The common cause of repelling the Islamic State from Iraq has brought about a sectarian team-up that was considered unthinkable before: Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a Shiite militia in Iraq, picked up 250 Sunni recruits and formed the first Sunni unit in its history.
Unfortunately, this particular militia has an ugly history, and has long been viewed as a proxy for Iran, which means its growth and incorporation of Sunni troops will also serve to extend Iranian influence.
The sectarian mess in northern Iraq pits the Sunni Islamic State against both Shiite militias and Sunni Iraqis, who have been deemed “apostates” from ISIS theology. The incorporation of Sunni tribesmen into the Asaib militia goes a step beyond separate forces making common cause against a mutual enemy. The Global Post quotes one of the new Sunni recruits speaking very highly of his Shiite comrades: “The whole world is surprised by this — it’s the first time in the history of Asaib that they formed a Sunni unit. Asaib trained us, and we became part of Asaib. Asaib, Sunni or Shiite, there is no difference – these circumstances united Iraq. God willing, there will not be any more sectarianism.”
A Shiite militiaman likewise praised the new spirit of cooperation, saying “the purpose of forming the local Asaib in Sunni areas is to strike sectarianism,” while the Iraqi defense minister blessed the union as “a very positive message to the Iraqi people.” There are hopes that more combined Shiite-Sunni forces will get organized elsewhere.
While the Global Post unreservedly pronounces these developments as “a positive sign,” there is a good bit of Asaib history their piece does not mention. The name Asaib Ahl al-Haq means “League of the Righteous,” and as the league worked to polish up its reputation and reinvent itself as a political entity in 2013, the Washington Post recalled the group was “responsible for most of the attacks against U.S. forces in the final years of the Iraq war.”
About six thousand attacks, in fact. They had a particular fondness for roadside bombs. This is not a dark secret in Asaib’s closet – they used to brag about their role in driving the Americans out of Iraq.
Asaib is strongly allied with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and it is completely controlled by the Iranian government. Its senior officers spent time living in Iran, including founder Qais al-Khazali, who had to skedaddle to Iran after spending three years in U.S. custody for masterminding an attack on a military outpost that killed five Americans. He was released from custody as part of an exchange for a British civilian named Peter Moore, who had been kidnapped along with four of his bodyguards by Asaib Ahl al-Haq on orders from Tehran. Three of those bodyguards, British citizens all, were murdered by Asaib when the British government didn’t submit to their ransom demands.
The Washington Post article describes Asaib’s office as being decorated with portraits of “Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and of the Islamic republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.”
When Asaib renovated itself as a political group instead of a terrorist gang, a former U.S. official described the situation as “deeply problematic” to the Post. The Institute for the Study of War said it was “hard to separate Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s political aspirations from Iran’s regional ambitions,” and warned their success would “augment Iran’s regional proxy strategy.”
A June 2014 piece in the Washington Post notes that fighters from Asaib have joined Hezbollah forces in Syria to fight on behalf of Bashar Assad’s regime. That would be the same Bashar Assad that President Obama wanted to depose a couple of years ago, because he allegedly crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons.
“Little more than seven years ago, they were just another Iranian proxy used to attack the Americans,” an Iraqi minister complained to the UK Guardian last week. “Now they have political legitimacy and their tentacles in all the security apparatus. Some of us didn’t notice until it was too late.”
And now this gang is bridging the sectarian divide and training up Sunni fighters to tackle the nightmarish evil of ISIS. Chalk up another win for Iran, thanks to Obama foreign policy.