Last January, Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki imprudently decided to allow the Shi‘i militia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (“the League of the Righteous,” or AAH) to hold a parade in Baghdad’s Liberation Square. This act inaugurated a new political partnership between al-Maliki and the AAH, which had recently announced that it would lay down its weapons and join the political process. But al-Maliki, who is preparing for the 2013 provincial council elections and is vying for local support in his 2014 bid for a third term, has miscalculated: playing the AAH card is not a winning move—and it has already brought unwelcome pressure.
By bringing the militia into the political fold, al-Maliki aspires to present himself as a tolerant leader who safeguards Iraq’s national interests. He has argued that this inclusion will help keep a balance between the group and the Sadrists. But few Iraqis are buying; instead, many imagine al-Maliki as letting the two rivals go at it, while he waits for the outcome.
Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq was originally one of the “special forces” in the Iran-trained Mahdi Army founded in September 2003 by the young Shi‘i leader Moqtada al-Sadr. After al-Sadr asked the Mahdi Army to stop fighting in August 2007, members of the AAH dissented, claiming that a cease-fire would be both weak and premature. The faction eventually rose to fame when it kidnapped five British citizens (IT consultant Peter Moore and four of his bodyguards) from the ministry of finance in May 2007—an act that split the group from its parent organization. Deeply embarrassed by the incident, al-Sadr interpreted it as a sign that Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq could no longer be controlled and he distanced himself from the group. The break was supported by Iran, which continues to supply heavy logistical support and weapons to the AAH. Moore was released in 2009, but the other four captives were killed and their bodies exchanged for the release of imprisoned members of the group, including its leader Qais al-Khazali, a former Sadrist lieutenant, and Abdul-Hadi al-Darraji, al-Sadr’s erstwhile spokesman in Baghdad who had also broken ranks. The tension escalated to the point of no return in 2010 when al-Sadr demanded that supporters of AAH return once more into the Sadrists’ fold. Many did, including al-Darraji, but the refusal of many others marked a definitive break between the groups.
Al-Maliki’s rapprochement with AAH can only be understood in the context of these divisions and of his own tumultuous relationship with the Sadrists, to whom he was closely tied after becoming prime minister in 2006. In the midst of al-Sadr’s insurgency against the U.S, al-Maliki sent secret correspondence (picked up by local media outlets) to his allies in the movement warning that American troops were preparing to move in and that al-Sadr should send the leaders of the Mahdi Army abroad. This message was followed by the departure of many of the organization’s leaders to Iran, including the infamous Abu Dar’, who was accused of killing Sunnis, and who later joined the AAH.
But by 2008, al-Maliki had changed tack, and the Iraqi government waged a military crackdown—code-named “Operation Knights’ Charge”—on the Mahdi Army in southern Iraq where the militias had risen in power and were smuggling oil. Hundreds of Sadrists were arrested. Understandably, the group was staunchly opposed to Maliki’s reelection in 2010—only to later support his bid for a second term after Iran pressured it to do so. In recent months, tension has crept back into the relationship and al-Maliki has used the proximity to the AAH as a warning that he can find new allies if the need arises.
But al-Maliki may not have thought this through. Perhaps he has forgotten that popular support for the AAH cannot compare to that of the Sadrists—who control 40 seats in parliament and seven ministries. Residents of Sadr City in eastern Baghdad and of southern cities (areas where both the Sadrists and AAH have their greatest strength) did not even distinguish between the two groups until they exchanged fire in Sadr City in June in clashes covered by the independent media, but conspicuously absent from the pro-government media.
Additionally, Sadrists have strongly rejected the government’s welcoming of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq to the political process, rather than be cowed by al-Maliki’s maneuvering. According to Diaa al-Asadi, secretary-general of the Al-Ahrar Bloc and a Sadrist loyalist “the inclusion of the AAH to the political process will not achieve any noteworthy gains.” Al-Sadr himself went further, calling them “murderers without a religion” and accusing them openly of conspiring the 2008 assassination of Sadrist parliamentarian Saleh al-Okaili in Sadr City. Al-Sadr also demanded that the AAH change their name and leadership—a clear allusion to Iran’s role.
Al-Maliki has managed to further antagonize members of Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc who perceive the move as “a form of contempt for the blood of Iraqis.” The Baghdad Operations Command (the Iraqi Armed Forces agency in charge of the city’s security) recently announced that the AAH was involved in the killing of Iraqi MPs and others. Given the conflicting visions of the bloc’s deputies, Iraqiya has so far been unable to gain broader support in parliament and force the prime minister to submit to questioning.
The rapprochement with AAH also threatens to encourage the group’s street presence. The recent wave of killings and kidnappings of urban youth (referred to in Iraq as the “emo kilings”) reminds Iraqis of the days when militias and extremists ruled the streets, extracting tribute from citizens and carrying out sectarian massacres. The return of such violence will damage al-Maliki’s reputation.
Al-Maliki might not be able to avoid these repercussions unless he engages in an about-face similar to the one he took four years ago with the Mahdi Army. If members of the AAH do not perform very well in next year’s local elections, such a reversal is not out of the question.
Kholoud Ramzi al-Amiry is an Iraqi journalist and civil activist.