Khazali: The anti-Israel, pro-Iran leader in Iraq who the US sanctioned

Sanctions against Khazali target the leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia that has targeted the US and threatened Israel.

  QAIS AL-KHAZALI, leader of the Iran-supported force Asaib Ahl al-Haq, speaks during a celebration of final victory over Islamic State, at the Wadi al-Salam cemetery in Najaf, Iraq.  (photo credit: REUTERS/ALAA AL-MARJANI)
QAIS AL-KHAZALI, leader of the Iran-supported force Asaib Ahl al-Haq, speaks during a celebration of final victory over Islamic State, at the Wadi al-Salam cemetery in Najaf, Iraq.
Qais Khazali once enjoyed a leisurely trip to southern Lebanon. It was December 2017, two years ago. Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq were enjoying the height of their fame after having helped defeat ISIS and linking up with Syrian regime forces on the Syrian border of Iraq. They were cheering. Khazali was dreaming of larger plans: an attack on Israel using Iraqi Shi’ite, Iranian IRGC forces, Hezbollah and other elements from across the region.
On December 6, 2019, the US sanctioned Khazali along with other pro-Iranian elements in Iraq, accusing them of various abuses, including killing protesters and working with Iran’s IRGC. The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated Khazali, along with Laith al-Khazali and Husayn Falih Aziz al-Lami, under an executive order that enables the blocking of those involved in human rights abuses. This is a December 2017 executive order. It has been used against Khazali under the context of the last two months in which groups like Khazali’s Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) militia has been involved in killing protesters.
The US decision targets Khazali and his brother. It calls them leaders of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq and notes that Khazali was part of a committee of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force proxies that “approved lethal violence against protesters.” Just hours after the US decision was made public, plainclothes militias gunned down more than a dozen protesters in Baghdad. Since October 1, more than 500 protesters have been killed and some 15,000 were injured. Khazali has been threatening the US and Israel for years, but his rhetoric increased during the protests.
In October, an Asaib Ahl al-Haq commander in Missan was killed while confronting protesters. His name was Wissam al-Alawi (Alyawi). At his funeral, which was attended by the leader of the Popular Mobilization Units, the umbrella group of militias that includes Khazali’s group, the members vowed revenge.
“His blood is on America and Israel’s hands, I will take revenge many times over,” Khazali said. Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Fatah Alliance Party in Iraq’s parliament, who also runs the Badr Organization, which is allied to Khazali, supported Khazali’s view that the US and Israel were to blame.
The US says that AAH has been involved in abuses in Diyala province, killing Sunni Arabs. It says that Laith Khazali ran attacks in the province in 2015. But the US sanctions also reach back to 2007, when it accuses the brothers of involvement in an attack on US forces that killed five soldiers in Karbala. This is a reminder the Khazali was once detained by the US after the attack and held at Camp Cropper in Iraq. According to a report at VOA, he was interrogated by US intelligence, who were impressed by his abilities.
He had a “magnetic personality.” He was released in 2009 in a trade for a British hostage. After 2011, he sent fighters to Syria to help the Assad regime, helping him gain more access to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is also backed by Iran. His AAH eventually had more than 10,000 fighters. In 2014, when the US returned to Iraq to fight ISIS he called for a brief halt on attacks on Americans. Khazali has influence over the 12th brigade of the PMU and the 41, 42 and 43rd brigades of AAH members.
THE US says that Khazali’s group is linked to the IRGC pursuant to the 2001 Executive Order 12334 targeting those who support terrorism. Iran’s IRGC was designated as part of that order and AAH is linked to the IRGC. The US says Khazali’s group is a component of Iran’s destabilizing activities. In 2019, the US designated the IRGC a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Pompeo said on Friday that by taking the action against Khazali and others the US was using legal authority to go after those who are targeting peaceful protests. The US wants these militias to put Iraq first, not Iran. In 2017, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on Iraq to send the militias, like Khazali, home. Instead, Iraq’s Haider al Abadi said the militias are the hope of the future of Iraq in October 2017.
Empowered by Abadi and Iraq’s decision to incorporate the PMU, including Khazali’s AAH, into the Iraqi security forces in 2017, Khazali planned his trip to Lebanon. He came to Lebanon in fatigues and toured the border with Hezbollah. “We declare our full readiness to stand with the Lebanese people and the Palestinian cause against the unjust Israeli occupation that is hostile to Islam, Arabs and humanity.” Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri was outraged at the time and ordered Khazali banned from Lebanon. But more Iraqi-based militia leaders would come to Lebanon in 2018. Khazali’s links to Hezbollah are important. They were associating with Hezbollah back in 2007 during the period leading up to their capture by the US, according to an article at the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point. He told an interviewer in January 2018 that US troops should leave Iraq.
The US said on Friday that there are increasing rocket attacks on US bases in Iraq. The The US Department lifted the lid on dozens of rockets fired at Balad, Camp Taji, Ain al-Assad and Q-West bases, as well as at the Green Zone over the last seven months.
“We’re waiting for full evidence, but if past is prologue, then there’s a good chance that Iran was behind it,” David Schenker, assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, said. Pompeo blamed Iran for an attack in May near the US Embassy. Although Khazali is not linked to these attacks yet, the US sanctions and the background the US has detaining Khazali illustrate the larger context.
Khazali’s threats to Israel are also important amid the recent tensions. In August Israel struck a “killer drone” team near the Golan that included members of Hezbollah. On November 20, Israeli airstrikes targeted IRGC facilities in Syria. In addition, The New York Times says Iran is moving short-range ballistic missiles to Iraq. They might be stored by Shi’ite militias like Khazali and his network. In July and August, four PMU munitions sites blew up mysteriously and Iraq’s prime minister blamed Israel for the attacks.
The sanctions on Khazali now mean the US has targeted many parts of the PMU. It had already labeled the deputy PMU leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis a terrorist. It also sanctioned Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba in March. Like Khazali, Muhandis has played a role in Syria and has wider links to Hezbollah. A headquarters of Muhandis’s Kataib Hezbollah militia was hit by an airstrike in June of 2018. The headquarters was near a new Iranian base called Imam Ali that has been constructed near Albukamal in Syria.
Khazali’s role and connections to the PMU and other groups make him a key element in threats to US forces and threats to Israel. His militia’s role suppressing protesters also means he is a threat to Iraqi civilians. The US sanctions have now made that clear, even though the US has known this since 2007 when Khazali first emerged as a threat.