The fighters of Iraq who answer to Iran

Baghdad: Among the thousands of militia fighters who flocked to northern Iraq to battle militant group Daesh [The Islamic State of Syria and the Levant] over the summer was Qais Al Khazali.

Like the fighters, Al Khazali wore green camouflage. But he also sported a shoulder-strapped pistol and sunglasses and was flanked by armed bodyguards. When he was not on the battlefield, the 40-year-old Iraqi donned the robes and white turban of a cleric.

Al Khazali is the head of a militia called Asaib Ahl Al Haq that is backed by Iran. Thanks to his position he is one of the most feared and respected militia leaders in Iraq, and one of Iran’s most important representatives in the country.

His militia is one of three small Iraqi armies, all backed by Iran, which together have become the most powerful military force in Iraq since the collapse of the national army in June.

Alongside Asaib Ahl Al Haq, there are the Badr Brigades, formed in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, and the younger and more secretive Kataib Hezbollah. The three militias have been instrumental in battling Daesh, the extremist movement.

The militias, and the men who run them, are key to Iran’s power and influence inside neighbouring Iraq.

That influence is rooted in the two countries’ shared religious beliefs. Tehran has built up its influence in the past decade by giving political backing to the Iraqi government, and weapons and advisers to the militias and the remnants of the Iraqi military, say current and former Iraqi officials.

That was clear this summer, when fighters from all three militias took on Daesh. During Daesh’s siege of one town, Amerli, Kataib Hezbollah helicoptered in 50 of its best fighters, according to Abu Abdullah, a local Kataib Hezbollah commander.

The fighters set up an operations room to coordinate with the Iraqi army, the other militia groups, and advisers from the Quds Force, the branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that handles operations outside Iran and oversees Tehran’s Iraqi militias. Over days of fierce fighting in August those forces successfully expelled Daesh.

The main body funding, arming, and training the Shiite militias is Iran’s Quds Force. The model it uses is Hezbollah in Lebanon. Created by Tehran in the early 1980s, and operating as both a military outfit and political party, Hezbollah has grown to become the most powerful force in Lebanon.

Like Hezbollah, Iran’s three big Iraqi militias have political wings and charismatic leaders.

Coordinating the three is Quds Force commander Qasim Sulaimani, who, at least until the Daesh victories in Iraq this summer, had gained a reputation as one of the region’s most effective military leaders.

After the collapse of the Iraqi military in June, Sulaimani visited Iraq several times to help organise a counter-offensive.

He brought weapons, electronic interception devices and drones, according to a senior Iraqi politician.

“Sulaimani is an operational leader. He’s not a man working in an office. He goes to the front to inspect the troops and see the fighting,” said one current senior Iraqi official. “His chain of command is only the Supreme Leader. He needs money, gets money. Needs munitions, gets munitions. Needs materiel, gets materiel.” 

Sulaimani, who could not be reached, knows the heads of the three big Iraqi militias personally, Iraqi officials say.

A picture posted on a Facebook page in August shows him in an olive shirt and khaki pants next to Al Khazali, who is in clerical robes. A picture on Facebook and Twitter late last month showed Sulaimani and the leader of the Badr Brigades grinning and wrapped in a tight hug after what was reportedly a victory against Daesh.

In an interview with Iranian state television in September, a senior Revolutionary Guard commander, General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, said that Sulaimani, with a force of only 70 men, had prevented Daesh from overrunning Arbil. “If Iran hadn’t helped, Daesh would have taken over Kurdistan,” he said.

The way Iran and Sulaimani work is “completely the opposite of Saudi intelligence that just gives money but are not on the ground,” said the current senior Iraqi official. “Sulaimani sees a target and he has the powers to go after it.”

Iran’s oldest proxy in Iraq is the Badr Brigades, which is headed by Hadi Al Amri, a veteran of both combat and politics.

The group renamed itself the Badr Organisation once it entered politics.

Al Amri fought alongside Iran’s Revolutionary Guard against Saddam’s army during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, he won a seat in parliament and served as Minister of Transportation during Al Maliki’s second term.

In recent battles with Daesh, Al Amri replaced his suit with a military uniform and transformed into a battlefield commander overnight, giving television interviews from the front lines.

“Look at Al Amri’s uniform and then compare it to any Iraqi uniform ... It’s completely different,” said a senior former security official. “Look for the uniform of the IRGC” — Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — “it’s exactly one of them.”

Kataib Hezbollah

The head of Iran’s second proxy, Kataib Hezbollah, goes by the nom de guerre Abu Mahdi Al Mohandes. Many Iraqi officials simply call him Al Mohandes, or “the Engineer”. Al Mohandes is Iran’s most powerful military representative in Iraq. At 60, he has distinctive white hair and a white beard. He studied engineering in Basra and joined Dawa, a political party banned by Saddam, according to a Facebook page set up in his name.

Following the first Gulf War, Al Mohandes lived in exile in Iran. After the US invaded Iraq, he returned home and was elected to parliament. Even then, it was clear where his allegiances lay. On a 2006 trip to Tehran, when protocol dictated that the Iranian and Iraqi delegations sit apart, “he sat with the Iranians,” said Al Askari, the former Al Maliki adviser.

“This was not normal.” Kataib Hezbollah is the most secretive of Iraq’s militias, and the only one the US Treasury labels a terrorist organisation. In 2009 the Treasury sanctioned Al Mohandes for his alleged role in committing and facilitating attacks against US forces. Al Mohandes has denied those charges, though his group’s website features several video clips showing improvised explosive devices blowing up American Humvees.

When Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s most powerful cleric, called on Shiites to rise up and fight Daesh earlier this year, Al Mohandes took charge of the tens of thousands of new volunteers.

“He’s involved in everything: administration, funding, logistics and planning,” said a senior Iraqi security official.

Asaib Ahl Al Haq

The third big Iraqi militia, Asaib Ahl Al Haq, started as a splinter group of the Mahdi Army, a paramilitary force formed by anti-American leader Moqtada Al Sadr during the US occupation.

In 2007 he was arrested by US military forces for his alleged role in an attack on an Iraqi government compound in Karbala, which left five American soldiers dead. Al Khazali managed to use a kidnapped British consultant as a bargaining chip to win his own release. Al Askari, the former Al Maliki adviser, played a key role in negotiations. When a senior British commander was sceptical that Al Khazali could wield power from Camp Cropper, the high security facility where he was imprisoned, Al Khazali asked for a phone.

“They brought him a phone and he made a call,” said Al Askari.

“Within two weeks the attacks stopped.” Asaib has grown stronger in recent years. 

Fighters from all three militias have sharpened their combat skills in Syria in recent years. In late 2011, as the Syrian conflict grew, Iran stepped in to defend Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. 

Iraqi Shia fighters also flocked to Syria to defend the shrine of Lady Zainab daughter of Imam Ali after Daish targeted it with mortars. Billboards and posters in Baghdad praise Iraqi “martyrs” in the conflict.

Syria has also helped militia fighters hone their media skills. Internet videos set to a booming soundtrack of militant religious songs show fighters shooting rocket-propelled grenades, sniping from rooftops and firing heavy machine guns from pickup trucks.

Some Iraqi Shia commanders concede that defending Al Assad has been unsavoury. But they argue that fighting in Syria was necessary for broader regional reasons, namely the struggle that Iran and its allies are waging against Israel.

“Bashar is a dictator,” said Abu Hamza, a burly commander from Kataib Hezbollah who has fought in Syria. “But his presence there preserves the line of resistance.”

One of the biggest rallying points in recent months was Amerli, an Iraqi town of some 15,000, which was besieged by Daesh for two months. Most residents there are Turkmen, not Arabs, but that did not change the symbolism of the conflict for Shias. Graffiti sprayed outside the town in August read “Amerli is the Karbala of the age” — a reference to a seventh century battle that is a defining moment in Shia Islam.

When the battle began in late August, militias teamed up with Kurdish fighters to attack Daesh positions, as American aircraft bombed around the town.

The importance of the battle for Iran was underscored when photographs and videos surfaced on the internet that allegedly showed Revolutionary Guard commander Sulaimani in the town.

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