On January 20, 2007, roughly a dozen Shi'a militants infiltrated an Iraqi-American Provincial Joint Coordination Center (PJCC) in Karbala, Iraq. Wearing uniforms resembling those of the U.S. Army, the militants immediately opened fire on the U.S. soldiers' living quarters, killing one and severely wounding three others. The group fled the compound, eventually taking four other U.S. soldiers hostage and executing them in Babil later that evening. (1) The United States would eventually discover that the attack was the work of an Iranian-backed Shi'a militia group known as the League of the Righteous (Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq or AAH), led by a relatively young cleric named Qais al-Khazali. (2) Al-Khazali was captured alongside his brother and a member of Lebanese Hezbollah and interrogated by U.S. forces later that year. (3) Today, al-Khazali not only continues to lead AAH, but has extended his reach into Iraqi politics. His Sadiqun political bloc garnered 15 of the 48 seats won by the Iranian-influenced Fatih Alliance in the May 2018 Iraqi parliamentary elections. (4)
Al-Khazali's political ascendance has deepened regional concerns about malign Iranian influences, from the Mediterranean coast in Beirut to Tehran through Iraq and Syria, that can destabilize the region. (5) Yet, the degree to which resources and direction from Tehran can effectively serve to consolidate what may be a diverse group of militia commanders representing a variety of political interests has considerable implications for U.S. policy. U.S. Central Command's declassification of al-Khazali's interrogation reports from his time in custody (March 2007-January 2010) and researcher access to these documents offer a unique opportunity to assess and evaluate the degree to which Iranian resources contribute to cohesion within the ranks of Shi'a militia groups. (6)
A closer look at al-Khazali's interrogation reports from his time in custody suggests that Tehran's influence may not always produce unity. Throughout the interrogation reports, al-Khazali discusses his personal disagreements with Muqtada al-Sadr, describing al-Sadr as an incompetent and deeply paranoid leader. Al-Khazali even offers to turn other prisoners against al-Sadr. Intra-sectarian divides like the one between al-Khazali and al-Sadr are likely to persist and may challenge Iran's ability to project its influence. Analysts advising the U.S. government on strategy toward Iranian-backed groups should avoid characterizing them as a monolithic bloc and instead show greater appreciation for factors that may lead these groups to diverge from one another.
Qais al-Khazali and Iranian Support
Al-Khazali once served as a trusted aide to Moqtada al-Sadr, the popular Shi'a religious cleric from Baghdad who won the highest number votes in the 2018 Iraqi election. They were once allied. Born in 1974, al-Khazali studied under Muhammad Sadiq al-Sa-dr--Muqtada al-Sadr's father--in the al-Najaf Hawza, a prominent religious seminary. After the elder al-Sadr's assassination in 1999, al-Khazali helped preserve the Sadrist movement in Iraq, and, after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, he served as a trusted assistant to the young Muqtada al-Sadr. (7) Al-Khazali split from al-Sadr's movement after al-Sadr's Jaysh al-Mahdi's (JAM) poor performance during the 2004 uprisings in Najaf, which he criticized for not having "the plan, the power, or the weapons to sustain a fight." Al-Khazali then took on a leadership role managing the Iranian-backed "Special Groups," a particularly lethal group of Iranian-backed militias. (8)
Al-Khazali described accompanying a senior delegation of Sadrists to Tehran in 2003, (9) where they were hosted by senior Iranian officials, chief among them Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-Quds Force) Commander Qassem Soleimani and Hajji Yusif, a Quds Force deputy commander. (10) Al-Sadr facilitated the al-Khazali-Tehran link. "Self-conscious" about Iranian influence and seeking some distance between his movement and the Iranians, al-Sadr tasked al-Khazali to serve as a conduit for Iranian support. (11) At this point, Iranian backing for the Sadrists was primarily financial, consisting of $750,000-$1,000,000 but sometimes as much as $2-$3 million U.S. dollars per month. (12) During the 2004 Shi'a uprisings in Najaf, Yusif offered to train al-Sadr's JAM militia members so that they could be "more capable of fighting the occupiers." (13) Al-Sadr agreed, but asked al-Khazali to select individuals who would travel to Iran for training and identify regional commanders for what would become known as the Special...