Who is Qais al-Khazali, the Iraqi militia leader sanctioned by the US on December 6?
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Qais al-Khazali (قيس الخزعلي) was targeted by US sanctions on December 6, 2019. "The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated three leaders of Iran-backed militias in Iraq that opened fire on peaceful protests, killing dozens of innocent civilians. OFAC designated Qais al-Khazali, Laith al-Khazali, and Husayn Falih ‘Aziz al-Lami pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13818 for their involvement in serious human rights abuse in Iraq. Additionally, OFAC designated Iraqi millionaire businessman Khamis Farhan al-Khanjar al-Issawi for bribing government officials and engaging in corruption at the expense of the Iraqi people."
Khazali has a long history with the US. A one-time detainee at Camp Cropper he was known to Coalition Forces for years in Iraq as a threat and thorn in the side of the US. Since 2014 he played a role in the Popular Mobilization Units with his Asaib Ahl Al-Haq militia. He has been advocating for US forces to leave Iraq. He also travelled to Lebanon in December 2017 and met with Hezbollah and threatened Israel. He is also known for threats and attacks on Sunnis in Iraq.
Khazali was born in 1974 in a slum in Sadr City in Baghdad. A follower of Muqtada al-Sadr's father he became a spokesman for Sadr Mahdi Army after the 2003 US invasion. He created Asaib Ahl al-Haq (عصائب أهل الحق) in 2006 as it emerged from thee Mahdi Army's "Special Groups" and his Khazali network of followers. AAH is said to have been responsible for 6,000 attacks and eventually raised 10,000 fighters.
In 2005 a Sadr supporter told the US that Qais Khazali had "huge influence" over Sadr. "He said that money, weapons and trained men from Iran provide Khazali with influence over al-Sadr."
Khazali was detained in March, 2017 during a raid, Multi-National Force – Iraq (MNF–I) said at the time. It said he was a JAM (Mahdi Army) member. The US said it had "evidence Qais was involved in the January attack on the Karbala JPCC that killed five U.S. soldiers. The US stressed that Coalition Forces (CF) detentions were based on the actions of individuals, not sectarian affiliation." Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb, at the time Deputy Commander to US General Petraeus in Iraq, said the forces were actually targeting Laith al-Khazali "based on intelligence regarding a secret meeting." That meeting included a meeting between Laith and Hezbollah's Musa Ali Daqduq. Daqduq would be released in 2012.
Intelligence later showed Qais had information on operations against the Coalition and "was aware of the planning, approved the operation, and received follow-on briefings after the event [in Karbala]. The information also clearly implicated him in the planning of future attacks. Qais admitted his role in interrogation, stated General Lamb. Such powerful evidence of Qais Khazali's explicit involvement in anti-CF attacks showed his duplicity, as he was also helping bring stability to Sadr City and encouraging insurgents to join in reconciliation talks, all while plotting against CF in Basra and elsewhere," the US noted. The believes that "Qais and Laith al-Khazali had leading roles in a January 2007 attack on an Iraqi government compound in Karbala. The attack killed five U.S. soldiers and wounded three."
Khazali was detained at Camp Cropper. VOA notes that "He was extensively questioned by U.S. intelligence. 'He is the kind of person I could see myself, or others, following,” said Derek Harvey, a retired Army colonel and former intelligence adviser who spent hundreds of hours interviewing Khazali at Camp Cropper." He saw the militia leader as “extremely thoughtful" with a “magnetic personality.” he was released in an alleged hostage exchange in 2009.
The US described AAH as an "elite militia group from from Jaysh al-Mahdi [Mahdi Army] fighters" in 2009. His name was spelled Qays al-Khazali in US documents at the time. The Government of Iraq's "aim is to convince the group to stop all violent acts and to break AAH's links to the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force -- a real challenge, as most of the group's leadership resides currently in Iran and reportedly receives Iranian funding. Another challenge is that many in AAH and the GoI," the US said in 2009.
Qais told the US that “The ultimate goal of Iran is to destroy the Americans...Iran is using both the U.S. and the Iraqis to keep each other busy through fighting while Iran pursues their own agenda and most importantly, nuclear ambitions.”
The US said the Khazali brothers were interested in reconciliation with the Government of Iraq in 2009. They would implement a ceasefire with US forces and give up hostages and disarm. MNF-I released Laith (Layth) in June 2009. "Since that time, the U.S. has released or transferred to GOI custody over 600 AAH-affiliated detainees as well as 1,000 Shia detainees not related to AAH. The releases have included locally prominent individuals such as Abdul Hadi al-Durraji and Hassan Salem....MNF-I intends to transfer Qays al-Khazali with a warrant to Iraqi custody by the end of December. By taking custody of Qays, the GOI then becomes responsible for both resolving his legal case and affecting the recovery of the UK hostages. MNF-I and the Embassy have made clear to key GOI officials that the government should not resolve Qays, legal case until AAH makes final progress on reconciliation principles, including release of hostages," US diplomats reported.
AAH has been profiled in other places, see for instance and also here and numerous other locations such as the Institute for Study of War, Wilson Center and these sites here and Stanford's CISAC the US Military Academy at West Point.
The battle against ISIS, forming the PMU and AAH serving in Syria
Khazali sent members of his militia to fight in Syria in 2014. “I think sending our men to fight in Syria was the right decision," Khazali told the BBC in 2014. AAH became part of the mostly Shi'ite Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Units. The PMU eventually numbered 100,000 men and had other US-sanctioned and designated terrorists in it, including Kataib Hezbollah's Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba. Khazali had influence over the 12th Brigade of the PMU's Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba because Akram al-Ka'abi had once been in AAH and was a Sadrist. It receives support from Iran. Asaib Ahl al-Haq formed three brigades of the PMU, including the 41st, 42nd and 43rd.
In June 2016 AAH fighters entered an Iraqi army base and were accused of "seizing" it and caused trouble with the anti-ISIS Coalition. "The fighters eventually agreed to leave for a local farm after the intervention of their boss, Qais al-Khazali. He leads Asaib Ahl al-Haq, one of Iraq’s fiercest Shi’ite militias," Reuters noted.
Khazali met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in October 2016 before the Mosul operation began. He spoke on Al-Ahd TV on October 7: "Asa'ib Ahl Al-Haq [will participate] in vengeance against the slayers of Hussein," he said of the upcoming battle against ISIS in Mosul.
The US has accused AAH of being involved in atrocities in Diyala province. "AAH has been involved in widespread forced disappearances, abductions, killings, and torture, targeting Sunni Iraqis with impunity. In late 2015, Laith al-Khazali controlled efforts to remove Sunnis from areas of Diyala Province, including killings to drive Sunnis from the area." This was in the context of the war on ISIS.
By 2016 the PMU, including AAH, had become so integral to Iraq’s war effort that it was incorporated as a official force to receive government salaries. It would take until the spring of 2018 to officially complete the process. But the problem for the Iraq and the PMU remained that it never ceased being a collection of militias. Former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in 2017 that the PMU is the “hope for the future of Iraq and the region.”
The trip to Lebanon and threats against US, Israel and protesters
On December 8, 2017 Khazali appeared in southern Lebanon with Hezbollah. He has been close to Hezbollah in the past. "We are now at the Fatima Gate, in the town of Kafr Kila, on the border between southern Lebanon and occupied Palestine. Along with our brothers in Hizbullah, the Islamic Resistance, we declare our full readiness to stand alongside the Lebanese people, and the Palestinian cause against the oppressive Israeli occupation." His visit was condemned by Prime Minister Saad Hariri and an investigation was launched. It was seen as part of an emerging threat by Iraqi based militias and part of Iran's weapons transfers to Iraq (including short range ballistic missiles in 2018-2019), and Iran's "land bridge" through Albukamal to the Golan border and Lebanon.
On November 28, 2018 Khazali said the PMU would be allowed to run the Iraqi-Syrian border. "Given the Hashd al-Shaabi’s past successes, the government should officially task it with protecting the Iraq-Syria border,” he said.
In January 2019 Khazali called for US forces to leave Iraq. “If the main purpose for their presence is to confront the military danger posed by Daesh, then this threat is eliminated,” he said, referring to IS. “So what is the justification for keeping this number (of troops) now?...
“Anything other than [a small contingent] will be considered an infringement on sovereignty by the Iraqi parliament, the Iraqi people and political factions, including ours, and we will not allow it,” Khazali said.
On October 26 Khazali called for revenge after an AAH member, Wissam al-Alyawi (Alawi) was killed in Missan during protests. In Baghdad after the funeral he said that the victim's death would be avenged. "His blood is on America and Israel's hands, but I will take revenge -- many times over," Khazali said.
The December 6 sanctions noted that "Qais al-Khazali is Secretary General of the Iran-backed Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) militia in Iraq. During the late 2019 protests in many cities in Iraq, AAH has opened fire on and killed protesters. Laith al-Khazali, Qais al-Khazali’s brother, is also a leader of AAH. Qais al-Khazali was part of a committee of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) proxies that approved the use of lethal violence against protesters for the purpose of public intimidation."
The sanctions note that "Qais al-Khazali is designated for being a foreign person who is a leader or official of an entity, including any government entity, that has engaged in, or whose members have engaged in, serious human rights abuse relating to his tenure. Laith al-Khazali is designated for being a foreign person who is responsible for, is complicit in, or has directly or indirectly engaged in serious human rights abuse."
The IRGC-Quds Force was designated pursuant to E.O. 13224 which was a 2001 order against terrorists. The US has found that the IRGC-Quds Force is a branch of the IRGC which was designated pursuant to E.O. 13224 on October 13, 2017, and on April 15, 2019 was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the Secretary of State.