The Hashd Sha’abi (PMU-Popular Mobilization Units) continue to conduct operations against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq’s southwestern desert border areas with Syria (al-Hurra [Baghdad], January 30). One of the PMU organizations participating in these operations against the remnants of the IS is Liwa 33 (33rd Brigade), also referred to as Quwat Wa’ad Allah (Allah’s Promise Force), which is the military wing of the clerical organization established by prominent Iraqi Shia religious leader Grand Ayatollah Muhammad al-Yacoubi (Afaq [Baghdad], January 6; YouTube, January 30, 2017). The secretary general of the 33rd Brigade is Sayyid Maytham al-‘Alaq.
Guiding the 33rd Brigade
Al-‘Alaq serves in an overseeing capacity for the 33rd Brigade. In addition to providing religious instruction and moral support to its fighters, al-‘Alaq is an interlocutor between them and the religious organization established by Ayatollah al-Yacoubi (Facebook; al-Fadhila, July 26, 2016). Although he is not the overall military commander of the 33rd Brigade, al-‘Alaq plays an important role as the officer in charge of ensuring that the brigade maintains a close connection with the social, cultural and political activities of the brigade’s parent organization connected to Ayatollah al-Yacoubi (Facebook). This includes maintaining the ties between the 33rd Brigade and the important Hizb Fadhila al-Islamiyya (Islamic Virtue Party-Fadhila), which established the 33rd Brigade’s predecessor group, Liwa Shabab al-Risali (Messengers’ Youth Brigade), in 2014, and which considers Ayatollah al-Yacoubi as its clerical authority (Ayn al-Iraq News [Baghdad], June 25, 2015; YouTube, March 1, 2015; YouTube, September 30, 2014). Fadhila, through its close connection to Ayatollah al-Yacoubi’s movement, is an important political actor within Iraqi Shia politics, and is present throughout Shia-majority areas of central and southern Iraq, with particular influence in and around the southern city of Basra. Many of the fighters from the 33rd Brigade are mobilized from Basra and Dhi Qar governorates in southern Iraq (Quwat Wa’ad Allah, January 15, 2017)
Al-‘Alaq, 41, is a native of the eastern districts of Baghdad, in the area of the Shia majority stronghold now referred to as Sadr City (Facebook). He was trained in Islamic studies at the University of Baghdad, and he worked in the Shia shrine city of Najaf for the organization established by the prominent political activist and Shia cleric Sayyid Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, the father of the powerful Iraqi Shia cleric and political leader Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr (YouTube; Wilayah, November 5, 2016). From 1995 to 2000, al-‘Alaq worked in al-Sadr’s organization under the general supervision of Ayatollah al-Yacoubi, which established al-‘Alaq’s affiliation with al-Yacoubi (YouTube; Wilayah, November 5, 2016). One of the roles he served in during this time was as the prayer leader for a congregation of al-Sadr’s followers in the central-southern city of Nasiriyah in Dhi Qar governorate (Wilayah, November 5, 2016).
It was during this period that al-‘Alaq became a Shia Islamist activist, which resulted in his arrest and imprisonment by the security services of the Saddam Hussein government after Saddam Hussein ordered the assassination of al-Sadr in February 1999. Al-‘Alaq was imprisoned until the Saddam Hussein government was defeated and dismantled by the U.S.-led Coalition in 2003 (YouTube; Wilayah, November 5, 2016). In the period after 2003, al-‘Alaq opted to join Ayatollah al-Yacoubi’s clerical organization rather than the social and political movement that was established by Muqtada al-Sadr. Ayatollah al-Yacoubi, who by 2003 was a senior figure in the movement that had been led by the late Sayyid Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, resisted the leadership of the younger and less accomplished Muqtada. Ultimately he decided to create his own political movement, which would become Fadhila. Al-‘Alaq maintained a relatively low profile during the period of the Coalition presence in Iraq, and in the aftermath of the Coalition’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 leading to IS’ capture of Mosul in June 2014. Shortly after Islamic State’s capture of Mosul in June 2014, Ayatollah al-Yacoubi, in agreement with Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani’s fatwa calling for a general mobilization of Iraqi citizens against IS, urged his followers to also take up arms to defend the Iraqi state. Al-‘Alaq, in support of Ayatollah al-Yacoubi’s action, led the recruitment drive for Iraqi fighters, including through sermons at Friday prayer services. In the period immediately after Ayatollah al-Yacoubi’s call to arms was raised, al-‘Alaq recruited approximately 1,200 of al-Yacoubi’s followers to join the nascent PMU organization (YouTube).
Al-‘Alaq became the “general guide” of Quwat Wa’ad Allah in October 2015—he continues to serve in this role—in a promotion that he earned for his rising status in Shaykh al-Yacoubi’s organization (Wilayah, November 5, 2016; Sobel al-Salam [Baghdad], October 27, 2015). Prior to this promotion, he had served as the public relations chief for Quwat Wa’ad Allah (Sobel al-Salam [Baghdad], October 27, 2015). Since his appointment, al-‘Alaq has been an active leader of his organization, both as a representative at meetings with other PMU organizations, and by frequently visiting the front lines in Salah al-Din, Ninewah and Anbar governorates where the 33rd Brigade has played an active role in combating IS (Facebook). Although he is an important figure within Ayatollah al-Yacoubi’s organization, which through its political arm Fadhila has been an important actor trying to broker unity among the different Iraqi Shia political parties, al-‘Alaq has maintained a relatively low profile over the course of the campaign against IS. He briefly made a ripple on the Iraqi political scene in February 2016 when he threatened Turkey that he would commit Quwat Wa’ad Allah to expel Turkish forces from northern Iraq (YouTube, January 4, 2016). Under al-‘Alaq’s leadership, Quwat Wa’ad Allah has a role in securing Iraq’s border with Syria (Quwat Wa’ad Allah, December 26, 2017).
As the campaign against the IS winds down in Iraq, the PMU groups that were formed to combat it are becoming a source of power for a wide range of Iraqi notables and political organizations. The 33rd Brigade serves this function for the clerical organization established by Ayatollah al-Yacoubi and its political arm, Fadhila. This social, political and military network that pledges allegiance to Ayatollah al-Yacoubi is influential in important areas of southern Iraq, especially in and around Basra, which is a key region for Iraq’s oil industry. Although he is still a rising figure within Shaykh al-Yacoubi’s organization, al-‘Alaq’s role at the confluence of the clerical and the militant branches of the al-Yacoubi network provides him with growing influence in this strategic area of Iraq.