(This article was originally published by Arab News.)
For those familiar with Iraqi militant Qais Al-Khazali’s long, bombastic speeches and TV appearances, the deluge of information he unloaded upon American interrogators will be of little surprise. Transcripts of these 2007 testimonies were published in copious detail last week, with Al-Khazali revealing all about his relationship with the Quds Force’s Qassem Soleimani, weapons smuggling from Iran, and attacks against American troops. These documents show how Al-Khazali spent hours plotting with his US captors about how to undermine his former patron, Muqtada Al-Sadr. Al-Khazali’s paramilitary colleagues must, meanwhile, be furious at his detailed exposure of their complicity in Tehran-sponsored terrorism.
Admissions about hostage-taking, murder and terrorist attacks should have been sufficient to lock Al-Khazali up permanently. Instead, he was transferred to Iraqi custody in 2010 and released at the behest of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. Al-Khazali and hundreds of other militant leaders freed by Al-Maliki and the Americans immediately returned to paramilitary activities, with many traveling to fight for Bashar Assad.
Al-Khazali’s thugs — known as Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq — were useful to Al-Maliki for breaking up protest camps and attacking political foes. Al-Khazali even capitalized on his relationship with Al-Maliki to enter politics. Al-Maliki’s patronage of sectarian militias, while undermining the military by distributing commanding posts to his corrupt cronies, precipitated the army’s disintegration. Although Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi supposedly came into existence after Daesh’s 2014 invasion of Mosul, the principal Al-Hashd forces were already active, having played a substantive role in creating the toxic sectarian climate that gave birth to Daesh. These events simply allowed Al-Maliki to formally add these militias to the state payroll.
Barack Obama’s squeamishness about putting boots back on the ground in Iraq inspired him to unofficially franchise the fight against Daesh out to Shiite militants responsible for the deaths of 500 coalition troops and thousands of Iraqis. These paramilitaries proved largely ineffective in urban combat and dedicated their energies to sectarian cleansing campaigns against Sunnis.
America and the West have a blind spot concerning Iranian-sponsored terrorism. Despite Hezbollah being responsible for the 1980s killing and kidnapping of hundreds of Westerners, and its current role in the global narcotics trade, many regard it as a legitimate political actor. Complacent Western mandarins keep assuring me that figures like Hadi Al-Amiri are committed Iraqi nationalists, despite spending four decades serving Tehran’s agenda. Don’t buy into their televized platitudes — look at their actual record of war crimes and terrorism.
US generals David Petraeus, George W. Casey and Stanley A. McChrystal all warned from personal experience what these militants were capable of. So why did nobody take the risk of empowering an army of known terrorists seriously? These militia leaders even boast that “confrontation with the American forces may begin at any moment.” The killing of a US soldier by an Iranian-produced explosive device late last year is an unambiguous message that a return to such attacks is a genuine prospect.
Reports that Iran is supplying offensive ballistic missiles to these militias set a further lethal precedent. These militants also claim to be manufacturing their own rockets. Exactly as happened with Hezbollah, Tehran’s ayatollahs hope to discreetly build up these arsenals, providing the capacity to strike Arab, Israeli or Western cities — just as hundreds of Iranian missiles have been fired into Saudi Arabia by Houthi proxies.
These militias have recently been keeping a relatively low profile to avoid exclusion from the political process. Once a governing coalition is formed, they will feel little such constraint from returning to sectarian killings and striking Western targets. If Al-Hashd factions win Cabinet seats, they will have a pre-eminent position for consolidating their stranglehold on Iraq. If they fail to obtain positions, they will enjoy greater freedom to undermine the status quo through a return to terrorism and insurgency.
After months of America’s Baghdad envoy cozying up to Al-Hashd warlords like Al-Amiri, senior US official Brett McGurk belatedly joined efforts to broker a center ground coalition. Even if Al-Hashd only obtains a foothold in government, such as retaining the interior ministry, this would maintain its dominance over the security forces, while blocking the pressure for paramilitary demobilization.
Soleimani has been energetically sabotaging Al-Sadr’s efforts to form a government, including through undermining Prime Minister Haider Abadi’s electoral alliance. Abadi just sacked National Security Adviser Falih Al-Fayyadh after he went behind Abadi’s back and realigned his faction with Al-Hashd. To win over Kurdish and Sunni parties, Al-Hashd began a unilateral withdrawal from all disputed territories, only for Abadi to prohibit these redeployments. A succession of mysterious explosions recently destroyed weapons depots belonging to Al-Sadr’s “Peace Brigades.”
It is little surprise that the Shiite south recently erupted in protests, with anger directed against the offices of Iranian proxy forces. Impoverished citizens living on top of immense oil reserves are dying of infectious diseases due to a lack of clean water, while politicians compete over ministerial posts offering the most potential for corrupt gain.
Militant encroachment into the economic and reconstruction sector, and social, theological and propagandistic activities are further steps toward the “Hezbollahization” of Iraq. These proxies have also declared their readiness for deployment as a regional force. For decades, Lebanese citizens and foreign diplomats bought into the fiction that Hezbollah served a national agenda as a bulwark against Israel. With Hezbollah now acting as a mercenary force in Syria and dominating the state infrastructure, it is perhaps too late for Lebanon. However, there is still time to prise Baghdad away from Tehran’s embrace.
As the reimposed US sanctions bite, Iran is consolidating its regional gains and mobilizing its proxies in an offensive posture. These sanctions threaten to make Tehran’s leadership even more ruthless in exploiting its transnational paramilitary assets. Is the world ready for when veteran terrorists like Al-Khazali, Soleimani and Hassan Nasrallah stage a return to what they do best?
This article was originally published by Arab News. Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.