Asaib Ahl al-Haq defies IRGC directives, becomes more unpopular in Iraq

By Faris al-Omran

Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia leader Qais al-Khazaali is seen during a forum held by the Al-Rafidain Centre for Dialogue on February 21, 2019. [Al-Rafidain Centre for Dialogue]

Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia leader Qais al-Khazaali is seen during a forum held by the Al-Rafidain Centre for Dialogue on February 21, 2019. [Al-Rafidain Centre for Dialogue]

The Iraqi Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia is increasingly distancing itself from Iran, observers say, as its recent actions and posture of defiance highlight acute divisions among Iranian proxies in Iraq and the militia's own bid for supremacy among them.

Since its formation in 2006 by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Asaib Ahl al-Haq has been actively serving Iran's agenda. It has engaged in sectarian violence in Iraq and Syria and carried out attacks on international interests.

The relationship between the two sides became tense at the end of last year, when the IRGC directed all its proxies to refrain from attacking any international interests in Iraq without prior IRGC approval.

At the time, the IRGC appeared to be making efforts to mitigate international anger over its provocative activities in Iraq and the region.

However, Asaib Alh al-Haq leader Qais al-Khazaali said at the time that his militia "does not operate based on the IRGC command and does not rely on protection from Tehran or any Iraqi armed group".

Al-Khazaali said in televised remarks that they would continue to target US interests and that they will not take into consideration Iran's nuclear talks with the West.

The armed militia continued to launch attacks via smokescreen groups affiliated with it, in a move seen as defiance of the IRGC's decisions and orders by one of its closest affiliates in Iraq.

The so-called Iranian "Axis of Resistance" is now cracking under the strain of conflicts over money, influence and leadership, observers said.

Defiance of IRGC

Some analysts say Asaib Ahl al-Haq's defiance may stem from its concern that Iran will move away from defending its proxies in Iraq, now that it appears prepared to revive its nuclear agreement -- known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) -- with the West.

Strategy analyst Alaa al-Nashou said Iran places its own interests first and does not care about its proxies' fate, as they are merely means for advancing Tehran's expansionist policies.

Still, Asaib Ahl al-Haq's defiance of the IRGC does not change the hostile nature of the militia nor erase its "black history" of sectarian crimes against Iraqis and threats against the country, he said.

As he now distances his group from Iran, it is clear that al-Khazaali aspires to position himself as the leader of all the Iraqi militias operating under Iran's mantle, displacing Asaib Ahl al-Haq's main rival, Kataib Hizbullah.

Tension has increased accordingly between Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hizbullah, with each accusing the other of attempting to achieve dominance and gain advantage for themselves.

The rift among the two militias was evident in Iraq's parliamentary elections, held October 10, when Kataib Hizbullah had its own separate electoral list of candidates, while Asaib Ahl al-Haq remained under the umbrella of the Fatah Alliance.

However, both parties failed to win the number of parliament seats they had hoped for, which once again demonstrated their growing unpopularity among Iraqis.

The militias exchanged accusations about their electoral failure, despite tactically protesting the election results together as one front.

Observers say the conflicts between Iran's proxies are only likely to deepen further.

"Asaib [Ahl al-Haq] is a dangerous Iranian affiliate and will not stand idly by in the face of its defeat after the Iraqi elections," said political analyst Ghanem al-Abed.

He said Iran welcomed the elections' results, and that might have contributed to increase the militia's displeasure with the IRGC.

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