IRAN PROXY STANDS BY ITS FALLEN BUT COWS ITS CRIT­ICS

Back­ers of Iraq’s Asaib Ahl Al Haq are helped, but dis­si­dents live in fear, writes Lizzie Porter

The National - News - - NEWS -

Ev­ery night, Sahla Al Hasani goes to sleep in a room lined with pic­tures of her dead son, coloured fairy lights draped around their frames.

“He vis­its me in my dreams a lot,” she says. “I feel proud of him and all Iraqi mar­tyrs.

“I con­sider all of them my sons. But I miss him a lot. It is so dif­fi­cult.”

Her son Sari was 25 when he was killed in June 2015 in Iraq’s Sal­adin prov­ince, dur­ing the cam­paign to re­move ISIS.

He be­longed to Asaib Ahl Al Haq – the League of the Righ­teous.

It is one of about 60 units in the Pop­u­lar Mo­bil­i­sa­tion Forces, an um­brella group of mostly Shi­ite paramil­i­taries.

Since Sari’s death, Asaib has bought a new house for his fam­ily, paid for a $10,000 (Dh36,700) pil­grim­age to Makkah for Sahla and has promised to cover his rel­a­tives’ health­care costs.

It also cov­ered the 5 mil­lion Iraqi di­nar (Dh15,400) cost of his three-day wake, af­ter which he was buried in an Asai­bowned plot in Wadi Al Salam, the Shi­ite ceme­tery in Na­jaf.

It is all part of the ben­e­fits pack­age the Iran-aligned group of­fers the fam­i­lies of dead fight­ers. It lost scores of men in anti-ISIS op­er­a­tions, in which the PMF as a whole played a ma­jor role.

The Hasa­nis are from Abu Al Khaseeb, a poor town south of Basra city of rough breeze­block build­ings, where the pro­vi­sion of state ser­vices such as elec­tric­ity and paved roads is patchy at best.

In­side their new Asaib-provided home, clean blue and brown tiles line the walls, plas­tic reed carpets cover the floor and a ceil­ing fan beats back the sticky heat.

A plaque on the out­side wall has Asaib’s logo next to Sari’s death date.

“Our old house was in a poor state – this one is much bet­ter. There is water and elec­tric­ity,” said Sari’s brother Zul­fiqar, 23.

A hous­ing cam­paign was of­fi­cially launched in Jan­uary, with a promise from Asaib’s leader Qais Al Khaz­ali to build or re­pair “a house for the fam­ily of ev­ery mar­tyr”.

In­clud­ing the Hasa­nis, the group has so far provided new homes to five Bas­rawi fam­i­lies, at a cost of 30 mil­lion to 40 mil­lion di­nars each.

It in­tends to pro­vide for five more still liv­ing in rented ac­com­mo­da­tion.

Fund­ing comes from Asaib’s bud­get as well as pri­vate do­na­tions, ac­cord­ing to a mem­ber of the group’s mar­tyrs’ com­mit­tee in Basra.

“Our role is to build houses, pro­vide so­cial sup­port and health care, as well as pro­vide jobs to the mar­tyrs’ rel­a­tives,” the of­fi­cial, Abu Maryam, said.

Sari’s un­em­ployed brother Zul­fiqar said Asaib was help­ing him to se­cure work at Iraq’s state oil com­pany.

Backed by Iran, Asaib formed in 2006 as a splin­ter group from cleric Mo­q­tada Al Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

It claimed thou­sands of at­tacks on US troops in Iraq, and kid­napped and killed Iraqis, Bri­tons and Amer­i­cans.

It also sent fight­ers to back the As­sad regime in Syria.

Asaib has since tried to re­brand it­self as a na­tion­al­ist po­lit­i­cal party; it con­trols two min­istries and has 15 MPs in the Iraqi par­lia­ment.

The group has de­vel­oped a wide net­work of youth as­so­ci­a­tions, so­cial ser­vices and women’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

That wel­fare sys­tem mir­rors those of other Iran-aligned groups in the Mid­dle East.

In Lebanon, de­spite a fail­ing econ­omy and US sanc­tions, the Ira­nian proxy Hezbol­lah pro­vides hous­ing, health care and ed­u­ca­tion for the fam­i­lies of its dead and in­jured fight­ers.

In Iraq, not all PMF units are aligned with Iran. But as the fight against ISIS has wound down, an­a­lysts say those who do side with Tehran have been us­ing ser­vice pro­vi­sion to push for in­cre­men­tal so­cial change.

“This is an­other way of them say­ing, sta­bil­ity also comes from us – we are al­ways fight­ing ... but you’re liv­ing a bet­ter life, a more just life, and you’re get­ting ser­vices and other fun stuff that you need,” said Phillip Smyth, a re­searcher on Shi­ite mil­i­tant groups at The Wash­ing­ton In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy.

“That’s a big facet to it.” Yet not ev­ery­one is happy with Asaib and sim­i­lar groups’ ac­tiv­i­ties, es­pe­cially their re­sponses to the anti-govern­ment protests that have swept across south­ern Iraq for the past two months.

An ac­tivist from Basra fled Iraq last week af­ter dis­cov­er­ing that his name was on a wanted list drawn up by lo­cal po­lit­i­cal par­ties and the in­tel­li­gence ser­vices.

“I fled in se­cret to the air­port and I booked the next plane I could,” he told The Na­tional from a nearby coun­try.

The ac­tivist’s fam­ily es­caped from Iraq years ago af­ter re­ceiv­ing threats from Asaib over busi­ness links with Amer­i­can con­trac­tors. He re­turned to

Basra, but last year started re­ceiv­ing di­rect threats again on so­cial me­dia, through tele­phone calls and in per­son.

“We have been sub­jected to a lot of ha­rass­ment, plus di­rect and in­di­rect threats be­cause of ac­tiv­i­ties that they don’t like, like char­i­ta­ble ac­tiv­i­ties and cul­tural fes­ti­vals,” the ac­tivist said. “An ex­am­ple of a threat is: ‘Shut up, oth­er­wise we’ll make you shut up in our own spe­cial way’.”

It is dif­fi­cult to pin­point ex­actly which party was send­ing the threats, he said, as all use sim­i­lar in­tim­i­da­tion tech­niques. But along with an­other Shi­ite group, Asaib “is the most ac­tive” in threat­en­ing peo­ple in Basra who op­pose its ac­tiv­i­ties, he said.

His ac­count was sup­ported by four other ac­tivists and an­a­lysts in­ter­viewed by The

Na­tional.

Although pro­test­ers have pub­licly van­dalised pic­tures of top Ira­nian lead­ers, they ap­pear re­luc­tant to speak out against their Iraqi part­ners.

“Ev­ery­one is scared be­cause of Asaib Ahl Al Haq,” said an­other Iraqi ac­tivist.

“They are highly trained killers. They had lots of equip­ment, even be­fore they went into pol­i­tics, and they are more pow­er­ful now. When­ever I asked in our net­works to speak to a jour­nal­ist about them, they replied: ‘Are you crazy? We don’t want our voice to be heard.’ They get scared.”

Asaib’s of­fices have been at­tacked by pro­test­ers who blame them – and other po­lit­i­cal par­ties – for chronic cor­rup­tion. Last month, a group at­tacked and killed a lo­cal Asaib leader, Wis­sam Al Allawi, although it is not known if he was sin­gled out specif­i­cally.

Like the Iraqi army and riot po­lice, Asaib re­sponded with force.

Seven pro­test­ers were killed last month when a gun­man shot at them in Nasiriyah, a city be­tween Basra and Bagh­dad, ac­cord­ing to a wit­ness.

An­other es­ti­mate put the death toll at five.

“There were a num­ber of peo­ple who were go­ing out to protest and some­one opened fire on them from the Asaib Ahl Al Haq head­quar­ters,” the wit­ness said.

“The party mem­bers then drove around the streets, open­ing fire. The au­thor­i­ties didn’t in­ter­vene un­til the pro­test­ers started to set fire to the Asaib HQ.”

A ver­i­fied video clip from the city of Amara, 70 kilo­me­tres from the Ira­nian bor­der, showed an­other gun­man shoot­ing at pro­test­ers from a build­ing bear­ing Asaib’s logo.

Al Khaz­ali has said that he sup­ports pro­test­ers’ de­mands for bet­ter govern­ment, but claimed demon­stra­tions have been in­fil­trated by “for­eign par­ties”, in­clud­ing Is­rael and the US.

They want to cause “chaos and in­ter­nal dis­or­der” in Iraq, he said.

Asaib’s spokesman de­nied the group had threat­ened peo­ple.

He told The Na­tional that any re­tal­i­a­tion for the death of Al Allawi, the lo­cal leader, would be through le­gal means.

An­a­lysts say the mil­i­tant group and other Iran-aligned PMF brigades may take af­ter Tehran when it comes to crack­ing down on dis­sent, us­ing strate­gies of plau­si­ble de­ni­a­bil­ity.

They will prob­a­bly use a com­bi­na­tion of “dis­creet vi­o­lence and me­dia ma­nip­u­la­tion” to “ab­sorb some public anger and un­der­mine the protest move­ment”, said Nathaniel Rabkin, man­ag­ing edi­tor of In­side Iraqi Pol­i­tics, a po­lit­i­cal risk news­let­ter.

“I sus­pect that’s in part be­cause they know that’s how Iran deals with these things.

“When there are protests in Iran, the govern­ment is able to fig­ure out: who are the peo­ple we need to iso­late; who are the peo­ple we need to tar­get; who can be in­tim­i­dated; who can­not; and how long should we let it go on? I think that’s prob­a­bly how they’re look­ing at this.”

An­other Iraqi with knowl­edge of Asaib said that the group threat­ened peo­ple who dis­agreed with their vi­sion of rul­ing Iraq.

“They are against a civil state in Iraq – they want a Wilayat Al Faqih,” the source said, re­fer­ring to the sys­tem of govern­ment ap­plied in Iran un­der supreme leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei.

Many Shi­ites do not be­lieve in this form of lead­er­ship.

The ac­tivist who fled Basra is de­ter­mined to re­turn home, but does not know when it will be safe to do so.

“I am not the type to be scared,” he said.

“I will dis­ap­pear un­til the ar­rest war­rant is dropped.

“I don’t know how long that will be. It could be two weeks or two months. I don’t know.”

Ev­ery­one is scared of Asaib Ahl Al Haq. They are highly trained killers. They had lots of equip­ment ... and they are more pow­er­ful now

Sahla Al Hasani keeps pho­to­graphs of her son Sari through­out her house, south of Basra. The home was paid for by the mili­tia Sari died fight­ing with Lizzie Porter for The Na­tional

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