June 27, 2024 | FDD's Long War Journal

Iran-backed Iraqi militia threatens to strike US interests should Israel attack Lebanon

June 27, 2024 | FDD's Long War Journal

Iran-backed Iraqi militia threatens to strike US interests should Israel attack Lebanon

The leader of one of Iraq’s most influential and powerful Iran-backed militias threatened US interests in the Middle East in response to a potential large-scale Israeli military campaign against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. The Islamic Republic’s proxies in LebanonIraq, and Yemen have increasingly targeted Israeli territory following Hamas’s October 7 attack.

Qais al-Khazali, the secretary general of Asaib Ahl al-Haq (“the League of the Righteous”), warned in a televised speech that should Israel attack Lebanon, “let America know that it has made all its interests in the region and Iraq subject to targeting and danger,” the Lebanese Hezbollah controlled al-Minar reported on June 25. Asaib Ahl al-Haq is listed by the US as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, and Khazali is a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.

Israel has recently ramped up its rhetoric against Hezbollah, possibly indicating an imminent operation in southern Lebanon. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated on June 23 that the intense phase of the war with Hamas in Gaza is gradually concluding and that the Israel Defense Force’s focus will soon shift to Lebanon to fight the Iran-backed Hezbollah.

Khazali’s remarks come a few days after US officials expressed support for Israel in the case of escalating conflict with Hezbollah. President Joe Biden’s envoy Amos Hochstein told Lebanese officials during his Beirut visit that the US will not prevent Israel from invading southern Lebanon should Hezbollah’s attacks persist, Axios reported on June 24. A few days prior, US officials reassured an Israeli delegation that the Biden administration is “fully prepared” to back Israel should a “full-out war break out.”

Iran-backed militias in Iraq had temporarily halted their attacks against US bases in the region following the Islamic Resistance’s strike that killed three US service members in Jordan on January 28. However, six months later, it appears that Iran and its proxies’ calculations have shifted. A drone was intercepted at the Al-Tanf military base in Syria on June 22, likely launched by Iran-backed militias in Iraq. This attack came shortly after the Iran-backed Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada blamed the US for a June 21 strike near the Syrian-Iraqi border.

Khazali: An Iranian proxy

Khazali has a long history of supporting and directing Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq and Syria. Before Khazali and his brother, Laith, along with a senior Hezbollah military commander known as Musa Ali Daqduq, were captured by British forces in March 2007 and transferred into US custody, they played a significant role in forming what US military commanders called “the Mahdi Army Special Groups.”

Daqduq, who had served as the commander of Hezbollah’s special forces, was tasked by the Qods Force to organize, train, and advise the Mahdi Army Special Groups. These Special Groups were established as an analog to Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran’s premier proxy in the Middle East. Daqduq worked closely with the Khazali brothers.

These groups received training, funds, weapons, intelligence, and other key aid from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force (IRGC-QF). During his detention, Khazali admitted to playing a pivotal role in the Special Group’s formation and subsequent attacks on US, Coalition, and Iraqi forces. [See LWJ report: Iraqi militant Qais Khazali warned us about Iran. We ignored him.]

The League of the Righteous is responsible for thousands of attacks on US forces in Iraq. However, its assault on the Karbala Provincial Joint Communications Center in 2006 was particularly brazen and significant. The group plotted the operation with the help of Qods Force, and the League of the Righteous fighters who carried out the attack trained in an Iranian mock-up facility. The plan was to capture American soldiers and bring them to Iran. Khazali issued the order to kidnap US service members, but League of the Righteous fighters instead executed five American soldiers in cold blood when the operation hit a roadblock.

Despite their involvement in the deadly Shia insurgency in Iraq and complicity in killing hundreds of American troops, the US military freed Qais and Laith al-Khazali in 2009. More than 100 League of the Righteous commanders and fighters were also freed. Daqduq was handed over to the Iraqi government in 2011 and freed shortly afterward. The US State Department listed Daqduq as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in late 2012.

The US military released the Khazalis and their men because it believed the League of the Righteous would lay down their arms and join the political process. They did no such thing. Upon his return, Qais retook control of the League of the Righteous, and he serves as its secretary general to this day. The group remains one of the premier Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and has expanded its activities into Syria under the banner of Harakat al Nujaba.

Designation of Khazali and the League of the Righteous

The US Treasury Department designated Khazali, his brother Laith, and other militia leaders for human rights abuses over killing dozens of innocent Iraqi civilians amid nationwide anti-Iran uprisings in 2019.

In March 2020, the US State Department added the Asaib Ahl al Haq to its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Additionally, the Khazali brothers were added to the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists. [See LWJ report: State designates Iran-backed League of the Righteous as Foreign Terrorist Organization.]

Asaib Ahl al Haq “and its leaders are violent proxies of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in the press release announcing the designations. “Acting on behalf of their masters in Tehran, they use violence and terror to further the Iranian regime’s efforts to undermine Iraqi sovereignty.”

State’s designation acknowledged that the League of the Righteous “is extensively funded and trained by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force.”

According to State, the League of the Righteous “has claimed responsibility for more than 6,000 attacks against U.S. and Coalition forces since its creation in 2006. AAH has carried out highly sophisticated operations, including mortar attacks on an American base, the downing of a British helicopter, and an attack on the Karbala Provincial Headquarters that resulted in the capture and murder of five American soldiers.”

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal. Janatan Sayeh is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies focused on Iranian domestic affairs and the Islamic Republic’s regional malign influence.


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