BAGHDAD – The Iranian-backed Shiite group responsible for most of the attacks against U.S. forces in the final years of the Iraq war is busily reinventing itself as a political organization in ways that could enhance Iran’s influence in post-American Iraq — and perhaps beyond.
In recent months, Asaib Ahl al-Haq — the League of the Righteous — has been rapidly expanding its presence across Iraq, trumpeting the role the once-shadowy group says it played in forcing the departure of U.S. troops with its bomb attacks against U.S. targets.
The group’s chief officers have returned from exile in Iran, and they have set about opening a string of political offices, establishing a social services program to aid widows and orphans, and launching a network of religious schools, echoing the methods and structures of one of its close allies, the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.
The immediate goal is to raise Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s public profile after years of secrecy necessitated by the war against the Americans, said Sheik Mithaq al-Humairi, a 30-year-old cleric.
“Asaib Ahl al-Haq was founded as an Islamic resistance movement to fight the American occupation, but now this stage is over,” he said. “Now we have entered a new phase, which is to make people aware of Asaib Ahl al-Haq.”
The rebranding dates to the departure of U.S. forces in December 2011, when Asaib Ahl al-Haq first announced it would enter the political mainstream. But its activities have been intensifying ahead of a busy election schedule in the coming year, with provincial elections set for April and parliamentary ones due in early 2014 that will provide an important indicator of where Iraq is headed after the American exit. The group has a powerful ally in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, who has embraced its entry into politics as a counterweight to the influence of the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a longtime rival who has proved an unreliable partner in the coalition government.
Success would put at the forefront of Iraqi politics a group that openly boasts about its role in killing Americans, something that a former U.S. official who served in Iraq at the height of the attacks described as “deeply problematic.” After its creation in 2006, Asaib Ahl al-Haq claimed more than 6,000 attacks on U.S. forces, including some of the most sophisticated roadside bombings of the war and multiple mortar and rocket attacks against U.S. facilities, including the embassy in Baghdad.
So close is the group’s relationship with Iran that a political role would “enhance Iranian political and religious influence in Iraq and greatly augment Iran’s regional proxy strategy,” according to a report in December by the Institute for the Study of War.
Iran initially funded the group, composed of disgruntled former Sadrists, to establish a more reliably loyal alternative to the mercurial al-Sadr and his undisciplined Mahdi Army militia, according to U.S. officials. At the time, officials portrayed the group as an Iranian attempt to create an Iraqi version of Hezbollah, which successfully leveraged its part in driving occupying Israeli troops out of Lebanon in 2000 to play a commanding role in Lebanon’s government.
Building on its close relationship with Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq opened an office in Beirut last year, and it is suspected of dispatching volunteers to fight in Syria on behalf of President Bashar Assad, suggesting that its ambitions extend beyond Iraq.
Indeed, Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s resurgence looks a lot like a renewed attempt to create an alternative vehicle for projecting Iranian influence, the ex-U.S. official said. “I see them first and foremost as an Iranian proxy. Their nature is such that I don’t think they ever gave up their aim of being an Iraqi analog to Hezbollah,” he said. “They will always be a danger to kidnap Americans, conduct bombings against U.S. consulates or do other kinds of activities.”