A closer look at BBC Persian's full interview with Asaib Ahl al-Haq leader Qais al-Khazali
Translation by: MECRA.
Qais al-Khazali, 47, is the leader of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq organization - one of the Iraqi Shia political/military groups closest to Iran. He has in the past been imprisoned in a US military prison in Iraq. Khazali is a former ally of Muqtada al-Sadr, and was an aide to him during the period of the Shia insurgency against the US presence. Later, he broke from the Sadrist trend and formed Asaib Ahl al-Haq in order to pursue a path of greater militancy against the US, and closer links to Iran.
In the interview below, conducted in January, 2022, Khazali answered questions from Nafiseh Kohnavard of the BBC Persian service on the political future of Iraq, rivalry between Shia groups, and Iran’s relation with its proxy groups after the killing of Qassem Soleimani. The interview was conducted in Arabic and translated into Farsi.
At MECRA, we decided to translate the interview into English and to publish it in full, given the importance of the issues under discussion, and al-Khazali’s influential role in Iraq at the present time.
The context: Following gains made by Muqtada Al Sadr’s movement in the recent Iraqi elections, tension between this group and rival Shia movements has increased. Pro-Iran Shia groups have claimed that electoral fraud took place. Meanwhile Iranian proxy forces are increasing efforts to push US forces to withdraw from Iraq.
This interview with the Asaib Ahl al-Haq leader offers useful insight into the thinking and messaging of the armed pro-Iran political element in Iraq. Of particular note in the interview, al-Khazali stresses the independence of the Shia militias’ decision making process. He says on a number of occasions that their decision making is ‘Iraqi’, and is not defined by Iranian interests or diktats. He hints at some divisions among Iranian bodies in their approach vis a vis the militias. Al-Khazali also asserts that Israel is responsible for the poor performance of the pro-Iran element in the 2021 Iraqi elections, as part of a strategy of normalization with Arab states, conducted in cooperation with the United Arab Emirates.
The 2021 election, parliament opening, efforts to form a coalition; Will Iraq witness intra-Shia conflict in the near future?
Nafiseh Kohnavard (BBC): Let’s start from the first parliament session which was so eventful. The Sadrists came wearing shrouds. (Kafan). The representatives of the Shia Coordination Framework, of which you’re a member, walked out of the parliament. Ultimately the voting took place without your presence. The new speaker of the parliament and deputies were elected.
Qais Al-Khazali: I tell you frankly that this first session wasn’t successful. And there was nothing good in it. I don’t think the political process will proceed naturally with this situation. Issues that occurred after the attack on the first speaker of the session, who is chosen on the basis of age, and which caused him to leave the meeting and showed disrespect for the law that the older person should chair the session; That’s the issue regarding that session.
This was while the (nominated, based on age) speaker of the parliament had not announced that he would not return. He only adjourned the session until one of the deputies' objections was heard by legal counsel. But other representatives then continued the session and in our opinion it is not good at all and there is no benefit in it.
Kohnavard: But the first speaker that was chosen because of his age, in the middle of the session and after the attack on him said that he didn’t feel well and left the session. The second person that was older than him declined to chair the session. And finally the third person chaired it. It doesn’t seem that anything happened in contravention of the parliamentary rules.
Khazali: The side that insisted on continuing the session raised these three people. However, there is no law that must determine the first, second and third candidates for chairing the first session of parliament. In all previous periods, the only law was that the oldest person presides over the parliament. In our opinion it was a plot. And it was the first time since 2005 that they named and determined three persons for chairing the session.
Kohnavard: The Sadrists came with shrouds with the words “Jaish Al- Mehdi” (Mahdi Army) written on the back. This is the paramilitary group led by Mr. Sadr. Many interpreted this as a threat against the other Shiite side..
Khazali: I wish that this had not happened. Ultimately, the civil society followed the first parliament session closely and wants to know what the politicians are doing. The message of shrouds and military uniforms is not reassuring. It’s not a message people expected to get.
I had hoped they wouldn’t do such a thing.
Kohnavard: You have lost your parliamentary seats. What’s your plan? What do you intend to do?
Khazali: We have turned to the federal court, but in the end whatever decision the court takes, we believe there are dangerous signs in the current process.
The first sign is that the Kurds and Sunnis are in agreement with one of the two Shia sides. And somehow they have lined up against the other Shia side. In the past they would give a chance to the Shia sides to come up with an agreement among themselves. But this time a dangerous situation has emerged that has caused a deep split between Shias. And it may eventually lead to the division of Sunnis and Kurds.
Kohnavard: But the night before the first parliament session Sadr in a tweet specifically mentioned that he had reached agreement with both Sunni parties (Taqadom and Al-Azm and PDK). It sounded like they are allied and he clearly indicated that the other side of the Shias, which is you, will be put aside in the new government formation.
Khazali: It was clear in the Iraqi political scene that Sadr had rejected the agreement with all the parties that formed the Coordination Framework. But he wants to agree with some of them. Clearly, with everyone except the State of Law, led by (former Prime Minister) Nouri al-Maliki.
But excluding Mr. Maliki from the agreement would mean that the next government, contrary to what Mr. Sadr says, the government will not be a patriotic majority. It’s an issue that we hope our brother Mr. Muqtada solves. And the way the Kurds and Sunnis came up with an agreement amongst themselves, Shias have to come up with an agreement also.
Kohnavard: Do you think after this stage, is there a possibility to make an agreement between the Shias?
Khazali: It’s possible.. This is possible until the last moments before the formation of the government and maybe it won’t be that far.. anyway we will do our best that Shia unity should be given priority to individual interests. Right now the ball is not in our court. It’s in the Sadrists’ and Mr. Muqtada’s playground. And it’s him that should take responsibility of this problem.
Kohnavard: What will happen if you don’t reach an agreement.
Khazali: It won’t be the end of the world. Muqtada Al-Sadr can form the greater fraction as he wants and choose the prime minister and as everyone says he will control the prime minister and appoint the ministers and form the government. We also wish him to succeed, but regarding us, as the Coordination Framework, either we are considering a boycott of political activity or we are considering becoming an opposition. Until this moment most of the Coordination Framework prefer to boycott but it is not the ultimate decision
Kohnavard: So, you are not supporting a government that forms without you?
Khazali: No, we either boycott or become opposition. In an opposition situation, we will be against the government. We will put the government’s activities under a magnifying glass and hold it accountable.
Kohnavard: what type of opposition will you become? Inside the parliament, or a street opposition?
Khazali: Being in parliament, we will be part of the opposition. We, through our supporters, our media and any other possible way will continue to oppose.
Kohnavard: There are concerns regarding intra-Shia conflict. It has been said that Tehran is concerned about it. What do you think?
Khazali: I rationally believe that religious authority, which is a kind of safety valve, will not allow the situation to reach the stage of war. There are safety valves inside the Shiite house. I am not saying that things will go smoothly. I can not say that tension and friction and seizures will not occur. Let me be clear that because of these tensions; I do not think that the future government can succeed and provide services or create job opportunities.
Kohnavard: Why? What may happen so that they will not be able to continue?
Khazali: Since 2003 until now, Iraq has witnessed complicated situations and problems stacked on top of each other. If there will be an intention for fundamental reformation, the first step will be to coordinate the internal situation. But if there will be misunderstanding and tension inside the groups, especially the Shia groups which are the majority, that means the prime minister must be involved in the internal situation all the time.
Kohnavard: Are you concerned?
Khazali: Frankly, based on the information we have; foreign efforts are under way to lead Iraq to Shia-Shia fighting by taking advantage of the post-election situation. Some media outlets are pouring gasoline on the fire. Is there any concern? Yes. Is there a possibility of a clash? Yes, there is.
But as I said the wise must stop it. I tell you frankly, I’m mainly based in Najaf. One of the main reasons I’m (now) in Baghdad is that in this situation, a conflict or minor incident could lead to a big problem. And so they have to be solved in time. I believe the other side, the Sadrists don’t want the situation to reach that level.
Kohnavard: We hear your side is opposed to the re-election of Mustafa Kazemi as the prime minister. What will you do if he nevertheless is given a second term as prime minister?
Khazali: Mr. Kazemi has held this position and responsibility in recent years. We believe Mr. Kazemi’s government has not been successful and in many fields especially in economics, it has failed. But if our brother Muqtada appoints the prime minister and selects Mr. Kazemi, then he must take the responsibility for his success or failure. Our position as the Coordination Framework is clear. We are opposed to this. Really, what is the point of holding early elections while the three heads of the state remain unchanged?
Challenging the US presence, Relations between Iraqi resistance groups and Iran
Kohnavard: The UN, US, many countries, including Turkey and Iran congratulated Iraq both for the elections and the election of the parliamentary speaker election.
Khazali: This is in the interest of governments. We constantly say we take our internal issues into account. It is also a sign that the congratulations of the Speaker of the Iranian Parliament to the Speaker of the new Parliament have not affected our positions. We still follow our case in the court and still reject the election’s results and will remain as opposition. Congratulations or not congratulations from the speaker of the Iranian parliament has no effect on this position. This is a proof of our independence in our decisions.
Kohnavard: It seems that the Coordination Framework isn’t thoroughly integrated and maybe a group of them will come up with agreement with Muqtada Al Sadr.
Khazali: Impossible. The Coordination Framework is completely united. And according to the testimony of all members such as Hadi Ameri, Dr. Haidar al-Abadi, Nouri al-Maliki and Sayed Ammar Hakim this coalition has been the best experience from 2003 until now that a large part of the Shia groups are integrated and make significant decisions. I can say all the attempts to integrate one part of the Coordination Framework into the government formation while abandoning the other part have failed.
Kohnavard: So, definitely you’re all integrated/united?
Khazali: Yes, every offer we received did not come to fruition. Now the Coordination Framework has common goals which are: Iraqi unity, the withdrawal of foreign forces, protecting Hashd Al Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Units) and preserving the resistance’s axis weapons.
Kohnavard: But Sadr in most of his speeches and tweets has mentioned that weapons have to be in the hand of the government and militia groups have to dissolve, and he even said that the so called resistances axis groups are not resistance groups.
Khazali: First of all I should say there is no dispute between Muqtada al-Sadr and the resistance groups that American forces are occupiers and are still present in Iraq. And the proof is that Mr. Sadr clearly said that if the Americans’ withdrawal doesn’t take place, Iraq must file a complaint to the United Nations Security Council and ask for it to make an end to the foreign forces’ presence in the country. There is no dispute regarding this. The dispute is about if resistance groups force the Americans to leave now or hand over their weapons now and then Sadr must ensure that he mobilizes all the resources of the government and government forces to expel the occupying troops.
We brought up this subject in Mr Ameri’s house in a meeting with Muqtada al-Sadr. But we still have different opinions about this. Our opinion is clear. The resistance exists because of the occupiers’ presence. Resistance is a nation’s right. There is resistance as long as the occupiers are present. The end of the occupation is the end of our armed resistance.
Kohnavard: The Americans say their mission has changed from combat to advising and that their combat troops have left Iraq.
Khazali: Unfortunately the only side that say the American combat troops have left Iraq and just advisors have remained is the Iraqi side. But the American side has not used the withdrawal word. Some of their military commanders, such as (CENTCOM commander) General Mackenzie has said frankly “No major changes. 2500 troops are still here.” And the reality is the American forces are still in the bases at Ain Al Asad and Harir. Still their drones are as before, their jets and drones are all over the Iraq sky in all areas – whether Daesh is present or not, they are flying. Right now at this time at least three drones are above Baghdad, in spite of no Daesh presence here.
Kohnavard: What are you going to do if American forces don’t withdraw, as you would like?
Khazali: The fact is that where occupiers are present, there is the resistance’s right also. But if operations against them increase or not, or we declare a ceasefire or not, these are tactical issues. And the tactics will be determined based on the resistance groups’ interests.
Kohnavard: the resistance groups made a deadline that Americans must leave Iraq before the end of 2021. What now? Is there a deadline for the Americans?
Khazali: No, there is not a certain deadline. But the resistance will be continued as long as the occupiers are present.
Kohnavard: After the election there was a drone attack on Kazemi’s house. Mr. Qaani the Commander in Chief of the Qods Force came to Baghdad and there are reports that he asked you to accept the election result and also reduce the tensions even with the Americans.
Khazali: Let me say this again: our decisions in Iraq aren’t subjected to Iran’s decisions. The Iranians are our allies and we are on good terms with them. And because of their aid since 2003 and in the fighting against Daesh we thank them. From this, the Iranians have rights to comment and give advice. But we make the final decision. Even on the resistance subject. Wrongly or falsely, some say that Iran because of the Vienna nuclear talks won’t allow the resistance groups to continue operations. I have to say the resistance decision is an Iraqi decision. Iranian decisions don’t affect that. Even if the Vienna talks lead to a result, the Iraqi resistances’ operations won’t stop till the withdrawal of American occupiers from Iraqi soil.
Kohnavard: Official Iraqi sources told us that before the new year, the Americans, through an Iraqi delegation that went to Tehran, warned Iran that If the attacks from Iranian proxy forces cause damage, this time the answer will not be limited to these groups.
Khazali: First of all, this message is not a new message. The Americans say that constantly. We got used to these threats, and the Iranians more than us. That was the first key point. The second key point, I repeat it again, the decision of Iraqi resistance is Iraqi and national. I say this for the first time: many resistance groups have reached the stage of manufacturing weapons, specially drones.
It’s an experience that was done successfully in Yemen and easily succeeded in Iraq. So that even if Qassim Soleimani’s successors stop helping the resistance, it won’t impact the resistance groups’ capabilities.
Kohnavard: what will happen if because of your attacks on them, they attack Iran?
Khazali: So, Iran will defend itself.
Kohnavard: What will you do?
Khazali: We will defend ourselves too. Iran is also capable of defending itself. If the American occupiers that don’t want to leave our country , and they own bases and drones, aim to respond to even one of our resistance groups harsher and more cruelly, or attack any group of Hashd Al-Shabi, I emphasize the resistance groups are ready to enter this game and respond more harshly. And if the US wants to continue to respond to attacks, the resistance will continue the retaliations as well.
Kohnavard: Was there any request from Tehran to stop the attacks?
Khazali: I say for the second time, the Iranians’ interests and Iran’s situation being whatever it is, our decision is an Iraqi decision. Whether such a request has been made or not, whether such a request is the Islamic Republic’s decision or a unit inside the Islamic Republic is not clear.
There are complexities in the Islamic Republic’s situation, and certain interests are involved and sometimes one is superior to the other. I can say for sure that the Islamic Republic Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s decision for helping the resistance axis has not changed. But inside the Islamic Republic’s organizations regarding this, changes are underway. I say again, with all this, these changes whatever they are won’t affect us. In spite of all the changes we can adapt ourselves to the situation and continue our path.
For instance as I said, a number of resistance groups are able to build important weapons such as drones.
Kohnavard: Asaib Al-haq has been accused of having a key role in attacks on American bases several times. Some say you’re leading the attacks. Are you behind that?
Khazali: I speak from a political position. But from the security, intelligence and operational aspect there are other persons that have something to say. I have said clearly and frankly, many times, I help and support any activity of resistance and it’s a natural right.
Kohnavard: you are known as groups close to Iran, and are accused of killing protesters. In the last years people chanted against you. Don’t you think it’s one of the reasons you lost at the elections?
Khazali: No. About if the election results had or had something to do with our relation to Iran? I have to say that the deeper reason for such a result is (the question of) normalizing relations with Israel who wants to expand in the region, especially in Iraq. For that they need to lay the groundwork in Iraq. The resistance groups and Hashd al-Shaabi are the main obstacle in Iraq. As a result I believe, in the depths of the story, the subject is Israel. With British planning and UAE investment. Sorry your channel is in London also.
Kohnavard: Is there any difference in your relations with Tehran since the killing of Soleimani?
Khazali: In terms of political relations after the martyrdom of Qassem Soleimani there hasn’t been changes. I mean in terms of (Iran’s) relationship with the Shia political spectrum. But the way the organizations that are dealing with the Iraq case operate has changed dramatically. In my opinion maybe this change was correct and appropriate with this new situation. It’s not confidential that in most cases Mr. Qaani meets with the prime minister and other political figures from different groups and parties and has delivered the message that Iran won’t make decisions for Iraq. And decisions have to be taken by Iraqis. Iran doesn’t interfere. If help is requested by Iraq, Iran will take action. But it does not have a specific position on Iraq.
Kohnavard: Since the killing of Major-General Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Muhandis there have been talks about hard revenge. Groups like yours have promised this also. Do you think this revenge has occurred?
Khazali: In my opinion it didn’t happen. Immediately after the martyrdom of the commanders, there was a golden chance but unfortunately it was delayed. I can say that the calculation was not done correctly. Iraqi resistance were asked to wait for Iran’s response which came after a week and by then the tension was already gone. Iran’s response came by attacking Ain Al-Asad. The pressure and eagerness to respond immediately had diminished. In my opinion the big revenge won’t be fulfilled just by one response. I have to say that American forces from that time don’t feel peace even for an hour. Our revenge promise will be fulfilled by the complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.