Iraq's militant groups, once violent extremists, are joining the political process. But as the next group trades weapons for words, the outlook is controversial. Their move could see Iraqi PM al-Maliki's Shiite Muslim faction gain in power or split in two.
The League of Righteous is one of the most feared extremist militant groups in Iraq. US military experts believe the League was responsible for a number of deadly attacks against US forces and in one of its most high profile attacks, in 2009 the League kidnapped British software expert, Peter Moore, in Baghdad and killed his British bodyguards outside the Ministry of Finance.
And now the League of Righteous, or Asaib Ahl al-Haq in Arabic, which has been in talks with the Iraqi government about this subject for some time, has announced it will join the political process in Iraq. Late in 2011 it announced that it would put down its weapons after the US withdrawal, saying there was no real reason to continue fighting now.
Up until now, the League had refused to join in the political process because it claimed it could not join any political process dominated by what it described as an "occupier".
The League's step toward joining in politics was an important move toward stability for all Iraq, said Salam al-Maliki, formerly a transport minister and now the official negotiator between the League of the Righteous and the government.
"The participation of all people in building their country is an important step towards putting the political process on the right track," al-Maliki continued. "The new phase requires that all components of Iraqi society be included."
Al-Maliki also denied that the League, which is a Shiite Muslim group, had ever been responsible for the deaths of any other Iraqis, and Sunni Muslim Iraqis in particular. "Participation in the political process is the legitimate right of any person or group whose hands are not stained with Iraqi blood. The League was only ever resisting the occupier,” he explained.
The Iraqi government in Baghdad, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, was quick to express its pleasure at the fact that the League was joining the reconciliation process. However at the same time, there were plenty of others who were concerned about the League's new political ambitions.
Politicians in the opposition Iraqiya list are among the obvious sceptics. “Al-Maliki’s efforts to integrate some outlawed militias is just another indicator of the current government’s tendency to try and monopolize power and to marginalize its political partners," Hamid al-Mutlaq, a leading member of the Iraqiya list, which is mainly made up of Sunni Muslim politicians, told NIQASH. "[Al-Maliki] should be asking his real partners for their opinion instead of attacking them and seeking the help of outlawed militias.”
It is also believed that the League must have been responsible for the death of many Sunni Muslims during the period of sectarian violence in Iraq between 2006 and 2007.
"The Iraqiya List has already been marginalized and deliberately excluded from the political process," al-Mutlaq continued. "And we know that [al-Maliki's] intentions are to fill the vacant posts in internal security and defences with Shiite allies." Al-Mutlaq is referring to the fact that the important positions at the heads of the ministries of defence, national security and the interior had been vacant, held by al-Maliki himself in the interim.
In late December, the Iraqi government issued an arrest warrant for one of Iraq's deputy presidents, Tariq al-Hashimi, who is a Sunni Muslim and a leading member of the Iraqiya list. Since the arrest warrant was issued al-Hashimi has remained out of the federal government's reach in the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan and his party, Iraqiya has been boycotting all sessions of parliament.
*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”.
However the ruling State of Law coalition, led by al-Maliki, denies any deliberate policy of exclusion or marginalisation. They say there are Sunni Muslims in positions of power throughout the current government. And it is true that while they may be boycotting sessions, Sunni Muslim politicians of the Iraqiya list have not resigned from any of the ministerial portfolios they hold.
His list “has no intention of marginalizing any Iraqi component,” Mohammed Sahyoud of the Prime Minister’s ruling State of Law list explained. But at the same time, “we cannot continue with the same strategy of hostility and accusatory behaviour because we simply cannot move forward if things do not improve. This only serves the enemies of the democratic process."
Sahyoud noted that the government had also tried to reconcile with armed Sunni Muslim groups too. “The Salafists used to carry guns but they have already joined the political process too," Sahyoud said. "Why doesn’t anybody acknowledge this fact? Why do they only talk about the League and forget about the Salafists? We do not have double standards and our policy is to welcome everybody whose hands are not stained with Iraqi blood.”
In fact in December 2011, the Iraqi government announced that they welcomed announcements made by two Sunni Muslim extremist groups – including the 1920 Revolution Brigades, a militia with close ties to Saddam Hussein’s own forces, as well as a statement made by the head of the Salafi Jihadis, part of the al Qaeda network, in which he said it was time to begin reconstructing the community rather than inciting more violence.
But it is not just the Sunni Muslim politicians in Iraq's government who are upset about the League's decision to join in local politics. The Sadrist movement, which also formerly had a military wing, the Mahdi Army (see box*) and which has become a vital part of the Shiite Muslim voting bloc in the Iraqi parliament, is opposed to the League's presence in politics.
Insiders say a possible cause of the conflict between the groups is religious – as in which religious authority each group will answer to. Rumour has it that the League has intentions to affiliate itself with the teachers in the holy city of Qom in Iran rather than with religious authorities in Najaf in Iraq. As yet though the League has not revealed with whom they may affiliate themselves. Meanwhile the Sadrist's religious authority is the deceased father of current leader, Muqtada al-Sadr
In fact the Sadrists have even threatened to take the League to court, saying the League's hands are stained with Iraqi blood. “Even if the League become involved in the political process, the Sadrist bloc will take them to court anyway,” Hussein Taleb, a Sadrist MP told NIQASH.
Should this happen, the matter would be left to the courts to decide. "If there are accusations against the League, then these should be decided upon by the courts and we do not interfere with the judiciary," MP Sayhoud of the State of Law bloc told NIQASH. "Every person should be held accountable for his acts."
However, sources inside the government say that it seems unlikely that the League's entry into politics will be blocked. Prime Minister al-Maliki has already indicated previously that, post the US-withdrawal, he would try and maintain a majority government based upon Shiite Muslim alliances rather than the tricky coalition between Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Kurdish politicians that he has been dealing with until now.
The Sadrists make up around a quarter of parliamentary seats held by Shiite Muslims in Baghdad and an anonymous source close to the government told NIQASH that it was part of al-Maliki's plan to balance Shiite Muslim representation out more, as well as trimming down the Sadrist's role. "Al-Maliki wants to allow the League to join the political process so that he doesn't need to bend to the demands of the Sadrists all the time and so he doesn't have to be so dependent upon their support," the source said.
Another analyst suggests that these kinds of divisions between the various Shiite Muslim factions may also end up handing the Iranians, who have significant influence within these groups and who also fund them to some extent, more influence as they become mediators.
If a new bloc joins in the political process then all [of the Shiite Muslim] blocs will be competing for al-Maliki’s favour,” Usama Murtada, an Iraqi political analyst argues. It’s hard to know which way the Sadrists will go, Murtada says.
Meanwhile the Prime Minister’s allies were happy to defend his position on the League of Righteous’ political ambitions. “We don’t want to create a rivalry between different blocs and we cannot build Iraq up with just one bloc, ethnicity or sect,” Sahyoud told NIQASH. “Iraq is home to all Iraqis.”