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.