Iran’s shadow warrior who sows chaos and discord in Iraq
Preachers of hate are unethical but smart. Deceit requires brains and minimum wit. But not all preachers of hate were created equal. Some are street smart and talkative, often making arguments that reveal their shallowness. To make up for their inadequate intellect, they outmuscle their rivals, lead militias, and spew hate that they copy from their superiors. Such hate preachers become guns for hire, even if they insist on wearing traditional garments and pretending that they are pious and knowledgeable clerics.
The Iraqi Qais Al-Khazali, a cleric who is also the leader of one of Iraq’s most notorious militias, is one such hate spewer who pretends to be a cleric, when in fact his claim to fame is working as the operative of one of the many Iranian clandestine networks that sow war and discord in Arab countries.
Aged 29, this graduate of geology accompanied Muqtada Al-Sadr — who had inherited the mantle of his father and one of Iraq’s foremost Shiite clerics Mohammed Sadeq Al-Sadr — to a meeting with Iranian operatives. They were promised arms and training, if they would take on US troops in Iraq, according to declassified US investigations with Al-Khazali. A few battles and months later, Al-Sadr realized that he had little reason to undermine a burgeoning sovereign Iraqi state. Al-Sadr disbanded his militia, the Mahdi Army, and transformed his organization into a political movement.
Politics is rarely the strong suit of people with modest intellectual skills and, without a militia, Al-Khazali might have lost his prominence. However, he did not lose his connection to his Iranian handlers, who sponsored his defection from Al-Sadr to set up a splinter group, the Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH) militia. Al-Khazali’s miltia played a central role in Iran’s two-pronged war in Iraq: One against US troops, the other against Iraqi Sunnis. Iran connected Al-Khazali to Musa Daduq, an operative from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah who helped to engineer a few of the most atrocious kidnappings and killings of US soldiers. Washington estimates that Tehran is responsible for the killing of 1,000 out of the 4,000 troops it lost in the Iraq War.
With US assistance, Iraqi government forces captured Al-Khazali in 2007 and jailed him for three years, when he was released in a prisoner exchange for a kidnapped British contractor.
Like Saddam, Al-Khazali’s propaganda is one of cult worship, with news about him participating in various activities and giving opinions about everything, opinions that are usually posted on his Twitter account, too.
Since then, Al-Khazali has been one of Iran’s most loyal militiamen in Iraq, so much so that he not only joined the Popular Militia Units (PMU), but also opened shop in Syria. Al-Khazali even appeared in Lebanon, checking out the border with Israel, in a flagrant offense against Lebanese sovereignty. But who’s keeping count in Lebanon anyway?
With Daesh almost annihilated, Al-Khazali has been left with little fighting and lots of time. He comes up with unsubstantiated accusations against Iraqi Sunnis, accusing towns such as Tarmiyah, to the north of Baghdad, of being a hotbed for Daesh fighters, calling for a military campaign against the predominantly Sunni town.
Al-Khazali has also been developing his brand. He has taken as his spiritual guide Kazem Al-Haeri, a firebrand Iraqi cleric who lives in Qom, in Iran.
“US President (Donald Trump) gives the countries of the Sheikhs of the Gulf a choice between funding his wars… and the demise of their governments,” Al-Haeri said in a statement. “This is the result of throwing themselves into the arms of the global arrogant powers after their loss of popular support,” Haeri added, claiming — without any substantiation — that Arab governments do not enjoy the popular support. “We also call on the Iraqi government not to be dragged into the lap of global arrogance in its economic, security and military contracts,” Al-Haeri argued, in a clear sign that the Iraqi cleric in Qom was unhappy with Baghdad’s warming relations with Gulf capitals.
In addition to toeing his mentor’s and Iran’s line about the “downtrodden” and about “global arrogance,” Al-Khazali echoes the official Iranian rhetoric, depicting an imaginary alliance between America, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, as the source of all evil in the region. At a conference in Tehran last year, Al-Khazali said that the Iraqi victory over Daesh was a victory over America, Saudi Arabia and Israel. That America offered extensive air cover and military advice on the ground in the battle against Daesh does not seem to register with Al-Khazali, or his audience. Hate speech, after all, is impossible without some spin and a ton of deceit.
On his militia’s website, Al-Khazali’s publicity seems to copy that of the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Al-Khazali calls himself Al-Sheikh Al-Amin, a play on words with Amin meaning both trustworthy and secretary general. Like Saddam, Al-Khazali’s propaganda is one of cult worship, with news about him participating in various activities and giving opinions about everything, opinions that are usually posted on his Twitter account, too.
Standing up to “cultural normalization with Israel,” Al-Khazali said in a sermon transcribed into Tweets, means “countering attempts to undermine Iraqi identity by spreading homosexuality in Iraq,” a line of reasoning that Al-Khazali seems to have come up with on his own and slipped into his speech, outside the Iranian-approved script. When speaking his mind Al-Khazali does not sound hateful, he sounds stupid.
• Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai, and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London. Twitter: @hahussain