Tuesday, June 11, 2013

2013 Iraq Update #23: Sadrists and Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq Fight for Baghdad

Iraqi Shi‘a militia remobilization crossed a new threshold last week that points towards future escalation. A violent shoot-out between the Sadrists and Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH) in Baghdad’s Kadhmiyah neighborhood resulted in the hospitalization of major Sadrist leader Hazim al-Araji and the death of Thirgham Hussein al-Shahmani, possibly a commander in the Promised Day Brigade (PDB), Moqtada al-Sadr’s military wing. The clashes signal AAH’s mobilization against the Sadrist Trend, which, in turn, faces a decision about whether to mobilize the Promised Day Brigade. AAH’s activities appear to go on without resistance or objection from Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, although it is difficult to prove his complicity.   

On June 2, the office of the leader of the Sadrist trend in Kadhmiyah, Hazim al-Araji, reported that he had survived an assassination attempt in his stronghold. Al-Araji is a prominent Sadrist leader who has been influential in Baghdad and specifically in Kadhmiyah. He is the brother of Sadrist parliamentary leader Baha al-Araji and cousin of General Farouq al-Araji, the director of the Office of Commander in Chief (OCINC), which is under the leadership of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. Together, the Araji brothers represent a strong Sadrist contingent in opposition to Maliki. The alleged assassination attempt against Hazim al-Araji occurred as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq removes obstacles to claiming the mantle of Sadrist leadership and overtaking the Mahdi Army.

The facts of this incident have been cloaked in messaging as multiple parties worked to reduce tensions. Isolating ground truth, the facts are as follows:

On June 2, at least 3 members of Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH) openedfire in the Kadhmiyah neighborhood of Baghdad, targeting senior members from their rival group, the Sadrist Trend. The attack took place while Kadhmiyah’s shrine was experiencing one of its busiest gatherings of the year, with hundreds of thousands visiting the area in an annual pilgrimage to commemorate the death of Imam Kadhim, who is buried in the shrine. Among those who were targeted in the attack was Hazim al-Araji. Al-Araji was not killed, but a member of his entourage, Thirgham al-Shahmani, was killed along with a member of AAH, Hosam al-Abudi, when the Sadrists returned fire.

Al-Araji was brieflyhospitalized and released on June 3, although his hospitalization was not directly related to the attack, according to his office. On June 3, the Sadrists organized a massive funeral for al-Shahmani.
As these events developed, the leader of AAH, Qais al-Khazali, announced that he had contacted two major clerics to mediate the rising tensions between his group and the Sadrists. These figures included Ayatollahs Kadhim al-Haeri and Mahmoud al-Shahroudi. Both Haeri and Shahroudi are Iraqi-born but are currently based in Iran. Haeri is close to both the Sadrists and AAH, while Shahroudi is a former leading official within the Iranian government and is leadingthe Iranian government’s effort to spread its influence in Najaf’s clerical establishment. In the meantime, Prime Minister Maliki did not make any statements about this incident, despite the potential escalation of intra-Shi‘a violence. Additionally, the leader of the Sadrist trend, Moqtada al-Sadr, was not in Iraq. On June 4, his office issued a statement that he had visited Haeri in Qom, Iran and is currently believed to be in Beirut. 

In addition to these facts, a number of plausible assumptions may be considered:

First, the Sadrists presided over this religious procession in Kadhmiyah. The Sadrists have historically been able to enjoy primacy in holding processions near shrine under the leadership of al-Araji. The area is a traditional Sadrist stronghold but has been increasingly targetedfor influence by AAH. Second, it is likely that AAH members were on-site and armed, based on how events transpired. It is probable that they knew of Hazim al-Araji’s presence with other prominent members of his entourage when they opened fire. Additionally, indications point to the likelihood that Thirgham al-Shahmani may have been a leader of the Promised Day Brigade (PDB), the militant wing of the Sadrist Trend, which would also have been known by AAH.

Thousands of Shi’a pilgrims cross the Tigris from Adhimiya to Kadhmiyah using al-Aimma Bridge, 2008

There are, however, three key disputed facts. First, it is not certain that the exchange of fire in Kadhmiyah was a targeted killing, nor is it clear whether Araji was the one targeted. Qais al-Khazali represented the event as a clash that escalated, and four days after the incident, al-Araji himself stated that he was not personally targeted. Al-Araji also suggested that Moqtada al-Sadr had prior knowledge of a threat during the processions, suggesting that the attack was planned. Second, on June 4, al-Araji’s office releaseda statement that the six AAH members who were involved in the Kadhmiyah attack had been moved to Iran, while AAH members in Baghdad have been moved to other provinces due to fear of retribution. AAH denied that these moves had been made by the group. Third, it is unknown whether the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) near the site of the clashes were complicit in the attack by not intervening to preventviolence from escalating. Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) were on-site at the procession, but it appears that they opted not to step in.

In order to get a clearer picture of this incident and to evaluate its consequences, the details as they unfolded in messaging are examined below.          

The details of the Kadhmiyah events

Shortly after the June 2 attack, the office of Hazim al-Araji accused AAH of carrying out an assassination attempt against al-Araji using silenced weapons, a trademark tactic of Iranian-backed Shi‘a militias. Another source close to al-Araji revealed that three gunmen attempted to assassinate him at 10:15 PM Baghdad time while he was inspecting religious processions at Baghdad’s most revered Shi‘a shrine, the Imam Kadhim shrine in Khadhmiyah. Furthermore, the same source stated that al-Araji’s security detailreturned fire and wounded one of the gunmen, but that all of the assailants were able to flee. Early reports also indicated that an al-Araji “senior companion,” Thirgam Abu Ali, also known as Thirgam al-Shahmani, was killed during the exchange of fire.   

Map of Baghdad, Attack on Hazim al-Araji, June 2, 2013

After this incident, an unnamed high-ranking official from the office of Moqtada Al-Sadr (OMS) issued a statement that accused “militias,” a direct reference to AAH, of attempting to assassinate al-Araji. The same statement “advised” Sadrist rank and file not to carry out retaliatory attacks and highlighted that the blood of Iraqis and specifically Sadrists is “forbidden,” including original Sadrist elements such as AAH. This statement underscores OMS’s desire to control the response of Sadrists while their leader is outside the country.

On June 3, Sadr himself issued a statement that directly accused AAH of responsibility. Al-Sadr condemned AAH and announced a 3-day mourning period during which Sadrist offices will be closed. He further addressed AAH by saying that these killings will not satisfy his father, Mohammed Sadeq Al-Sadr, for whose legacy Moqtada al-Sadr and AAH leader Qais al-Khazali compete. He continued, declaring that “killing is not within your authorities or the authorities of your leaderships even though you are with the government,” again directing his statement at AAH. Sadr’s statement points to the relationship between AAH and Maliki’s government, presenting the government as complicit in the attack. The escalation of language and reference to the mantle of his father, of whom Khazali was a student, indicates that Sadr has decided to leverage this attack to restate his authority over AAH.

Continuing their campaign to denounce the government, Sadrists also pointed to the lack of security at the Kadhim shrine. An unnamed source close to al-Araji even stated that the security forces in the area that belong to the second Iraqi Federal Police division “had knowledge of the assassination attempt.” Another source specifically singled out the commander of the second Iraqi Federal Police division, Major General Shakir Al-Asadi, for allowing the assassination attempt to take place.

The leader of AAH, Qais al-Khazali, attempted to contain the fallout of the events on June 4. He issued a statement denying that AAH had attempted to assassinate al-Araji. According to Khazali, what happened was a “quarrel that unfortunately escalated and lead to the death of two people; one from the Sadrist trend and the other from AAH.” This was the first point at which news emerged that AAH lost one of its own members in Kadhmiyah that day. Khazali emphasized that the events were personal between those who were involved and “it [the clashes] is only their opinion.” He praised Moqtada Al-Sadr for “[calling] for not carrying weapons,” and also the role of the Marji‘a [a level of Shi‘a cleric], revealing in later statements the involvement of Haeri and Shahroudi in calming tensions. He finally called on security authorities to open an investigation and publicize the outcome.

Although it is possible to interpret Khazali’s representation of events literally, it is also reasonable to regard this messaging strategy as consistent with a failed assassination attempt on Hazim al-Araji. Khazali’s messaging demonstrates his desire to mitigate perceptions that AAH undertook high-profile targeted killings of popular Sadrist leaders, which may damage future opportunities to assume leadership of Sadrist elements. Connections of the population to leaders such as the Araji brothers are still strong.

After the attack, Al-Araji was hospitalized due to an undisclosed illness. The announcement was made on Al-Araji’s Facebook page, and, according to the statement, “Araji was subject to severe illness on last Monday that necessitated his transport to a hospital for treatment.” A photo was released with the announcement showing al-Araji in a hospital bed, indicating that al-Araji wished to publicize his survival as well as his close proximity to the attack that claimed the life of al-Shahmani. Al-Araji was later released from the Kadhmiyah hospital according to an unnamed source from his office who added that al-Araji was hospitalized “due to exhaustion and not a heart attack or wounds sustained from the failed assassination attempt.” Reportedly, al-Araji was back visiting and inspecting processions the next day. This appearance may have been intended to combat the impression of a leadership vacuum in the Sadrist movement or an assertion of political patronage.

Hazim al-Araji hospitalized in Kadhmiyah on June 3, 2013, image from personal Facebook page

Al-Araji’s office, meanwhile, continued to release information about the events by issuing a statement namingsix AAH members involved in the attack. The statement revealed that they had been transported to Iran to avoid “legal and tribal pursuit,” according to information received from within AAH. The six AAH members were only identified by name without any identification of their roles or positions. They are: Khudhair Khudair, Mohammed Zanbawi, Imad al-Saadi, Adel Debis, Ali Hamid, and Abbas al-Dabash. By announcing that the six have been transported to Iran, the Sadrists are linking AAH to Iran in order to emphasize their own nationalist credentials and tarnish AAH as an Iranian-linked organization. Groups with ties to the Iranian government are not perceived positively among the Iraqi public. Al-Araji’s office also added that AAH has “smuggled [moved] most of its members who are in Baghdad to other provinces due to fear of physical elimination.” A senior AAH member later denied that AAH has moved from Baghdad. Additionally, by publishing the names of the six attackers, Araji’s office signaled that it is familiar with AAH’s leadership and members in Kadhmiyah and that it is monitoring their activities. It also suggests that al-Araji means to designate them as future targets and also to narrow the focus of retribution as a means of controlling violence.

The claim that there were six attackers contradicted earlier reports from al-Araji’s office that there were three AAH gunmen, but it is plausible that an AAH team may have involved additional primary or support personnel. Furthermore, as AAH has been increasing its presence in Kadhmiyah, it is likely that most AAH personnel in the vicinity of the Kadhim shrine procession were armed. It is therefore reasonable to attribute responsibility for the attack to the six named AAH members.

AAH self-defense campaign

AAH’s campaign to deny it attempted to assassinate al-Araji continued throughout the week. On June 4, Khazali released a televised statement in which he reiterated that there was no assassination attempt. On June 5, Ameer al-Taie, a member of AAH’s political bureau, stated that “the incident of the assassination of Sadrist leader Hazim al-Araji is a lie.” Al-Taie laid the blame on al-Araji for promoting the event as an assassination attempt in order to regain his status with Moqtada Al-Sadr. He also added that members of the Sadrist trend attacked the houses of AAH members in Baghdad, depicting the Sadrists as a mutual aggressor. AAH’s rendition of the Kadhmiyah event gained momentum as some Iraqi and Iranian Shi‘a clerical and political leaders took up positions to mediate between AAH and the Sadrists.  

These figures included the previously mentioned clerics Kadhim Al-Haeri and Mahmoud Hashemi al-Shahroudi. Khazali announced that he had contacted both Haeri and Shahroudi and asked them to intervene. Other Iraqi Shi‘a leaders, including the leader of the Badr organization and Minister of Transportation Hadi al-Amri and leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) Ammar al-Hakim played a role in easing tensions. The involvement of these figures underscores the significance of the Kadhmiyah incident as a watershed moment in the AAH-Sadrist rivalry.

Haeri and Shahroudi signal the position of the Iranian government to de-escalate the crisis at this moment. It is probable that Iran will favor AAH over Sadr for control of a Shi‘a movement in Iraq based on its past history with Moqtada al Sadr, who has proved unreliable and spent time under house arrest in Qom. It is also likely that Iranian support to AAH will increase Sadr’s legitimacy in the eyes of many Iraqi Shi‘a who do not look highly upon leadership figures with ties to the Iranian government.

AAH’s version of the Kadhmiyah events and the need to quell the potential mobilization of the Promised Day Brigade required al-Araji to respond. On June 6, Hazim al-Araji himself stated to the media that the “targeting was not on me personally. It was rather targeting the ziyara [pilgrimage] to terrify the visitors of the Imam Kadhim shrine.” Al-Araji offered further details about the events by saying “a group of known militia members gathered by the central procession of the Martyr Sadr office in Kadhmiyah and started to threaten the sons [members] of the trend” and that he asked the commander of the second Iraqi Federal Police division commander, Major General Shakir al-Asadi, to request from the group to “stay away from the [Sadrist] procession.” Al-Araji then added that “Asadi, after talking to them for five minutes went to bring a force to arrest them [AAH].” In saying this, al-Araji downplays the fact that he was likely targeted personally, which would invite Sadrist retaliation for the attack; in doing so, he shifts the action from personal violence to violence against Shi‘a pilgrims in a general move to discredit AAH as a defender of the public.

Al-Araji further added that AAH members attacked them after the departure of police commander al-Asadi, resulting in the death of a leader in the Sadrist trend, Thirgham Hussein Al-Rubaie [Shahmani]. This was the first time Shahmani was acknowledged as a senior figure within the Sadrist trend and not just a member of al-Araji’s entourage. Al-Araji condemned al-Asadi for not being able to prevent the violence, while expressing thanks overall to the government’s security apparatus for protecting pilgrims in Kadhmiyah. His repudiation of al-Asadi indicates an attempt to portray him as complicit with AAH.

Who is Thirgham al-Shahmani?

Initial reports did not provide detailed identification of Thirgham al-Shahmani. He was initially identified as a murafeq, indicating a companion or in this context senior bodyguard. The early statement issued by Sadr’s office only identified him as a member of the Mahdi Army. Araji’s June 6 statement was the first to identify him “as a leader in the Sadrist trend.” Moreover, on June 6, al-Araji posted a photo on his Facebook page that identified Shahmani as the “leader and martyr hero Thirgham Abu Ali.” The name Abu Ali may be al-Shahmani’s nom de guerre, while another name used to describe him publically has been Thirgham al-Rubaie. Another Sadrist-sympathetic Facebook page posted a photo on June 6 of al-Shahmani that titled him as the “martyr of the Holy Kadhmiyah.” The second posting generated a great number of comments and “Likes” that indicate al-Shahmani’s prominence.

A massive funeral was held for al-Shahmani in Kadhmiyah on June 3. These events, coupled with AAH’s announcement that the Sadrists sought retribution for the June 2 incident suggest that Shahmani was a senior leader in the Promised Day Brigade (PDB) and possibly commander of one of its units in Kadhmiyah. This may also explain why Sadr announced a three day mourning period in order to absorb the rage of PDB members who were likely seeking revenge for their martyred commander. The death of al-Shahmani may provide a full explanation as to why high-level figures intervened to prevent further clashes between AAH and the Sadrists.

Funeral of Thirgam al-Shahmani in Kadhmiyah on June 3, 2013

Al-Araji’s personal relationship to al-Shahmani also raises questions about his own role in the PDB in Baghdad. It is unknown at this time who commands the Promised Day Brigades, and al-Araji’s role in the 2006-2007 period of the Mahdi Army makes him an ideal candidate. Thus it appears that AAH members knowingly fired upon an entourage that included two key Sadrist leaders, both possibly leaders within the Promised Day Brigades. If true, this may indicate why AAH chose to attack al-Araji among Sadrist leaders.  Also likely related is the degree of patronage Hazem al-Araji has over pilgrims, a lucrative and important status essential to AAH’s claim as the legitimate heir of Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr.


The preponderance of indicators points to the conclusion that AAH did execute a targeted attack upon al-Araji, in close proximity to al-Shahmani and other Sadrists at the Kadhmiyah procession on June 2. The various statements to the contrary can be explained by the need to de-escalate the tension between AAH and the Sadrists created by a failed assassination in close proximity to a Shi‘a religious procession. Khazali needs to recover the incident in order to reset. Sadr made an attempt to frame the incident to denigrate AAH, but on balance, it is risky for Sadr to stand toe-to-toe with AAH militarily. Thus, de-escalation is the only reasonable move for the Sadrists, which would explain al-Araji’s later messaging.

As the competition between Sadr and Khazali continues, Moqtada al-Sadr’s absence from Iraq places him at a disadvantage. Al-Khazali’s forces are more disciplined and his presence in Iraq allows him direct control over them. Additionally, this dynamic provides Khazali with the upper hand in recruiting new members into AAH. Meanwhile, Sadr – who is basedin Beirut – is in a more difficult position in asserting direct control over the Sadrist Trend. It will be a challenge for him going forward to mitigate the risk of escalation or usurpation of his forces by AAH while his senior leaders sustain assassination attempts.

Both AAH and the Sadrists have sought to portray themselves as defenders of the Iraqi Shi‘a in the wake of this incident. This is especially important for the Sadrists in light of AAH’s recent political and militant resurgence in Baghdad. The Sadrists have used this event to demonstrate AAH’s willingness to fire upon Shi‘a pilgrims as well as to accuse Maliki and the ISF of complicity and tolerance of AAH lethal activity. AAH, on the other hand, has mitigated this message by congratulating regional intermediaries for de-escalating the conflict. On the whole, the Sadrists’ institutional position has been threatened. As of June 7, the Sadrists and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) are making a move to form coalitions within the new provincial councils to limit Maliki’s Da‘wa party. It will be important to examine the interplay between their political approach and AAH’s violent approach to sway the Shi‘a population. It will also be important to monitor the mobilization of the PDB in response to this event as an indicator of the degree to which Sadr maintains control of the movement from afar.

This attack comes at a time of heightened Shi‘a militia mobilization outside of the country, particularly in Syria, and now also within Iraq. Evidence of intra-Shi‘a violence in key neighborhoods of Baghdad, such as Kadhmiyah, suggests that Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) is actively projecting influence in Baghdad, recruiting new members, and mobilizing in direct competition with the Sadrists. The attack against al-Araji therefore indicates the emboldened state of AAH, that it would target senior Sadrist leadership in this way. This suggests the complicity of Prime Minister Maliki, whose overt relationship with AAH suggests he should have been the first to intervene to de-escalate intra-Shi‘a violence as a matter of political necessity. Maliki has undertaken a deliberate effort to marginalize Sadr, has generally exacerbated sectarian tensions, and more recently advanced AAH. The inaction of the  ISF at the attack’s location already generates a perception of complicity. So too does the fact that Maliki reportedly removed General Araji from his leadership of OCINC, from which he would have effective oversight of the ISF in Kadhimiya and likely advanced knowledge of threats to his cousin. If Maliki had been complicit in a deliberate assassination attempt against Hazem al-Araji, he would have had to remove Farouq al-Araji.  Maliki has made no public statement on these events. He evidently does not want any tinge of complicity. If he was not complicit in the events, he is certainly not acting to denounce them.  

Ahmed Ali is an Iraq Research Analyst at ISW.