It’s been only six weeks since the death of the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, but already there are a number of local hardmen vying to take his place. Most notable are his sidekicks, the Kray twins of the Shia world: Qais al-Khazali and his brother Laith.
Qais and Laith who? Unless you’ve scanned Washington’s latest list of designated global terrorists, these two names won’t be familiar. Yet when I mentioned the brothers in a Baghdad teahouse a few weeks ago, folk lowered their voices and looked surreptitiously around, as if discussing the Krays in a pub in 1960s Bethnal Green.
The Khazalis lead an Iran-backed Shia extremist group called the Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous. Financed by Soleimani for nearly a decade and a half, it’s considered ruthless even by Iraqi militia standards.
In October, it was the League’s snipers who were accused of shooting dead at least nine anti-government protesters in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, for which the group was put on a US sanctions blacklist. During the US occupation of Iraq, it organised as many as 6,000 attacks on British and American forces, including a raid on a US base in 2007 in which five US troops were abducted and killed. It also ran prolific sectarian death squads, abducting, torturing and killing countless Sunni Iraqis. Such is the fear with which the League is regarded that when it plastered 20,000 posters of Ayatollah Khamenei throughout Iraq a few years ago, council workers were too scared to remove them.
Since Soleimani’s assassination, Qais al-Khazali has been busy, shuttling off to Tehran for consultations and threatening to unleash his militiamen once more on US troops. A law only to himself and his Persian paymasters, it’s men like him whom Donald Trump is talking about when he says he wants to rid Iraq of militia control.
In which case, you might wonder, why didn’t Britain and America nab him back when they were still in charge of Iraq, while he was busy killing our troops? In fact, they did. Two months after the murder of the five soldiers on the American base, Khazali was arrested by the SAS in Basra. The problem was that three years later, as a result of one of the murkier episodes in Britain’s time in Iraq, he was released to resume mayhem.
The coalition, you may recall, has form in releasing wrong ’uns back on to the streets. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the future leader of Isis, was imprisoned at Camp Bucca before a US official unwisely deemed him fit for release. Unlike Baghdadi, however, Khazali didn’t get out just by quietly biding his time.
Instead, two months after the SAS grabbed him, Khazali’s followers staged an elaborate kidnapping operation, sending 100 men dressed as police to snatch five British men working at Baghdad’s finance ministry. Peter Moore, a British IT lecturer whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, was taken along with his four bodyguards, their captors seeking to use them as bargaining chips for Khazali.
The ‘Iraq five’ kidnapping, as it became known, was the most serious British hostage crisis since the case of Terry Waite in the 1980s, minus the happy ending. One by one, the bodyguards were murdered. Moore, the sole survivor, was eventually released two years later, at the end of 2009. It was clear, though, that it was the result of a prisoner swap: just a week later, Khazali was transferred from a coalition jail into the custody of the new Iraqi government, which released him immediately.
A prisoner swap is not how Britain chose to describe it at the time. Her Majesty’s government, after all, insists it never makes concessions to terrorist groups, let alone those who have already slaughtered hostages. The official line was that Khazali’s transfer to Iraqi custody was part of a programme to cede judicial control back to Baghdad, which then chose to free him as part of an insurgent amnesty programme. That it happened just days after Moore being freed was all just coincidence, apparently.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, few people bought that line. Not least Moore himself, who later told me that in the final months of his own captivity, Qais’s brother Laith visited him to tell him the prisoner swap would soon be going ahead. A British source very close to the negotiations told me the exchange involved intensive lobbying of the US government, which had wanted Khazali to face proper justice for the murders of the five US soldiers.
True, had Britain stuck rigidly to its ‘no concessions’ rule, Moore might never have come home. But the real scandal of this whole affair lies not in HMG’s moral flexibility, but in what happened after Khazali’s release by the Iraqi government.
Officially, this was supposed to be conditional on the League laying down its arms and entering peaceful politics. Instead, it has embraced a bullet and ballot strategy ever since, contesting elections while remaining fully armed, dangerous and loyal to Tehran.
Khazali holds court in Baghdad, giving interviews about the glory days of fighting the occupation, such as the time his followers shot down a British Lynx helicopter in 2006, killing five soldiers. His gunmen, meanwhile, have also been in Syria helping Iran to defend Bashar al-Assad’s regime. More recently, it has also helped in the fight against Isis in Mosul — a worthy enough act in itself, but one which now gives the group the excuse it needs to keep its weapons.
Why have they been allowed to get away with this? Partly, it’s because Iraq’s regular security forces are simply too weak to compel the Shia militias to disarm. The other reason, though, is that it suits Iran to keep such scary proxies on hand, as shown by last autumn’s massacres of anti-government demonstrators in Tahrir Square.
Not surprisingly, one of the protesters’ demands is an end to the militias like the League, whose offices in several Iraqi cities were attacked during the demonstrations in October. The protesters are part of a new young generation who are sick of a political system where killing and kidnapping can get you what you want. In the case of the Iraq five, it was Britain that was held to ransom. Now, a decade later, it’s the whole of Iraq.
Colin Freeman is the author of The Curse of the Dulaimi Hotel, about post-war Iraq.