Qais al-Khazali has been described as “one of the most feared and respected militia leaders in Iraq”; he heads the League of the Righteous militia, one of the most extreme and best connected of the unofficial Shiite Muslim militias currently fighting in Iraq against the Islamic State group.
But when al-Khazali came out of his office – located in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf – for this interview, he wasn't dressed in the military-style outfit he has been seen in a lot recently. Posters of al-Khazali commanding his militias are hanging up around Iraqi cities where many consider him a hero for the fight he and his men are putting up against the Islamic State, or IS, group.
But today al-Khazali was wearing a traditional religious uniform, a turban and a smile. Despite the fact that al-Khazali could be considered an extremely dangerous man, his easy smile and his charismatic responses put those around him at ease. Despite the controversial nature of some of the questions – and indeed, of the organisation he heads – al-Khazali answered everything NIQASH put to him.
NIQASH: There's been a lot of information that indicates that an offshoot of your militia is fighting in Syria under the name, the Haidar al-Karar Brigades. Can you tell us what they are doing there, especially given that they're often not fighting to protect any Shiite shrines and nor is the Islamic State group there?
Qais al-Khazali: We deny any reports saying that we are present anywhere outside Iraq's borders. Our fighters are only in Iraq. Together with other militias and the Iraqi army we've been able to stop the Islamic State group expanding to other Iraqi cities.
NIQASH: So you deny any coordination with the Syrian government?
Al-Khazali: There is no coordination with the Syrian government, because we do not have any military presence in Syrian territory.
NIQASH: How would you describe your relationship with Iran. Rumour has it that Iran trains your fighters and supports your militia in logistical and financial terms and that in return, you do what they tell you to.
Al-Khazali: We have a good relationship with Iran and there is mutual respect. But that's not really so unusual because we [in Iraq] have a long history with Iran and Iraq shares borders with Iran. So it is only natural to have a relationship with Iran and to share some common interests.
As for the decisions that the League makes, they are based on what our ruling council decides and they are absolutely independent of Iran. In any decisions we make, we put national interests first and we reject any negative, external interference.
However I want to emphasise that just because we make decisions independently, that doesn't mean that there might not be any common goals or interests. It is no secret that Iran supports all the militias in this area and we are obviously one of them. In terms of direct support though, everything goes through the central Iraqi government in Baghdad.
NIQASH: In the past few weeks you have made several statements about the need to change Iraq's political system from a parliamentary one to a presidential one. Could you explain what you're asking for and why?
Al-Khazali: Today in Iraq we have big problems and everybody knows what they are – namely state services are problematic as are strategic projects and the level of unemployment as well as a raft of other things.
The League of the Righteous believes that one of the main reasons for these problems is the sectarian quota system in Iraq. To resolve this we have suggested that a presidential system be introduced because at the moment, the Prime Minister cannot choose the members of his government. He must bend to the will of the different blocs represented in Parliament who impose candidates upon him. There's a bad atmosphere between the Prime Minister and the Cabinet and its had a negative impact on the government’s work. That is why we make such demands. But such sensitive issues must be left to the Iraqi people to decide.
NIQASH: But in making these requests, some critics have said that what you are really doing is opening the door for the return of former Iraqi prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Al-Khazali: We do not have any special relationship with Nouri al-Maliki. For example, we were not given any special positions within his government when he was in charge. Additionally we didn't join his electoral bloc during elections; in fact, we contested the elections as a completely separate list.
NIQASH: But you have said on previous occasions that over the past two years your organisation has become closer to al-Maliki. So how do you compare and contrast al-Maliki's time in power with the past year under Iraq's new Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi?
Al-Khazali: I have never said that. During al-Maliki's era, there were many positive as well as many negative developments. We have criticised some of al-Maliki's work and we have evidence of that [criticism]. And when the Shiite coalition disagreed with [al-Maliki's] State of Law bloc about who should be the next Prime Minister, we announced our official support for al-Abadi.
In terms of al-Abadi, I don't think he has assessed his own performance thoroughly enough. There are big problems within the Iraqi government and I hope he is able to resolve them. Because we all need him to be successful, for the sake of the Iraqi people. This is what we want.
NIQASH: What are your plans for the future? Does the League plan to be more politically active once the Islamic State group has been driven out of Iraq?
Al-Khazali: We are already participating in the political process and that started as soon as the US left Iraq. We are also armed because we were heeding a call from the Iraqi government and from the highest Shiite religious authorities to defend the country. And yes, we have big political ambitions but these can only be achieved within the law and within the limits of the Iraqi Constitution.
NIQASH: There have been rumours lately that the League has been disagreeing with the Sadrist movement – led by the cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr - which also has militias fighting the Islamic State group.
Al-Khazali: There is much more that brings us closer to the Sadrist movement than anything that separates us. It is true that there are some disagreements but we would never go so far as to make them into real conflicts. At the moment we are confronting a very real enemy, one that threatens all Iraqis. So we should forget our differences and place more emphasis on what we have in common so that we may all serve the Iraqi people.
NIQASH: Up until now have you been happy with the Iraqi government's policies in the conflict with the Islamic State?
Al-Khazali: The war on the Islamic State is an unusual one. It is a guerilla war and needs special fighting groups and skills. No regular army can fight such a war. So we are not so pleased with the way plans to fight the Islamic State have been developed. But in the end we do believe it is up to the Iraqi army.
Of course, we would place more emphasis on the abilities and skills of the militias because they have a lot of experience in this kind of fighting. That's why we would call for more militias and more support for the militias, especially when it comes to holding on to areas they have liberated from the IS group.
The militias – made up of around 120,000 fighters – has been able to liberate many cities in Iraq while the Ministry of Defence, with about 300,000 members, has not been victorious.
NIQASH: These kinds of statements of yours have been interpreted in different ways. Some people think that you want militias to take the place of the regular Iraqi army.
Al-Khazali: We are not a substitute for the Iraqi army. On the contrary, we were, and we still are, supporting the army. Our main task is to strengthen the army so that, once again, it becomes capable of protecting the country the way it did before.
But we do also believe that the Iraqi army could really benefit from the experience and skills of the militias. Let's be realistic. The way the Iraqi military has been developed has not been good. It too was influenced by the sectarian quota, which has influenced all Iraqi institutions. So that the enemy cannot fill this power vacuum we think that the militias could take the place of the army until the army is ready to take on that role again.
NIQASH: Are you cooperating with Iraqi Kurdish forces too? Who do you believe is your best ally in this fight against the IS group?
Al-Khazali: There is no coordination with the Kurds because they do not fight the IS group except on the land they believe is a part of [their region] Iraqi Kurdistan. The best allies for the militias are the Iraqi army and the local tribes.
NIQASH: One of the main criticisms of the militias is that they are undisciplined and that they have committed various violations and crimes after fighting the IS group. These violations have caused resentment in the Sunni areas where the militias are fighting. What are your thoughts on this? And if you did discover violations, will you hold the perpetrators responsible?
Al-Khazali: Every army in the world makes mistakes and some of its members commit violations. But we shouldn’t generalize and say that all soldiers are violators. The same holds true for the militias.
We don't deny that there have been mistakes and violations. But these happen on an individual level. We believe that such violations should be identified and they should be dealt with according to the Iraqi law and Iraqi judiciary.
That is why we have created a joint operations room, together with the Iraqi army, to follow up on violations and to bring any criminals to justice. We have also managed to take control of this problem and restrict some of the behaviours that have been criticised, which is creating more trust between us and those in the liberated provinces.
That is also why more than 17,000 Sunni Muslims have joined the militias. For the same reason, tribal leaders in the areas [where we are fighting the IS group] have also asked us if they can participate in battles and they have welcomed us.