Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (A.A.H.), an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia group, continues to play a role in political and security developments in the disputed province of Kirkuk. While the group is cultivating close relations with some leaders of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (P.U.K.), other Kurdish leaders and Kurdish residents of the disputed Kirkuk province accuse the militia group of looting government buildings in Kirkuk and promoting a sectarian agenda there.
On Thursday, A.A.H. leader Qais al-Khazali met with a P.U.K. delegation led by Ala Talabani, a lawmaker and niece of late Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, in the holy city of Najaf. After the meeting, Khazali called on the Baghdad government to support the Kurds “who cooperated in the entry and redeployment of government forces” into Kirkuk. He also asked Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to "pay attention to and give support to the province of Sulaymaniyah", where the P.U.K. is headquartered, "because of its political weight." Khazali further pointed out that Kurdish groups that did not take up arms against government troops should be rewarded. Ala Talabani reportedly thanked Khazali for his warm reception of the Kurdish delegation and expressed the hope for greater cooperation to achieve security and stability in Kirkuk and its surrounding regions.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq is an Iraqi Shiite militant group fighting in Iraq and Syria under the leadership of Iranian Quds Force Qassem Soleimani. Prior to Iraqi forces reasserting control over Kirkuk, according to media reports, Soleimani had warned Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq to retreat from Kirkuk or face a major military offensive by the Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed militiamen, including A.A.H. Soleimani reportedly had a meeting with P.U.K. leaders in Sulaymaniyah just a day before Abadi ordered his forces to move toward Kirkuk. P.U.K. has had a long-standing relationship with Tehran and Soleimani had threatened its leaders that they would lose Iranian backing if they refused to withdraw.
A.A.H. was one of P.M.F. groups that reportedly supported the Iraqi forces’ return to Kirkuk. And prior to the September referendum vote in Iraqi Kurdistan region, A.A.H. had threatened violence against the Kurdish leadership and had warned that Erbil’s plan to hold the vote is a “foreign conspiracy” that would destabilize Iraq. “We will not hesitate for one moment to confront projects aimed at dividing and weakening Iraq,” the group said in a statement in August.
The presence of Iranian-sponsored militias, however, has angered Kirkuk’s Kurdish residents and Kurdish leaders, including some from P.U.K.
Rebwar Talabani, the acting head of Kirkuk Provincial Council who moved to Erbil after Iraqi forces’ military operations in the province, said today he would not go back to Kirkuk and hold a council session “at gunpoint” and alleged that A.A.H. militants are currently in his house.
In addition, the Turkmen People’s Party has also accused A.A.H. of “storming and looting” the house of the party’s secretary general, Irfan Kirkukli. “The militia group has written sectarian slogans and names on our office walls and claimed the buildings as their own,” Kirkukli said.
Comment: Asaib Ahl al-Haq – or the League of the Righteous – is funded by the Iran and reportedly has more than 10,000 fighters. According to the U.S. government accounts, the Lebanese Hezbollah upon a request by the Iranian government helped form and train AAH in 2005 to carry out attacks against the U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq. AAH started as a splinter group of the Mahdi Army, the powerful Shiite Iraqi paramilitary force led by Muqtada al-Sadr. AAH has been accused of killing American soldiers and committing human rights abuses against Iraqi Sunnis.
Khazali has reportedly pledged allegiance to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and his group takes orders from I.R.G.C. Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, rather than the government in Baghdad. This is despite the fact that AAH is part of the Popular Mobilization Forces (P.M.F.), which has been incorporated into the Iraqi security forces.
Khazali was arrested by the U.S. military in 2007 for his alleged role in high-profile attack in Karbala that had killed five American service members. But he was released two years later along with other AAH members – apparently in an exchange for a British hostage. The U.S. and British government denied it was a prisoner exchange.