interview with militia's negotiator: league of the righteous has ‘good communication’ with iraq govt
The chief negotiator of the League of Righteous, designated as a terror group, talks to NIQASH about when the group might lay down arms, its relationship with the Iraqi government and other terror groups as well as the US withdrawal.
Formerly a minister of transport in the Iraqi government, Salam al-Maliki is now the official negotiator between the League of the Righteous*, a group known for its armed attacks on US and British forces, and the government of Iraq. Although he denies being part of the group itself, al-Maliki often acts as spokesperson for the League as well. NIQASH met with him to discuss the group, its stance on the US presence in Iraq and the nature of its relationship with both Muqtada al-Sadr and the Iraqi government.
NIQASH: Can you please tell us what the League of the Righteous stands for and how it came into existence?
Salam Al-Maliki: Primarily the League of the Righteous in Iraq has an ideological basis. The League has been embraced by a group of young believers, followers of the Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr [Editor’s Note: please see below for more]. Most of the leaders of this League are sons of the Sadr movement and students of the martyr al-Sadr, and they have all defended Iraq at one time or another.
Among those people, there was a desire to form a wing of the movement that would formally embrace armed resistance. The organization had, and still has, a religious authority. It believes in the importance of armed resistance against occupation and in the importance of expelling occupying forces from Iraq. However at the same time it believes that its militants took up arms for a specific purpose. When there is no longer any need for arms, then its members will participate in the political sphere and in the building of an Iraqi state.
[Editor’s Note: Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr was a respected Shiite Muslim cleric and the father of current political force, younger cleric Muqtada al-Sadr; al-Sadr senior became the voice of a more activist school of Shiite Muslims – the old school had previously stayed out of politics. He was assassinated by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1999]
NIQASH: Who does the League look to for religious authority and the issuing of fatwas, the directives issued by Islamic religious leaders?
Al-Maliki: The league enjoys a lot of support from leading religious authorities such as Grand Ayatollah Kazem al-Husseini al-Haeri and Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahroudi [Editor’s note: both reside in Iran]. Many religious authorities believe in the importance of armed resistance. But our legitimacy is primarily based on the injustices done to the Iraqi people who have now put their trust in the Islamic resistance.
*The League of the Righteous, or Asaib Ahl al-Haq in Arabic, was founded around 2004 by former leaders in the Mahdi Army, the military wing of the Sadrist movement, a political-religious movement headed by firebrand Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Sadrist movement was very much opposed to the US presence in Iraq and the Mahdi Army fought against international troops. However when the Mahdi Army declared a ceasefire, the League of Righteous, which had already split from the main movement, continued with a military campaign against international forces in Iraq. It declared itself an official armed resistance group in 2007. The group came into the spotlight in May 2007 when it kidnapped Peter Moore, a British IT consultant and four of his bodyguards from in front of the Ministry of Finance building. The League negotiated with the Iraqi government and this led to Moore’s release in December 2009 as well as the earlier return of the bodies of three of his bodyguards, who had died while in captivity. This was in return for the release of leading members of the League. In 2011, news agency Associated Press reported that the League “does not have al-Sadr's backing, and an Iraqi close to the extremist group said it relies on Iran for support, including around $5 million in cash and weapons each month. Officials believe there are fewer than 1,000 Asaib Ahl al-Haq militiamen, and their leaders live in Iran”.
NIQASH: How long do you think it will be before the League begins to be politically, rather than militarily, active?
Al-Maliki: We have received many offers from al-Maliki’s government and from some political parties to participate in the political process. The group's leaders believe in the importance of political participation and they have the wherewithal to do so.
However they are convinced that politics cannot serve any purpose if the occupation forces do not withdraw permanently from Iraq. That is why the League’s priority remains the withdrawal of occupying forces, the liberation of Iraq and the restoration of Iraq’s sovereignty. The League’s participation in politics will only happen under the right conditions.
The League of the Righteous, or Asaib Ahl al-Haq in Arabic, was founded around 2004 by former leaders in the Mahdi Army, the military wing of the Sadrist movement, a political-religious movement headed by firebrand Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Sadrist movement was very much opposed to the US presence in Iraq and the Mahdi Army fought against international troops. However when the Mahdi Army declared a ceasefire, the League of Righteous, which had already split from the main movement, continued with a military campaign against international forces in Iraq.
It declared itself an official armed resistance group in 2007. The group came into the spotlight in May 2007 when it kidnapped Peter Moore, a British IT consultant and four of his bodyguards from in front of the Ministry of Finance building. The League negotiated with the Iraqi government and this led to Moore’s release in December 2009 as well as the earlier return of the bodies of three of his bodyguards, who had died while in captivity. This was in return for the release of leading members of the League.
In 2011, news agency Associated Press reported that the League “does not have al-Sadr's backing, and an Iraqi close to the extremist group said it relies on Iran for support, including around $5 million in cash and weapons each month. Officials believe there are fewer than 1,000 Asaib Ahl al-Haq militiamen, and their leaders live in Iran”.
NIQASH: Does this mean the League has reservations about the government’s work while US troops remain in the country?
Al-Maliki: To put it bluntly, the US is interfering in the work of the Iraqi government. They are involved in even the smallest details of daily government work.
The best evidence of this is the current conflict over the creation of the National High Council for Strategic Policies and the formation of the current government. The Americans were very influential in how government appointments were decided and they disrupted the formation of the government. That is why the League and other forces in the country believe that, if the US forces stay in the country, it will continue to directly influence key aspects of the Iraqi government’s work.
Until things become clearer, it is better for those forces who have embraced resistance not to rush into political participation.
NIQASH: How would you describe the League’s relations with the current government?
Al-Maliki: I was the negotiator who liaised between the League and the Iraqi government over the release of the British hostage and I believe the government – from the president and his advisers down to the various political parties – has good channels of communication open to the League’s leaders. There is always an ongoing dialogue to solve the problems that plague Iraq.
Recently the League opened a political office in Baghdad and they appointed Adnan Fayhan al-Dulaimi to be responsible for it. He is one of the good guys. And as a result, there has been ongoing communication as well as visits from different officials and representatives of political parties.
So you could say that the League is changing from an armed organization into one with a political, cultural, social and military vision. The Iraqi government has also acknowledged that the League has played a role in resisting occupation and that it has not committed any acts of violence against civilians or innocent Iraqis. [Editor’s note: members of the League have not been convicted in Iraqi courts of offences against civilians.]
NIQASH: What is the nature of the relationship between the leader of the League and Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who leads the Sadrist movement and who, as a member of the ruling coalition in Iraqi parliament, seems to have calmed his calls for armed resistance against US troops recently?
Al-Maliki: Like many popular movements, the Islamic movement in Iraq is passing through a phase where different parties hold differing views. This is a natural thing. The important thing is that all parties agree to unite in their efforts to expel the occupying forces from Iraq. That is the most important issue now.
Relations between the League and the Sadrist movement are improving, especially now that everyone has agreed that there is no point in fighting over internal issues. Rather we should be agreeing on major things, such as a call to end the occupation of Iraq.
The League’s leaders believe it is important for all parties to sit together at one table in order to draw up new policies for leading the country. Given the very sensitive issues that Iraq faces – such as the problem in Kirkuk and other disputed areas as well as how the country should be run – this is essential. These are all issues that require solutions – and before it is too late.
NIQASH: Well, why not come together around a table now?
Al-Maliki: Because firstly we all need to agree that US troops should be withdrawing from Iraq altogether. There’s a general feeling among the various factions that there is procrastination on this issue, with some parties saying that military forces are needed for the protection of the US embassy in Baghdad and that trainers and security companies are also necessary.
The League’s leaders believe this is very dangerous. They believe that the Iraqi government must take a clear stand on this issue.
When we started past dialogues with the prime minister we did so because we wanted to keep everything calm and quiet while they signed the strategic [Status of Forces] Agreement with the Americans. At the time all of the Islamic resistance groups, including the League, agreed to do this on one condition: that the government commit to ensuring occupation forces leave Iraq. And Prime Minister al-Maliki has promised to do this.
Which is why there was a truce and support for the Iraqi government.
Today though we are concerned is that there is a conspiracy against this commitment, and that US troops will stay on under the pretext of a need for trainers and security companies. We fear that things will not change and that foreign powers will continue to occupy Iraq.
We call upon the Prime Minister, as the commander of the armed forces and acting minister of defence and interior, to make a firm decision to end the troops’ presence in Iraq. We believe there is no justification for their continued presence. Agreements could be made with other nationalities, who are also members of NATO, to continue training.
NIQASH: Do you think Iraq’s security forces are ready to take over, without the help of US troops?
Al-Maliki: The League believes that when an occupying force interferes in national security matters, that intervention has a negative impact.
On different occasions the Iraqi army and police have been able to control the streets. We may well agree that Iraq’s security forces still need training and that we need more of them. But if we depend on the occupier’s help then nothing will happen because the occupying nation wants to keep Iraq weak.
The US Secretary of Defence recently asked the Iraqi government to help protect US forces against attacks from Iraqi resistance. If that is really what is required, then why are we insisting on the presence of forces that are unable to protect themselves?
NIQASH: Will attacks on US troops continue until they withdraw?
Al-Maliki: We believe the continued presence of occupying forces goes against what has been agreed upon with the government. Every day these troops violate Iraqi sovereignty and the government doesn’t even realize it. That’s why attacks have escalated so much – because of blatant US interference in Iraqi affairs.
Therefore there is no other way than continued Iraqi resistance against occupation. The Iraqi government should expedite the withdrawal of the occupying forces. Otherwise the situation will surely continue to deteriorate.
NIQASH: Does the League of Righteous coordinate with other Iraqi resistance groups?
Al-Maliki: There is certainly coordination. However my personal hope is that, directly after the withdrawal of the occupying forces, these resistance groups might form a united political group that will help the country overcome its problems and that will participate in the political process. Because they have made many sacrifices.
However if the occupying forces do not withdraw, these factions should form a military council to coordinate their work.
NIQASH: Can you tell us which groups the League cooperates with? Does the League, which has a Shiite Muslim basis, also cooperate with Sunni Muslim groups?
Al-Maliki: There is coordination with a number of resistance groups with different political ideologies and from the different sects. The League is not opposed to working with any specific group. But I cannot name of these factions.
NIQASH: What is the nature of the relationship between the league and Iran?
Al-Maliki: The Islamic Republic [of Iran] embraces resistance efforts in the region and it maintains good relations with various factions in the Arab world. So this is what the League has in common with the Islamic Republic.
NIQASH: Some media reports have said that the League targets civilians. Your thoughts on these accusations?
Al-Maliki: They are part of a plan that’s being promoted by occupation forces, that aims to tarnish the image of resistance groups like the League. For years US forces have been trying to mobilize Iraqi public opinion through local media outlets. It even began broadcasting programmes with exactly that purpose.
And in fact, some of the officers involved with the local ministries of defence and the interior, who write reports for the occupation forces, have facilitated the spread of this kind of misinformation.
We have compelling evidence that these accusations lack credibility. But we believe the League’s best defence is the fact that the Iraqi government has initiated dialogue with the League and that the Iraqi judiciary has dropped all charges against the League’s members that have to do with targeting civilians. We also believe that Iraqis are aware there are other parties out there trying to tarnish the resistance’s image.