A bill submitted by the US Congress calling for the designation of Iraq’s al-Nujaba movement as a terrorist organization has shed light on this group and the dangerous role sectarian militias are playing in Syria and Iraq. The regional and international conflict in the Middle East has been given religious and sectarian aspects due to Iran’s policies. Militias have therefore become instruments of foreign policy and proxy wars.
Perhaps this explains why the US bill also includes the blacklisting of Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades.
Al-Nujaba is a sectarian militia that was formed by Shi’ite cleric Akram al-Kaabi. It differs from the Lebanese “Hezbollah” party and its wings in Iraq and some Arab countries even though their members are confused with each other because they follow a common authority.
Nevertheless, al-Nujaba and Lebanon’s “Hezbollah” enjoy good ties and their respective leaderships have held several meetings. Kaabi had announced that he had met in 2004 with “Hezbollah” chief Hassan Nasrallah. He also acknowledged during a trip to Tehran that “Hezbollah” military advisors had entered Iraq before the US withdrawal in 2011. These advisors were transferring their experience in resisting Israel to Iraq, he explained. One can therefore say that al-Nujaba considers “Hezbollah” to be its ideal.
As for al-Nujaba’s ties with Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Kaabi said: “We are honored to be part of the same military-ideological school.”
Al-Nujaba should not be confused with being a faction of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Force (PMF). In fact, it is bigger than that due to its role and strategic purpose. The movement is independent of the PMF and it does not adhere to the Iraqi government in any way whatsoever. It instead has direct ties with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in regards to its funding, training and equipment. Kaabi said: “The support al-Nujaba received from the Guards is good on all levels.” He added that the movement does not follow the PMF, but it does manage two of its brigades.
Kaabi’s past helps explain the nature of the development of the al-Nujaba Movement. He was born in 1977 and worked closely with late Shi’ite cleric Mohammed Mohammed Sadeq Sadr. In 2004, he was tasked with leading the Mehdi army in the second al-Najaf battle. Soon after, Kaabi received military science and strategic administration training in Iran. He was also one of the founders of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq, replacing its secretary general Qaid al-Khazaaly after he was arrested by the British. Kaabi later abandoned military work and headed to Iran to pursue religious studies. He returned to the scene once again at the beginning of the Syrian conflict at the head of an Iraqi militia that was defending the Syrian regime.
Kaabi did not receive religious and military recognition until after 2007 when a dispute within the Shi’ite Sadr movement, headed by Moqtada al-Sadr, led to his emergence on the Iraqi Shi’ite military arena. Kaabi at the time was working for the Medi army.
The political changes in Iraq caused by the military clashes between the Sadr movement and several Shi’ite political, religious and military authorities led to the suspension of the Mehdi army in 2007. The Sadr movement’s defeat led to Kaabi and Khazaaly to leave the camp. They went on to form a new sectarian militia called Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Kaabi acted as its deputy secretary general and military official.
He soon came to prominence after he negotiated with the British Khazaaly’s release from prison, along with several Medhi army and Asaib Ahl al-Haq detainees. This gave him a new push, as well as support from the Iranian leadership. This may explain why the US views him as an Iranian fighter in Iraq. In 2008, the US Treasury designated him as a destabilizing figure to Iraqi peace. This was followed by an asset freeze.
Kaabi has managed to blend his religious image with the military one and he started to follow Iran’s Wilayet al-Faqih after leaving the Sadr movement.
It is this new allegiance that led to the emergence of the al-Nujaba movement as a mysterious and dangerous player in Iraq. Some military experts and researchers on Iraq said that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards had tasked the al-Nujaba militia with helping Tehran establish a supply route that reaches Damascus and passes through Iraq. It appears that this strategic mission is exclusive to Kaabi’s group, in spite of the PMF and knowing that 65 percent of the PMF followers adhere to the Wilayet al-Faqih and 25 percent follow the Sistani movement in Iraq.
Given the above, we must examine the rapid rise and development of al-Nujaba since 2013. The movement has managed to rise to prominence in a mysterious and unnatural way. It has also managed to play roles that go beyond its short years in operation both in Iraq and Syria. This raises several questions about the organization’s human capabilities. Are they purely Iraqi or do they include members of Lebanon’s “Hezbollah” and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Basij force?
Iran has recruited members for the al-Nujaba movement for future strategic purposes. Al-Nujaba make it a point to set itself apart from other Iraqi movements, such as the PMF. This also raises eyebrows.
Kaabi has never hidden his ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, acknowledging that al-Nujaba receives logistic and technical support from Iran, as well as training and arms. He also revealed that members received support from the Quds Force advisors.
“We warmly thank Iran for helping us and the other resistance factions in liberating Iraq from occupation and in assisting us in our war against terrorism,” he said.
In this regard, we can understand why the al-Nujaba movement was tasked in the past few weeks to secure a wide area of the ISIS-liberated Iraq-Syrian border. This effectively places the region within direct Iranian influence, which not only links Iraq to Damascus, but also connects Tehran to Beirut.
Sectarian militias are still playing a growing part in the Iranian plot in Iraq and Syria. The Revolutionary Guards have managed to bring in a number of PMF factions under the Wilayet al-Faqih cloak, allowing Tehran to impose its hegemony over Iraq and become part of the security and military agencies there.
Furthermore, the PMF’s financial backing from the government within an administration that is rife with corruption makes it difficult to pinpoint the real purposes of these forces and their role in shaping Iraq’s future. It is therefore impossible to determine the number of the militants in the PMF and the funds they are receiving. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi recently estimated their numbers at 120,000, who receive salaries from the Finance Ministry. More than 30,000 receive wages from Karbala and al-Najaf authorities and another 30,000 are paid by various Iranian military and intelligence agencies.
The real roles of the militias, particularly the al-Nujaba movement, remain vague. All signs indicate that Iran, through the Revolutionary Guards, is dictating the movement’s strategic role, which places the region before more instability and terrorism.
*Khaled Yamout is a visiting political science professor at Morocco’s Mohammed V University in Rabat.