Qais Al-Khazali: Jumping to the Front of the Line 

Adam Hussein

20 Jun 2024

The political ambitions of Qais al-Khazali, the founder and Secretary-General of paramilitary group and political party Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, have grown. With that growth, questions have arisen around whether he aspires towards building a deep state.

When Qais al-Khazali, the founder and Secretary-General of paramilitary group and political party Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), articulated his famous phrase, “The Prime Minister is Director General,” the Coordination Framework, an umbrella bloc of Iraq’s Shia party, were fervently debating how to distribute security positions. Khazali was demanding that the head of the intelligence service fall under his authority. 

At that time, December 2022 which was about two months after the formation of Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani’s government, the relationship between Khazali and the new prime minister had deteriorated. The problem was eventually resolved so that the foundation of the Shia political alliance would not be damaged and Khazali’s image would not be tarnished. 

At the time, it was indicated to Sudani that putting the intelligence service in the hands of a party undergoing sanctions by the US might lead to an increase in Washington’s sanctions on Iraq as a whole. He insisted that the intelligence service was not assigned to AAH via Khazali. 

Khazali accepted this, and rescinded his request, so as not to begin a dispute with the prime minister. 

The Posts Khazali Controls 

Khazali’s party AAH currently controls the Ministries of Finance and Higher Education, which were allocated to him under the quota-based political system, muhasasa, as well as maintaining significant control of the government’s media office. He also has influence in the Communications and Media Commission (CMC) through one of its board members, Mahmoud al-Rubaie, who is also a member of the political bureau in AAH, as well as influence within the official Iraqi Media Network (IMN), the Iraqi national media group. This is in addition to having at least three brigades within the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). 

Khazali also holds the post of governor of Babylon, and his party controls 10 seats in multiple provincial councils with 20 representatives in Parliament. 

These capabilities prompted him to challenge Nouri al-Maliki, head of the State of Law coalition and traditionally perceived to be the leader of the Shia system, for his influence in Baghdad, the centre and the south of the country. 

Khazali is also considered to be the main figurehead for the Coordination Framework versus Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Sadrist movement which opposes the Coordination Framework. This has prompted several forces to rally around him. 

Tea Boy 

In a story that has several belittling references to the AAH leader, Sadr’s supporters described Khazali as “Sadr’s tea boy,” based on an old video clip showing the former pouring tea for Sadr before Khazali defected from the Sadrist Movement in 2006. 

The Sadrists claimed that Khazali informed on many of his comrades when he was arrested by American forces in 2007. The arrest was in connection with the killing of five American soldiers in Karbala. Khazali was transferred into the custody of the Iraqi government in 2010, after AAH members pledged to lay down their arms. Baghdad released him shortly thereafter. 

When Khazali returned, he became an opponent of Sadr and his followers. 

During the rapid transformation of Sheikh Al-Amin – as his followers began to call Khazali in 2014 – he closely followed Sadr’s relationships. Khazali began opposing Sadr’s friends and befriending his opponents. 

“Khazali looks in the mirror every day and sees Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr’s shadow follows him. Sadr’s image appears to him in his nightmares,” said a former companion to the AAH leader who spent approximately 10 years working with him. 

Khazali’s former companion, who currently resides in a European Union country, said that the marathon of chasing and imitating the leader of the Sadrist Movement had unconsciously become Khazali’s dominant concern. Khazali had even raised the possibility of retiring from politics, as Sadr had done. 

In the moments leading up to several clashes with AAH in various cities, it was alleged that Sadr had described members of the group as killers who are without religion. 

In 2012, this description was Sadr’s strongest attack on Khazali to date following the latter’s decision to lay down his arms and engage in the political process. 

Khazali began engaging in mainstream political work, but he did not abandon his weapons. On many occasions, particularly on occasions in Basra, weapons were used in fights which took place with the Sadrist movement to gain greater influence in the south. 

Suicide mission 

Ahmed Al-Yasiri, a political analyst based in Australia, said to Jummar, “Khazali played an important role within the Shia system, going where no one else would dare, which was to confront Sadr.” 

In the period between 2005 and 2006, a group split from Sadr’s Mahdi Army and called itself Asaib Ahl al-Haq, under the leadership of Qais al-Khazali, who was born in 1974 in Sadr City in Baghdad. 

After the Mahdi Army’s operations were temporarily halted in 2007, Khazali rushed to lead the so-called Iraqi resistance, drawing on his previous contacts with the Iranian government, which had developed during his days as Sadr’s envoy to Tehran, described in official US government documents published in 2018. 

The group AAH gained prominence after they kidnapped British information expert Peter Moore and his four British guards in May 2007 from an office affiliated with the Ministry of Finance in Baghdad.  

In 2010, following his arrest, the Americans released Qais and his brother Laith “in exchange for the return of a Western hostage and the bodies of executed British citizens,” according to a report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 

In 2014, when the PMF were founded and AAH joined, the latter publicly pledged allegiance to Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. But after the victory over the Islamic State (IS), and the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in 2020, Iraq’s armed Shia factions who were 

 allied with Iran became dispersed. Khazali began to slowly move away from Tehran and present himself as an Iraqi nationalist politician. 

In all his speeches, he sought to emphasise that he was not dependent on Iran to build a popular base. He said in one of his television interviews, “If a war breaks out between Iran and the United States, we have nothing to do with it.” 

In 2014, AAH entered Parliament with the Al-Sadiqoun bloc, which won one seat. This number increased to 15 seats in the 2018 elections, and it now holds 20 seats. 

Yasiri described AAH after the 2021 elections as working with a Sadrist framework, due to its methods being like the Sadrists in terms of their political and social moves. 

Yasiri added, “The AAH is competing for Sadrist turf. The practice of beginning with a political party started with the launch of the Badr Organisation who participated in the elections to get a few seats, to then become an important element within the framework.” 

He believes that AAH gained this importance because the Coordination Framework, the name that was given to the coalition of Shia political forces excluding the Sadrist, wanted a bloc to oppose the Sadrists with features like theirs. 

Which is exactly what happened. 

In late August 2022, when Sadr’s supporters entered the Green Zone in central Baghdad, Khazali broadcast a statement in his own voice which outlined the guidelines that must be followed by the Coordination Framework demonstrators. 

At that time, some parties within the Coordination Framework tried to overcome Sadr by using his methods and launching counter-protests under the banner “preserving legitimacy.” 

But these demonstrations did not bear fruit and seemed insignificant compared to Sadr’s ability to mobilise the streets and his apparent control. 

On August 29 and 30, 2022, a war involving light and medium weapons unfolded inside Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. The two main parties fighting were the Sadrist movement and AAH. 

Sadr had just lost a political battle in which he had wanted to form what he called a “national majority government” alongside the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Sunni Sovereignty Alliance. His efforts failed. At least 30 people were killed were killed in the skirmishes. This moved Sadr even further away from the political scene. 

“Khazali always reminded the leaders of the Coordination Framework that he was the only one who dared to confront of Sadr when he disrupted Parliament with demonstrations in 2022, and that this must always be remembered,” said a political source close to the Coordination Framework and familiar with its dialogues when speaking to Jummar

“The conflict with the Sadrists is precisely what made Khazali more powerful within the Coordination Framework,” the source said. 

The Sadrists’ withdrawal from political life in the summer of 2022 “made AAH an important political player,” according to Al-Yasiri. 

He pointed out that the growing strength of AAH after the withdrawal of the Sadrists is due to the fact that the parties of the Coordination Framework did not possess the “factional and popular” capabilities to fill the Sadrist vacuum. As such, the task was entrusted to the Khazali group. 

AAH became seen as a confrontational movement that gave the Coordination Framework the momentum to further confront the Sadrists. This is a role that the Dawa Party, the State of Law Coalition, and the rest of the groups which make up the Shi’a alliance known as the Coordination Framework could not play. 

Power instead of resistance 

By the time Khazali became involved in mainstream politics, he had lost his position in the so-called Iraqi Resistance. He gradually withdrew until he was publicly mocked by the Iraqi paramilitary group, Kataib Hezbollah, the most prominent organisation in the resistance camp. This led to his complete withdrawal.  

Despite this, the leader of AAH has now gained important privileges in the current government and controls economic levers in state institutions. This includes ports, reconstruction contracts, and land seizures in different regions: the center, south, and north. 

After the aforementioned intelligence crisis where Sudani did not assign the intelligence service to Khazali, Yasiri ruled out the likelihood of a new conflict between Khazali and Sudani. Sudani does not have a parliamentary bloc and needs someone to support him in Parliament. AAH is his best option, Yasiri claimed when speaking to Jummar.  

A report published by Asharq Al-Awsat goes further, describing Al-Sudani’s moves to form an alliance with Shi’a figures that Khazali may support. 

Head of the State of Law coalition and a key player in the Coordination Framework, Nouri al-Maliki, views any alliance between Al-Sudani and Khazali as an imminent threat to the Coordination Framework and to his own strength as an influential Shi’a leader. 

Accordingly, Maliki is moving to make amendments to the election law to ensure that Sudani does not obtain parliamentary seats that might enable him to be difficult in power negotiations, according to the report. 

It has been said that Maliki sent secret messages through intermediaries to Sadr to persuade him to return to the political arena after agreeing on what they felt to be the best version of the election law. It might be argued that Maliki sees his rapprochement with Sadr as a devastating, pre-emptive blow to any future joint action between Sudani and Khazali. 

During these leaks and analyses, Sadr published a statement in which he praised the “patience and steadfastness of our popular base”, after withdrawing his representatives from Parliament so that they would not be “supporters of the corrupt.” 

Analytical readings of Sadr’s statement went in two directions. The first was that he was rejecting Maliki’s messages with this response. The second was that he was psychologically preparing his followers for his return to politics. 

If the first analysis is correct, the road will largely be clear for Khazali to complete the projection of his influence as one of the major players emerging from the second line of Shi’a politicians. 

As his steps to achieve his political ambitions accelerate, it appears that Khazali has abandoned his past dreams of being the resistance leader in Iraq, in a similar vein to Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon and Abdul-Malik al-Houthi in Yemen. 

When speaking to Jummar, Muhammad Nanaa, a member of the Iraqi Rejection group, said he believes that “Khazali may be able to build a deep state if he continues to build bridges quietly and avoid disputes.” 

Perhaps his new dreams are the source of Khazali’s keenness to paint himself as a successful person to the public using every position he holds. The most important of these may currently be the position of Governor of Babylon, which is considered one of the worst provinces in Iraq in terms of services. 

This position went to Adnan Faihan, one of his men. 

“We sat in a private session with Brother Adnan Faihan and provided him with all means of support,” Khazali said in an interview at forum held in Baghdad. 

But, according to Nanaa, if Sadr returns, Khazali’s ambitions will be threatened and may collapse in the face of the power of the Sadrist movement’s leader, who calls AAH “the militia with no shame.” 

Read More

When Qais al-Khazali, the founder and Secretary-General of paramilitary group and political party Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), articulated his famous phrase, “The Prime Minister is Director General,” the Coordination Framework, an umbrella bloc of Iraq’s Shia party, were fervently debating how to distribute security positions. Khazali was demanding that the head of the intelligence service fall under his authority. 

At that time, December 2022 which was about two months after the formation of Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani’s government, the relationship between Khazali and the new prime minister had deteriorated. The problem was eventually resolved so that the foundation of the Shia political alliance would not be damaged and Khazali’s image would not be tarnished. 

At the time, it was indicated to Sudani that putting the intelligence service in the hands of a party undergoing sanctions by the US might lead to an increase in Washington’s sanctions on Iraq as a whole. He insisted that the intelligence service was not assigned to AAH via Khazali. 

Khazali accepted this, and rescinded his request, so as not to begin a dispute with the prime minister. 

The Posts Khazali Controls 

Khazali’s party AAH currently controls the Ministries of Finance and Higher Education, which were allocated to him under the quota-based political system, muhasasa, as well as maintaining significant control of the government’s media office. He also has influence in the Communications and Media Commission (CMC) through one of its board members, Mahmoud al-Rubaie, who is also a member of the political bureau in AAH, as well as influence within the official Iraqi Media Network (IMN), the Iraqi national media group. This is in addition to having at least three brigades within the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). 

Khazali also holds the post of governor of Babylon, and his party controls 10 seats in multiple provincial councils with 20 representatives in Parliament. 

These capabilities prompted him to challenge Nouri al-Maliki, head of the State of Law coalition and traditionally perceived to be the leader of the Shia system, for his influence in Baghdad, the centre and the south of the country. 

Khazali is also considered to be the main figurehead for the Coordination Framework versus Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Sadrist movement which opposes the Coordination Framework. This has prompted several forces to rally around him. 

Tea Boy 

In a story that has several belittling references to the AAH leader, Sadr’s supporters described Khazali as “Sadr’s tea boy,” based on an old video clip showing the former pouring tea for Sadr before Khazali defected from the Sadrist Movement in 2006. 

The Sadrists claimed that Khazali informed on many of his comrades when he was arrested by American forces in 2007. The arrest was in connection with the killing of five American soldiers in Karbala. Khazali was transferred into the custody of the Iraqi government in 2010, after AAH members pledged to lay down their arms. Baghdad released him shortly thereafter. 

When Khazali returned, he became an opponent of Sadr and his followers. 

During the rapid transformation of Sheikh Al-Amin – as his followers began to call Khazali in 2014 – he closely followed Sadr’s relationships. Khazali began opposing Sadr’s friends and befriending his opponents. 

“Khazali looks in the mirror every day and sees Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr’s shadow follows him. Sadr’s image appears to him in his nightmares,” said a former companion to the AAH leader who spent approximately 10 years working with him. 

Khazali’s former companion, who currently resides in a European Union country, said that the marathon of chasing and imitating the leader of the Sadrist Movement had unconsciously become Khazali’s dominant concern. Khazali had even raised the possibility of retiring from politics, as Sadr had done. 

In the moments leading up to several clashes with AAH in various cities, it was alleged that Sadr had described members of the group as killers who are without religion. 

In 2012, this description was Sadr’s strongest attack on Khazali to date following the latter’s decision to lay down his arms and engage in the political process. 

Khazali began engaging in mainstream political work, but he did not abandon his weapons. On many occasions, particularly on occasions in Basra, weapons were used in fights which took place with the Sadrist movement to gain greater influence in the south. 

Suicide mission 

Ahmed Al-Yasiri, a political analyst based in Australia, said to Jummar, “Khazali played an important role within the Shia system, going where no one else would dare, which was to confront Sadr.” 

In the period between 2005 and 2006, a group split from Sadr’s Mahdi Army and called itself Asaib Ahl al-Haq, under the leadership of Qais al-Khazali, who was born in 1974 in Sadr City in Baghdad. 

After the Mahdi Army’s operations were temporarily halted in 2007, Khazali rushed to lead the so-called Iraqi resistance, drawing on his previous contacts with the Iranian government, which had developed during his days as Sadr’s envoy to Tehran, described in official US government documents published in 2018. 

The group AAH gained prominence after they kidnapped British information expert Peter Moore and his four British guards in May 2007 from an office affiliated with the Ministry of Finance in Baghdad.  

In 2010, following his arrest, the Americans released Qais and his brother Laith “in exchange for the return of a Western hostage and the bodies of executed British citizens,” according to a report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 

In 2014, when the PMF were founded and AAH joined, the latter publicly pledged allegiance to Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. But after the victory over the Islamic State (IS), and the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in 2020, Iraq’s armed Shia factions who were 

 allied with Iran became dispersed. Khazali began to slowly move away from Tehran and present himself as an Iraqi nationalist politician. 

In all his speeches, he sought to emphasise that he was not dependent on Iran to build a popular base. He said in one of his television interviews, “If a war breaks out between Iran and the United States, we have nothing to do with it.” 

In 2014, AAH entered Parliament with the Al-Sadiqoun bloc, which won one seat. This number increased to 15 seats in the 2018 elections, and it now holds 20 seats. 

Yasiri described AAH after the 2021 elections as working with a Sadrist framework, due to its methods being like the Sadrists in terms of their political and social moves. 

Yasiri added, “The AAH is competing for Sadrist turf. The practice of beginning with a political party started with the launch of the Badr Organisation who participated in the elections to get a few seats, to then become an important element within the framework.” 

He believes that AAH gained this importance because the Coordination Framework, the name that was given to the coalition of Shia political forces excluding the Sadrist, wanted a bloc to oppose the Sadrists with features like theirs. 

Which is exactly what happened. 

In late August 2022, when Sadr’s supporters entered the Green Zone in central Baghdad, Khazali broadcast a statement in his own voice which outlined the guidelines that must be followed by the Coordination Framework demonstrators. 

At that time, some parties within the Coordination Framework tried to overcome Sadr by using his methods and launching counter-protests under the banner “preserving legitimacy.” 

But these demonstrations did not bear fruit and seemed insignificant compared to Sadr’s ability to mobilise the streets and his apparent control. 

On August 29 and 30, 2022, a war involving light and medium weapons unfolded inside Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. The two main parties fighting were the Sadrist movement and AAH. 

Sadr had just lost a political battle in which he had wanted to form what he called a “national majority government” alongside the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Sunni Sovereignty Alliance. His efforts failed. At least 30 people were killed were killed in the skirmishes. This moved Sadr even further away from the political scene. 

“Khazali always reminded the leaders of the Coordination Framework that he was the only one who dared to confront of Sadr when he disrupted Parliament with demonstrations in 2022, and that this must always be remembered,” said a political source close to the Coordination Framework and familiar with its dialogues when speaking to Jummar

“The conflict with the Sadrists is precisely what made Khazali more powerful within the Coordination Framework,” the source said. 

The Sadrists’ withdrawal from political life in the summer of 2022 “made AAH an important political player,” according to Al-Yasiri. 

He pointed out that the growing strength of AAH after the withdrawal of the Sadrists is due to the fact that the parties of the Coordination Framework did not possess the “factional and popular” capabilities to fill the Sadrist vacuum. As such, the task was entrusted to the Khazali group. 

AAH became seen as a confrontational movement that gave the Coordination Framework the momentum to further confront the Sadrists. This is a role that the Dawa Party, the State of Law Coalition, and the rest of the groups which make up the Shi’a alliance known as the Coordination Framework could not play. 

Power instead of resistance 

By the time Khazali became involved in mainstream politics, he had lost his position in the so-called Iraqi Resistance. He gradually withdrew until he was publicly mocked by the Iraqi paramilitary group, Kataib Hezbollah, the most prominent organisation in the resistance camp. This led to his complete withdrawal.  

Despite this, the leader of AAH has now gained important privileges in the current government and controls economic levers in state institutions. This includes ports, reconstruction contracts, and land seizures in different regions: the center, south, and north. 

After the aforementioned intelligence crisis where Sudani did not assign the intelligence service to Khazali, Yasiri ruled out the likelihood of a new conflict between Khazali and Sudani. Sudani does not have a parliamentary bloc and needs someone to support him in Parliament. AAH is his best option, Yasiri claimed when speaking to Jummar.  

A report published by Asharq Al-Awsat goes further, describing Al-Sudani’s moves to form an alliance with Shi’a figures that Khazali may support. 

Head of the State of Law coalition and a key player in the Coordination Framework, Nouri al-Maliki, views any alliance between Al-Sudani and Khazali as an imminent threat to the Coordination Framework and to his own strength as an influential Shi’a leader. 

Accordingly, Maliki is moving to make amendments to the election law to ensure that Sudani does not obtain parliamentary seats that might enable him to be difficult in power negotiations, according to the report. 

It has been said that Maliki sent secret messages through intermediaries to Sadr to persuade him to return to the political arena after agreeing on what they felt to be the best version of the election law. It might be argued that Maliki sees his rapprochement with Sadr as a devastating, pre-emptive blow to any future joint action between Sudani and Khazali. 

During these leaks and analyses, Sadr published a statement in which he praised the “patience and steadfastness of our popular base”, after withdrawing his representatives from Parliament so that they would not be “supporters of the corrupt.” 

Analytical readings of Sadr’s statement went in two directions. The first was that he was rejecting Maliki’s messages with this response. The second was that he was psychologically preparing his followers for his return to politics. 

If the first analysis is correct, the road will largely be clear for Khazali to complete the projection of his influence as one of the major players emerging from the second line of Shi’a politicians. 

As his steps to achieve his political ambitions accelerate, it appears that Khazali has abandoned his past dreams of being the resistance leader in Iraq, in a similar vein to Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon and Abdul-Malik al-Houthi in Yemen. 

When speaking to Jummar, Muhammad Nanaa, a member of the Iraqi Rejection group, said he believes that “Khazali may be able to build a deep state if he continues to build bridges quietly and avoid disputes.” 

Perhaps his new dreams are the source of Khazali’s keenness to paint himself as a successful person to the public using every position he holds. The most important of these may currently be the position of Governor of Babylon, which is considered one of the worst provinces in Iraq in terms of services. 

This position went to Adnan Faihan, one of his men. 

“We sat in a private session with Brother Adnan Faihan and provided him with all means of support,” Khazali said in an interview at forum held in Baghdad. 

But, according to Nanaa, if Sadr returns, Khazali’s ambitions will be threatened and may collapse in the face of the power of the Sadrist movement’s leader, who calls AAH “the militia with no shame.”