali
I'm here with my brothers from Hezbollah, the Islamic resistance.
We announce our full readiness to stand as one with the Lebanese people, with
the Palestinian cause, in the face of the unjust Israeli occupation, [an
occupation] that is anti-Islam, anti-Arab, and anti-humanity, in the decisive
Arab Muslim cause. And, inshallah, all goodness and blessings to the mujahideen
all over the world. And blessings and goodness to the Islamic resistance, which
is ready to heed the call of Islam to pave the way to the State of Allah's
Justice, the State of the Possessor of Time [the Mehdi], peace and prayers be
Khazali is the leader of an Iran-supported force called Asaib Ahl
al-Haq (the League of the Righteous). In the manner preferred by the Iranians,
the organization doubles as an armed militia and a political party. It was
prominent in the Shi'a insurgency against the US and its allies just over a
decade ago. Today, AAH is a key component in the Hashd al-Sha'abi (Popular
Mobilization Units), the gathering of Shi'a militias raised up in the summer of
2014 to fight Islamic State when the Sunni jihadists were gunning for Baghdad.
AAH has also played an important role in the Assad regime's war in Syria.
The emergent unity of purpose of Iran-supported forces in the
Levant and Iraq is focused on Israel.
Khazali's visit had only a mild echo in news coverage of the
region this week. The fallout from President Donald Trump's declaration
confirming Jerusalem as the capital of Israel continued to dominate the
headlines. Arguably, however, the appearance of an obscure, bearded Iraqi Shi'a
militia leader a short distance from the town of Metulla was an indication of a
trend of greater potential concern to Israel than the small demonstrations held
by Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank to protest Trump's decision. The
trend in question is the emergent unity of purpose of Iran-supported
military-political organizations in the Levant and Iraq, and the emergent focus
of attention of these groups – all directly controlled by the Islamic
Revolutionary Guard Corps – on Israel.
AAH is one of three veteran Shi'a Islamist groupings that form
the backbone of the 120,000-strong Hashd al-Sha'abi. The other two are the Badr
Organization, led by Hadi al-Ameri, and Kataib Hezbollah, led by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
AAH is the smallest of these three groups and is in many ways the
most radical. Splitting from Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in 2004, when the
latter ordered his men to cease fighting the Americans, AAH claimed
responsibility for over 6,000 attacks on coalition forces in the period
2006-2011. AAH elements took part in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, alongside
AAH claimed responsibility for over 6,000 attacks on U.S.-led
coalition forces in Iraq from 2006 to 2011.
Following the killing of five Americans in the Shi'ite town of
Karbala in March 2007, Khazali was arrested by the coalition. Ali Musa Daqduq, a
Lebanese Hezbollah adviser with the Iraqi Shi'a militias, was apprehended with
him. Khazali was released in exchange for Peter Moore, a British computer
consultant kidnapped by AAH.
Following the US withdrawal in 2011, AAH entered the political
process. It has worked and continues to work closely with former prime minister
Nuri al-Maliki and his faction of the ruling Dawa Party. At the same time, AAH
opened an office in Beirut and continues its close cooperation with Hezbollah.
Despite its current visibility, the organization is shy of contacts with the
Western media. On a project in Baghdad to profile pro-Iranian Shi'a militias in
the summer of 2015, this reporter found AAH to be the only group to refuse all
requests for interviews. This despite its possession of a seat in Iraq's
parliament in 2014.
So why do Khazali and Asaib Ahl al-Haq matter?
Khazali's appearance at the border is the latest and most graphic
demonstration that Israel can no longer consider its long standoff with
Hezbollah as a closed conflict system between a state and a small, albeit
well-armed militia. Iran has now breached the boundaries of this system.
Abu Kamal, the last link in the Iranian land bridge from the
Iraq-Iran border to the Mediterranean, was captured by Iranian-backed
forces in November.
On November 19, pro-Iranian Syrian and Iraqi forces completed the
capture of Abu Kamal, a dusty town on the Syria-Iraq border 640 km. east of
Quneitra. In so doing, Iran secured its land route from Iran through Iraq and
Syria, to a few kilometers from the Quneitra crossing. It also secured a road
for the supply of Hezbollah.
Iran is taking orders neither from Russia, nor from the nominal
Syrian government of Bashar Assad in its activities in Syria. Rather, with
thousands of militiamen on the ground in the country, it is building its own
independent infrastructure. This includes the facility at al-Kiswa, 13 km. south
of Damascus, bombed by Israeli aircraft on December 2. Iranian personnel are
also present closer to the Israeli border.
In Iraq, as the war against Islamic State winds down, the Popular
Mobilization Units is establishing itself as a permanent armed force. Already a
year ago, its continued mobilization was confirmed by law. Now, components of
the PMU are securing their status as political forces, ahead of the Iraqi
elections scheduled for May. The Badr Organization was licensed to take part in
the elections 10 months ago. On November 6, AAH also received its license from
the Iraqi Higher Elections Committee to participate in the elections.
Using the kudos gained by their role in the war against Islamic
State, and while maintaining their military capacity, these parties are set to
perform well. And in cooperation with former prime minister Maliki, they may
well emerge as the dominant force in Iraq after the elections.
Iranian clients are now in a position of
unchallenged dominance in Iraq and Lebanon.
All this has the slight flavor of déjà vu about it. On a
smaller scale in Lebanon, similar Iranian clients who knew how to combine
military and political activity are now in a position of unchallenged dominance
of the country.
So put all this together – the achievement of the Iranian land
corridor through Syria to Lebanon and the Israeli border, the burgeoning
political and military strength of Iran's proxies in Iraq, the Iranian efforts
to push their presence and infrastructure to the border with the Golan Heights
– and the potential scope and look of a future conflict between Israel and the
Iran-led regional bloc becomes clear.
All this is taking place, by the way, at a time when the West is
busy practicing politics in Iraq and Lebanon, backing supposedly moderate and
certainly toothless figures such as prime ministers Saad Hariri and Haider al-Abadi.
Seen against this background, Khazali's tour of the area north of
Metulla is the latest item of evidence confirming the growing boldness,
broadening dimensions and advancing agenda of the Iranians in Iraq and the