Qais Al-Khazali: A militant in politician’s disguise

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Updated 21 August 2019

Qais Al-Khazali: A militant in politician’s disguise

  • Al-Khazali derives his influence mainly from his status as the leader of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia
  •  Al-Khazali began to don the hat of a politician after the liberation of Mosul from Daesh in 2017

DUBAI: Qais Al-Khazali poses in public as an Iraqi politician who understands and defends the national interest. When he is asked about his Iranian connections, he answers that he goes there only once a year as a tourist. His evasive responses are a cover for a violent sectarian agenda. Al-Khazali is one of the leading preachers of hate in Iraq and the wider region.

He derives his outsized influence from his status as the leader of Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH), which includes a large number of fighters trained by members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRG) and the Lebanese Hezbollah. The number of AAH militants is estimated at about 10,000. He is also considered a loyal soldier of Iran’s Shiite theocracy.

“Listen carefully ... If you (Sunnis) do not stop your malicious projects, I swear you will not be safe ... will not be safe ... will not be safe,” he famously said in a televised speech in 2010.

On Aug. 22, 2014, the Sunni Musab bin Umair mosque in Diyala was targeted during Friday prayers by militiamen, who killed 73 people. The AAH militia was suspected of being behind the attack, despite it condemning the atrocity.

BIO

  • Nationality : Iraqi
  • Occupation: Secretary-General of Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH) militia, member of Iraqi Parliament
  • Legal status: Released by the US in 2007 prisoner swap deal with AAH
  • Medium: Twitter, interviews and sermons

“The August 22 attack is consistent with a pattern of attacks that Human Rights Watch has documented, including kidnappings and summary executions, by Shia militias Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, the Badr Brigades and Kata’ib Hezbollah in Baghdad, Diyala and Babel provinces,” Human Rights Watch said after the attack in 2014.

Declassified US Central Command documents published by the Wall Street Journal last year indicated that Al-Khazali was part of the planning behind the Jan. 20, 2007 attack on the Provincial Joint Coordination Center in Karbala. He was arrested by US-British forces in March 2007 and interrogated by US authorities after the raid, which, according to Al-Khazali’s confession documents, was planned by Iran to kidnap five US soldiers, who were eventually killed.

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Preacher of Hate: Qais Al-Khazali

Al-Khazali was handed to the Iraqi authorities in late 2009 after he pledged that his militia would give up their weapons. He was released in January 2010, reportedly in exchange for the release of Peter Moore, a computer consultant who had been kidnapped with four security guards in May 2007 by the AAH.

The Wall Street Journal reported details of the investigations into the Iranian role in supporting terrorist militias. Scrutiny of the relations between Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Iraqi Shiite cleric, politician and militia leader, and Tehran revealed a desire by Al-Sadr to control the flow of Iranian money to political groups in Iraq.

The investigations revealed Iranian efforts to train the militia that Al-Khazali was leading, and the relations between Tehran and Iraqi political figures, including the late Kurdish politician Jalal Talabani, then Iraq’s president.

These reports in August 2018 came at a time when the Trump administration was considering the inclusion of Al-Khazali and the AAH on the list of terrorist organizations to impose sanctions on. The group claims responsibility for 6,000 attacks on American soldiers and Iraqi government forces.

After completing his studies at the University of Baghdad in 1994, Al-Khazali was drawn to the ideas of the Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Al-Sadr, who opposed the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein and criticized it in his sermons at Friday prayers.

Al-Khazali traveled to Najaf to join one of Al-Sadr’s schools to study religious sciences. When Al-Sadr and two of his sons, Mustafa and Mu’ammil, were assassinated in 1999, his fourth son, Muqtada, entrusted Al-Khazali and one of his colleagues with supervising his father’s schools, offices and obtaining legitimate funds.

Al-Khazali won Muqtada’s confidence, and when the latter set up the Mahdi Army, the first Shiite militia formed to fight US troops in Iraq after the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam, Al-Khazali was picked as one of its field commanders and to be Al-Sadr’s spokesman. A year later, Al-Sadr formed an elite force called “Special Groups” to carry out lethal attacks against American forces. Again he instructed Al-Khazali to command these groups alongside Akram Al-Kaabi, one of Al-Sadr’s father’s veteran students who heads the Al-Nujaba Brigades, a Shiite group that was sanctioned by the Trump administration last year. As a follower of Iran’s Wilayat Al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist) political system, the AAH has participated in the Syrian civil war as Iran’s foreign legion alongside Al-Nujaba and other armed groups.

Opinion

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Al-Khazali began to don the hat of a politician only after the liberation of Mosul from Daesh in 2017 by the Iraqi military and Shia paramilitary groups that constitute the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF). The PMF, which was given the status of an official Iraqi security body in 2015, draws fighters from an array of forces and ethnicities, but its leadership  consists overwhelmingly of Shiite groups with close ties to Iran.

According to the journal War on the Rocks, “groups like Kata’ib Hezbollah (Hezbollah Brigades), the Badr Organization, AAH, Al-Nujaba Brigades, and the Khorasani Brigades have received substantial training, arms, and direction from Iran. Iran still provides support to these forces ... these leading PMF forces and figures make no secret of their love for Iran and hatred for the United States.”

Now operating from behind a mask of political respectability — the AAH won 15 seats in parliament in the May 2018 elections as Al-Sadiqoun bloc — Al-Khazali is seen by many in Iraq as being well placed to bolster AAH recruitment, training and expansion.

US officials believe Al-Khazali’s participation in the elections was to empower the militia, following the model used by Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah to establish Iran’s dominance in Lebanon. A senior US official has said that of its 15 seats, only two were won fairly and the rest gained by corruption; the AAH denies this. Al-Khazali has declared Al-Sadiqoun’s parliamentary presence a failure, yet locks horns with anyone who challenges the bloc’s religious sectarianism.


Iran frees Chinese-American scholar for US-held scientist

Updated 07 December 2019

Iran frees Chinese-American scholar for US-held scientist

  • President Donald Trump separately acknowledged Wang was free in a statement from the White House, saying he “is returning to the United States”
  • Tensions have been high between Iran and the US since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers in May 2018

TEHRAN: Iran and the US conducted a prisoner exchange Saturday that saw a detained Princeton graduate student released for an Iranian scientist held by America, marking a potential breakthrough between Tehran and Washington after months of tensions.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made the first announcement on the trade via Twitter. The trade involves graduate student Xiyue Wang and scientist Massoud Soleimani.
“Glad that Professor Massoud Soleimani and Mr. Xiyue Wang will be joining their families shortly," Zarif wrote. “Many thanks to all engaged, particularly the Swiss government.”
In his tweet, Zarif confirmed rumors that had been circulating for days that a deal was in the works to free Wang.
President Donald Trump separately acknowledged Wang was free in a statement from the White House, saying he “is returning to the United States.”
“Mr. Wang had been held under the pretense of espionage since August 2016,” Trump said. “We thank our Swiss partners for their assistance in negotiating Mr. Wang’s release with Iran.”
The Swiss Embassy in Tehran looks out for America's interests in the country as the U.S. Embassy there has been closed since the 1979 student takeover and 444-day hostage crisis.
Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran, accompanied the Iranian scientist to Switzerland to make the exchange and will return with Wang, according to a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity as the information had yet to be released. The swap took place in Zurich and Hook and Wang are now en route to Landstuhl in Germany where Wang will be examined by doctors, the official said. Hook is expected to return to the US from Germany alone, as Wang is expected to be evaluated for several days.
Although Hook was present for the swap, the official said Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien played the lead role in the negotiations dating from his time as the special representative for hostage affairs at the State Department.
Iran's state-run IRNA news agency later reported that Soleimani was with Iranian officials in Switzerland. Soleimani was expected to return to Iran in the coming hours. Zarif later posted pictures of himself on Twitter with Soleimani in front of an Iranian government jet and later with the two talking on board.
Wang was sentenced to 10 years in prison in Iran for allegedly “infiltrating” the country and sending confidential material abroad. His family and Princeton University strongly denied the claims. Wang was arrested while conducting research on the Qajar dynasty that once ruled Iran for his doctorate in late 19th and early 20th century Eurasian history, according to Princeton.
Hua Qu, the wife of Xiyue Wang, released a statement saying “our family is complete once again.”
“Our son Shaofan and I have waited three long years for this day and it’s hard to express in words how excited we are to be reunited with Xiyue,” she said. “We are thankful to everyone who helped make this happen.”
Princeton University spokesman Ben Chang said the school was aware of Wang's release.
“We are working with the family and government officials to facilitate his return to the United States,” Chang said.
Iran’s Revolutionary Court tried Wang. That court typically handles espionage cases and others involving smuggling, blasphemy and attempts to overthrow its Islamic government. Westerners and Iranian dual nationals with ties to the West often find themselves tried and convicted in closed-door trials in these courts, only later to be used as bargaining chips in negotiations.
Soleimani — who works in stem cell research, hematology and regenerative medicine — was arrested by US authorities on charges he had violated trade sanctions by trying to have biological material brought to Iran. He and his lawyers maintain his innocence, saying he seized on a former student’s plans to travel from the US to Iran in September 2016 as a chance to get recombinant proteins used in his research for a fraction of the price he’d pay at home.
Tensions have been high between Iran and the US since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers in May 2018. In the time since, the US has imposed harsh sanctions on Iran's economy. There also have been a series of attacks across the Mideast that the US blames on Iran.
Other Americans held in Iran include the 81-year-old businessman Baquer Namazi who has been held for over two years and diagnosed with epilepsy.
Both Baquer Namazi and his son Siamak Namazi, also a dual national who has been held for over three years, are serving a 10-year sentence after they were convicted of collaborating with a hostile power.
An Iranian-American art dealer Karan Vafadari and his Iranian wife, Afarin Neyssari, received 27-year and 16-year prison sentences, respectively. Also held is US Navy veteran Michael White.
Former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished in Iran in 2007 while on an unauthorized CIA mission, remains missing as well. Iran says that Levinson is not in the country and that it has no further information about him, but his family holds Tehran responsible for his disappearance.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, while saying Wang would soon be able to go home to his family, acknowledged other Americans remain held by Iran.
“The United States will not rest until we bring every American detained in Iran and around the world back home to their loved ones,” Pompeo said in a statement.