Iran-Backed Group Calls for Seizure of Erbil and other Kurdish Cities

By Ahmad Majidyar | Fellow and Director of IranObserved Project - The Middle East Institute | Oct 17, 2017
Iran-Backed Group Calls for Seizure of Erbil and other Kurdish Cities

The political wing of Asai’b Ahl al-Haq (A.A.H.), an Iranian-sponsored Iraqi militia group, has called for military operations to seize the Kurdish cities of Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. Hassan Salim, a member of Iraqi parliament and affiliated with A.A.H., said the “Barzani militias” are defeated, stressing that "all areas of northern Iraq are Iraqi and will be under the control of the federal government." Salim also accused Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim of inciting the people of the province to resist Iraqi security forces on the streets of Kirkuk. He must be tried for treason against the Iraqi state, Salim added.

Separately, the group’s secretary general, Qais al-Khazali, commended the "responsible positions" of some P.U.K. leaders and Peshmerga who "refused to be dragged into the schemes of separatists which serve Israeli projects that want to exploit the Kurdish people and their ambition to divide Iraq and the region." 

Kata'ib Hezbollah, another Iranian-backed unit within the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (P.M.F.), also issued a statement saying that it "stands by the Iraqi forces in their procedures to exert security over Kirkuk." 

Comment: A.A.H. had threatened violence against the Iraqi Kurdish leadership even prior to the September 25 independence referendum vote. It had warned that Erbil’s plan to hold the vote is a “foreign conspiracy” that would destabilize Iraq. “We will not hesitate for one moment to confront projects aimed at dividing and weakening Iraq,” the group said in a statement in August.

Asaib Ahl al-Haq – or the League of the Righteous – is an Iraqi Shiite militant group fighting in Iraq and Syria. The group is funded by the Iran and reportedly has more than 10,000 fighters. According to the U.S. government accounts, the Lebanese Hezbollah upon a request by the Iranian government helped form and train AAH in 2005 to carry out attacks against the U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq. AAH started as a splinter group of the Mahdi Army, the powerful Shiite Iraqi paramilitary force led by Muqtada al-Sadr. AAH has been accused of killing American soldiers and committing human rights abuses against Iraqi Sunnis.

Khazali has reportedly pledged allegiance to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and his group takes orders from I.R.G.C. Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, rather than the government in Baghdad. This is despite the fact that AAH is part of the Popular Mobilization Forces (P.M.F.), which has been incorporated into the Iraqi security forces.

Khazali was arrested by the U.S. military in 2007 for his alleged role in high-profile attack in Karbala that had killed five American service members. But he was released two years later along with other AAH members – apparently in an exchange for a British hostage. The U.S. and British government denied it was a prisoner exchange.

Although AAH and U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces have recently been fighting against the Islamic State together, Khazali’s anti-American sentiment has not diminished. Last year, he hinted that his fighters could blend in with Iraqi troops to kill American advisers in Mosul. And as the Islamic State – the common foe – is on the brink of defeat in Iraq and Syria, Iran-controlled militant groups such as AAH and Harkat al-Nujaba have already dialed up anti-American propaganda and are pressuring the Baghdad government not to allow American troops to stay in Iraq for a long term.

In April, Khazali accused the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia of destabilizing Iraq at a speech to Iraqi college students. But when a poet accompanying him began praising Soleimani, the students protested with chants of “Iran out! Iran out!”

Khazali’s call for unity in Iraq also runs counter to his previous speeches and actions. In May, he said that his organization aims to establish a “Shiite full moon” not a “Shiite crescent.” In a video published in the Arab media, Khazali added that an alliance of Shiite forces across the region would be ready to achieve that goal by the time the hidden Shiite Imam Mahdi reappears. He noted that the Shiite force will include the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) in Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Houthi movement in Yemen, the Popular Mobilization Forces (P.M.F) and other Shiite militant groups operating in Syria and Iraq.