Iran’s Resistance Axis Rattled by Divisions: Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s Leader Rejects the Ceasefire in Iraq

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 3

AAH Leader Qais al-Khazali (source:

On December 20, 2020, 21 Katyusha rockets struck the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, breaking an Iranian-sponsored ceasefire in Iraq for a second time (U.S. Central Command, December 23, 2020). The Iraqi security forces later arrested a member of the Iraqi political and militant organization Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), Hussam al-Azirjawi, after finding conclusive evidence of his involvement in the attack (al-Hurra, December 26, 2020). Following al-Azirjawi’s arrest, multiple widely-shared clips on social media appeared to show a large mobilization of armed AAH militants in East Baghdad. A further clip showing masked AAH gunmen threatening to attack Iraqi security forces on command from AAH leader, Qais al-Khazali (al-Arabiya, December 25 2020). These arrests and video clips reveal that AAH has begun to show increasing signs of dissent from the party line set by Iran and its most loyal proxy in Iraq, Kata’ib Hezbollah. [1]

AAH’s Signs of Division with Kata’ib Hezbollah and Iran

The Katyusha rocket attack on the U.S. embassy is the latest example of the apparent growing discord between the al-Khazali-led AAH on one side, and Iran and Kata’ib Hezbollah on the other. Previously, in October 2020, an Iranian-sponsored ceasefire announced by Kata’ib Hezbollah, but allegedly covering all Iranian-linked factions, proposed a conditional halt to operations targeting U.S assets (Rudaw, October 11 2020). A month later, a smaller militia, Ashab al-Kahf – seemingly unaffiliated to AAH or Kata’ib Hezbollah – launched eight rockets at the U.S. Embassy on November 17, 2020, in the first major ceasefire violation (Mehr News, November 18 2020).

Following the attack, AAH’s al-Khazali unilaterally announced that the ceasefire had ended (al-Mayadeen, November 19, 2020). Kata’ib Hezbollah, in contrast, condemned the ceasefire violation, which it described as resulting from either the idiocy and ignorance of a drunkard, or agency on behalf of former U.S. President Donald Trump. This implied, they alleged, that it was a false flag attack planned to distract from Trump’s recent election loss (al-Quds, November 18, 2020).

Furthermore, on November 24, Iran sent the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps–Quds Force (IRGC-QF), Esmael Ghaani, who succeeded the late Qasem Soleimani, to Iraq to urge compliance with the ceasefire (Middle East Monitor, November 24 2020). Al-Khazali publicly denounced Ghaani’s visit, claiming that resistance to the U.S occupation is an Iraqi nationalist project without need for Iranian interference (al-Akhbariya, November 19 2020). While AAH never accepted responsibility for any subsequent attacks targeting U.S. assets, al-Khazali made clear his support for other smaller, and allegedly distinct, resistance groups who did target American assets, like Ashab al-Kahf (al-Khazali, December 26). [2]

Iran’s Hand in AAH’s Formation

Since the 1980s Iran has attempted to recruit from the Iraqi Shia population to form militant and political organizations to safeguard its interests in Iraq. The oldest of these groups is the Badr Corps (now Badr Organization). It was formed as the IRGC-controlled military wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which is a political organization formed by Iran consisting of exiled Shia refugees and activists. Badr Corps members, such as Hadi al-Ameri and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, went on to have significant influence in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. [3]

Likewise, the IRGC established AAH in 2006 by recruiting al-Khazali, who at that time commanded a Jaysh al-Mahdi military brigade. Jaysh al-Mahdi was a militia formed by influential Iraqi Shia populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in 2003 to fight the U.S. occupation. Al-Khazali had initially been a loyal member of Jaysh al-Mahdi, or Mahdi Army, including even studying Islamic jurisprudence under the tutelage of Sadr’s father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad al-Sadr, in Najaf in the 1990s (Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, January 2020). However, by 2004 al-Khazali had begun to grow frustrated with Sadr’s leadership (Levant Networks, January 9). Iran exploited this rift by offering extensive IRGC funding and training to al-Khazali to form AAH with the aim to add AAH to its list of proxies in Iraq. At the same time, Iran sought to weaken al-Sadr, who had always been reluctant to hand over his significant support base and influence to Iran.

However, and perhaps due to the precedent of infighting showcased by the splintering of AAH from the Mahdi Army, the IRGC created a smaller, more secure militia that it could trust to act completely under its command. Thus, under the guidance of IRGC General Qasem Soleimani and long-term Badr member Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the IRGC created Kata’ib Hezbollah. [4] The stature of Kata’ib Hezbollah group’s two principal patrons, Soleimani and al-Muhandis, allowed it to exercise an influence that went beyond its relatively small size. Both Soleimani and al-Muhandis also had significant control over the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), which is the Iraqi state security umbrella organization encompassing the majority of the country’s militias. [5]

Iran’s Loosening Grip over AAH

AAH’s rejection of the ceasefire was so surprising because it not only was a clear rejection of Iranian orders, but also because of the severity that its rebellion posed to Iranian interests. Both rocket attacks on the U.S. Embassy, which were either directly linked (December 20) or implicitly condoned (November 17) by AAH, were designed to overwhelm the embassy’s C-RAM defense system. Iran had made it clear to its proxies that the scale of U.S. retaliation and the escalation in conflict that could ensue in the case of loss of U.S. life, particularly during the tail end of Trump’s presidency, was not worth the risk (Middle East Eye, November 24 2020).

There are two other intertwining factors behind the loosening of Iran’s grip on AAH, however: the January 2020 U.S. assassination of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, and the rise of what some prominent Iraq analysts have come to describe as ‘shadow militias.’ [6] Iran’s diverse portfolio of Iraqi militia and political groups may have had a distinct advantage compared to its strategy in Lebanon. In Lebanon, Iran’s reliance on one dominant group, Hezbollah, has meant that Iranian influence has been contingent on Hezbollah’s ability to outlast periods of domestic crisis. However, the Iraq strategy’s diversity requires strong coordination among the many Iranian-aligned militias to ensure obedience and cohesion within a single overall overarching party line. While the stature and respect commanded by Soleimani and al-Muhandis meant that this coordination was achievable, their replacements, Esmael Ghaani and Abu Fadak, have not been able to exert that same influence.

The assassinations also validated a shift that Soleimani had lobbied for since 2019 involving the establishment of numerous apparently distinct splinter militias to carry out attacks in place of the more established resistance groups such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and AAH. [7] The tactic of using these ‘shadow militias’ became prevalent throughout 2020, with dozens of groups such as Ashab al-Kahf and Sarayat Qassem al-Jabbarin seemingly emerging out of nowhere to claim responsibility for attacks targeting U.S. assets. [8] The confusion surrounding the use of these groups allowed Kata’ib Hezbollah and AAH to distance themselves from those attacks and hence complicate U.S. retaliation.

While the proliferation of these new groups created plausible deniability for the more established militias like Kata’ib Hezbollah and AAH, it came at the cost of further loosening Iran’s hegemony over the Iraqi resistance to the U.S. military presence. This move downgraded the public role of its main proxy Kata’ib Hezbollah from being at the centre of the Iraqi resistance activities in 2019, to simply praising the ‘shadow militias’ on its social media channels in 2020. Secondly, it allowed groups to use the ‘shadow militias’ without Iranian direction and still maintain plausible deniability with Iran itself.

Al-Khazali’s Gambit with AAH

The loosening of Iran’s control over the ‘resistance axis’ in Iraq has allowed al-Khazali to rethink his relationship with Iran. Al-Khazali is a pragmatic operator seeking to preserve his power and influence over maintaining ideological dogma. This pragmatism is evidenced throughout his career. At the start of his career, he turned his back on the Sadr clergy, under whom he had studied for nearly a decade, to embrace Iran’s Khomeinist Wilayat al-Faqih (guardianship by Islamist jurisprudence) ideology – Tehran’s governing ideology. [9] Later, he accepted some of AAH’s current sources of funding, which rely on taxation of criminal activities (prostitution) and businesses (liquor stores and nightclubs) that are unacceptable to any form of Shiism.

Al-Khazali has confirmed that in the event of a permanent U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, there will no longer be any justification for the existence of armed resistance groups (al-Akhbariya, November 19 2020). With the gradual U.S. withdrawal edging ever closer, al-Khazali is gearing up to secure the status of AAH. When the U.S. withdrew from Iraq for the first time in 2011, AAH decided to consolidate political and societal control by transforming itself into a political group. [10] However, at the time of the initial U.S. withdrawal, AAH needed Iranian leverage with the Iraqi government to allow AAH to function as a political party with the necessary funds to set up political offices under the AAH brand. However, in 2021, AAH no longer needs Iranian support because the organization’s position in Iraq is already established, with its political wing currently holding 15 seats in parliament, many government posts under its control, and even its own dedicated television channel.

Al-Khazali is once again turning the focus of AAH inwards, but this time with greater autonomy from Iran. Rather, al-Khazali plans to further the status of AAH by positioning the group as the leader of the conservative Shia bloc. To do this, he will need to stave off competition from other Iranian-established groups, such as the Badr Organization and Kata’ib Hezbollah, and also groups outside of Iran’s fold, such as Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sadrist movement.

To compete with Kata’ib Hezbollah, the October 2020 ceasefire presented al-Khazali with a fantastic opportunity. By rejecting the ceasefire and defending the right for the ‘shadow militias’ to continue launching attacks, Kata’ib Hezbollah’s position came to be seen as isolated and weak. In comparison, AAH’s support for the continued attacks, despite Iranian attempts to reel them in, allowed the group to position itself as a heroic defender of Iraqi sovereignty.

AAH’s shift toward a more nationalistic outlook will be vital ahead of the upcoming October 2021 general elections. AAH will have to compete with the Sadrist movement for the same working-class Shia electoral base. The Sadrist movement has always been more successful in this respect, largely due to Sadr’s greater nationalistic credibility. Whereas Sadr hails from important Iraqi Shia heritage, al-Khazali’s switch of religious allegiance to the Iranian clergy, which came as a condition for Iranian funding and support, has always been a point of contention for many Iraqi Shia.


It is too early to assess whether al-Khazali will maintain AAH’s splintering from the Iranian fold. Ultimately, al-Khazali is motivated by expanding the status and power of his group. Currently, he believes that amid the oncoming Iraqi general elections, diverging from the direct sphere of Iranian influence serves this goal. However, this approach will only remain viable contingent on the continued withdrawal of the U.S. military presence and the inability of domestic political movements to effectively challenge the place of sectarian groups such as the AAH in Iraq. As long as this remains the case, cracks in unity between the myriad Iraqi militia and political groups that Iran established will continue to grow as internal power struggles for territory, ideology or political power increase.


[1] AAH would later deny being behind the attack, claiming that Azirjawi had been arrested on an unrelated criminal charge. The group also stated that the social media clips were fabricated and the armed militants were unknown to them (AA, December 26, 2020).

[2] Following on from his interpretation of the Shia concept of Defensive Jihad, al-Khazali claims that it is a divine right to oppose the U.S. military occupation. Regarding the targeting of diplomatic missions, al-Khazali has claimed that although he may not personally agree with the targeting of U.S. diplomatic missions at this specific time, he understands the motivations of other unnamed militia groups-perhaps in reference to Ashab al-Kahf- who consider the U.S. embassy to not be a true diplomatic mission but a base for the CIA (al-Akhbariya, November 19 2020)

[3] See Afshon Ostovar, Vanguard Of The Imam, pg. 111, (Oxford University Press, April 2016)

[4] See Michael Knights, “Back into the Shadows? The Future of Kata’ib Hezbollah and Iran’s Other Proxies in Iraq,” (Combating Terrorism Center, October 2020)

[5] See Michael Knights, “Iran’s Expanding Militia Army in Iraq: The New Special Groups,” (Combating Terrorism Center, August 2019)

[6] See Tom Webster, “The Shadow Militias of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units,” (International Affairs House, January 2021)

[7] Knights 2020.

[8] Such attacks are frequently posted on the Telegram channel ‘Sabereen News’ and either take the form of rocket attacks targeting the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, the Camp Victory U.S. military base attached to Baghdad International Airport or improvised explosive device attacks targeting U.S. logistic convoys across Iraq. With regards to the latter, Sarayat Qassem al-Jabbarin has increased the frequency of attacks to a roughly weekly basis- the most recent attack occurring in al-Diwaniya on January 30.

[9] According to mainstream Twelver Shia Islam, following the occultation of the twelfth imam, the clergy should act as the religious authority over society. The Wilayat al-Fiqh ideology, established by Ruhollah Khomeni, differs in not only that the remit is expanded to include both religious and political authority, but also that it should be in the hands of just one Islamic jurist- currently, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

[10] See Sam Wyer, “The Resurgence of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq” (Institute for the Study of War, December 2012).