While much attention is given to Sunni militant groups operating in Iraq on account of the overall revived insurgency, there is little interest in Shi'a groups with armed wings.
One of the most important of these latter organizations is Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the People of Righteousness) or AHH originated during the height of the Iraq War as a breakaway led by Qais al-Khazali, who rebelled against Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.
On account of this split, AAH is understandably resented heavily by Sadrists in general, and on Sadrist forums, one can regularly find posts referring to AAH as "Asa'ib Ahl al-Batil" ("League of the People of Falsehood").
Occasionally, AAH has engaged in armed clashes with demobilized Mahdi Army fighters in Baghdad. Yet the tensions go beyond mere personal differences between Sadr and Khazali caused by the break-off, for there is also an ideological separation.
To be sure, both Sadrists and AAHs can be broadly defined as Shi'a Islamist in seeking a role for Islamic law in politics.
However, although the Sadrists maintain connections with clerics based in Iran (most notably Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri) and have taken political advice from Iran in agreeing to form a coalition with Maliki's State of Law bloc following the 2010 elections, the Sadrists- and Sadr himself- are ultimately motivated by a nationalist desire to emerge as the leaders of Iraq's Shi'a community.
In contrast, AAH can be seen as a virtual proxy of Iran, even if one does not want to accept the claims that it receives funding and/or armed support from Tehran.For instance, AAH emphasizes very strongly its reverence for Ayatollah Khamenei as a spiritual and political guide, whereas this discourse is notably absent in Sadrist circles.
That is to say, AAH is firmly in favor of the Iranian political system of wilayat al-faqih (guardianship of the jurists) as envisaged by Ayatollah Khomeini.
Further indicative of AAH's status as an Iranian proxy is the fact that whereas Sadr has thus far resisted calls to deploy demobilized Mahdi Army fighters to Syria, AAH- under Tehran's orders- is deploying fighters in a variety of areas of Syria to fight the rebels, including Damascus and Aleppo, under the banner of Liwa Kafeel Zainab in the latter.
Note in particular AAH's use of Muqatada al-Sadr's father's image on 'martyrdom' announcements in Syria: while the group follows Iranian wilayat al-faqih, it is also claiming to be the true heirs of Sadrist politics.
This serves as another point of tension between AAH and the Muqtada al-Sadr's followers, even as many of the latter may have sympathy with the fight against groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) in Syria while not actively going out there or recruiting others.
On the domestic level, besides seeking to build its own influence with a political wing through approaches such as outreach to southern tribal sheikhs, AAH regularly participates in Iranian-devised political events, such as al-Quds Day, joining on such occasions in marches in Baghdad and other locations with fellow pro-Iranian proxy groups such as Hezbollah in Iraq, which is led by Wathiq al-Battat.
Battat- founder of the Mukhtar Army militia last year- currently faces an arrest warrant from the central government, and has made clear that in a war between Iraq and Iran, he would take Iran's side.
Nevertheless, whereas Maliki's government is broadly hostile to Wathiq al-Battat and the Mukhtar Army, the evidence points to a broad tolerance of AAH. On political grounds there is some logic to Maliki's approach in that it allows him to play AAH and the Sadrists against each other, realizing that the Sadrists are ultimately his rivals.
However, the problem is that despite apparent gestures of an abandonment of armed struggle following the U.S. troop withdrawal at the end of 2011, AAH maintains an armed wing, illustrated foremost by the armed deployments to Syria. Within Iraq, more reports have emerged recently of AAH mobilizing in more areas to take on those it views as being behind the rise of ISIS.
Though AAH denies that it has a sectarian agenda in pursuing these operations, there have long been concerns- particularly in the heavily mixed province of Diyala- that its activities are triggering displacements of Sunni Arab residents with raids and threats on Sunni Arab homes and property.
This is so despite the fact that politics at the Diyala provincial council level have seen cross-sectarian alliances, as the Sadrist Ahrar bloc in the province has supported the Sunni Arab governor Omar al-Humairi who was deposed from power last month by other Shi'a opponents working in concert with Humairi's rivals within the fragmented Iraqiya coalition, accusing him of corruption and aiding Kurdish expansionist ambitions in Diyala province.
Elsewhere, there have been allegations of AAH involvement in the Iraqi security forces' operations in Anbar that are currently trying to reassert federal control over the Ramadi and Fallujah areas. Indeed, early in January, it was claimed that an AAH commander who had fought in Syria- Anwar al-Bahadil- was killed fighting in Anbar.
If the Maliki government wishes to prevent fragile sectarian relations from deteriorating further, AAH will have to be reined in like the Mukhtar Army. The group's agenda is ultimately serving foreign sectarian interests- namely, Iran's desire to become leader of the region's Shi'a- and will only continue to provoke sectarian killings and revenge killings.
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi