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Hadi Al-Ameri: A Militia Leader Torn between Washington and Tehran - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Iraqi minister of transportation, Hadi Al-Ameri, inspects volunteer fighters who joined the Iraqi army to fight against jihadist militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Al-Othaim in Diyala province, north of the capital Baghdad, on August 3, 2014. (AFP Photo/Amer Al-Saadi)

Iraqi minister of transportation, Hadi Al-Ameri, inspects volunteer fighters who joined the Iraqi army to fight against jihadist militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Al-Othaim in Diyala province, north of the capital Baghdad, on August 3, 2014. (AFP Photo/Amer Al-Saadi)

Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—When the leader of the Badr Organization, Hadi Al-Ameri, became Iraq’s minister of transport during former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s second term in office, no one from Iraq’s political class or the major international political players objected. The reason behind his smooth appointment is well-known: at the time, Iran had the upper hand in the formation of the Iraqi government, despite the presence of the US army in Iraq. Given that it was preparing to pull American troops out of Iraq, and President Barack Obama’s lack of enthusiasm for the conflict, Washington did not seek to use any of the influence it possessed to shape Iraq’s government.

This time, however, things look different. The challenge posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has prompted Ameri to leave his ministerial post and focus on drumming up public support for efforts to fight the Islamist militants. The Badr Organization proved to be instrumental in breaking ISIS’s siege of the Turkmen-majority town of Amerli. At the same time, the growing risk of ISIS has prompted both Tehran and Washington to rethink their Iraq strategy. The US has made a strong comeback on the Iraqi scene, both politically and militarily, while Iran has found itself struggling to deal with the dire situation in Iraq after years of backing Maliki, who is widely held to be at least partly responsible for the present crisis.

During the recent political turmoil in Iraq that saw the removal of Maliki from office, Tehran chose to drop its support for him, Shi’ite cleric and academic Abdul Husayn Al-Saadi claims. Instead, Maliki “threw the ball into the court of the supreme religious authority in Najaf.” Saadi said Iranian Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei distanced himself from the debate over Maliki’s third term in office when he found there was “near consensus on the necessity for bringing about change” in the Iraqi political landscape.

At the same time, dropping Maliki has had a major impact on Iran’s other allies, Saadi said. “Iran has pulled the rug out from under Maliki [which has] significantly impacted some of his major allies, namely Ameri, whose electoral bloc won 22 seats in the parliamentary elections,” he added.

“Ameri seemed to be in an unstable position the moment Maliki was removed by the [Islamic] Da’wa Party and with the support of key forces within the Shi’ite coalition,” Saadi said.

Nonethless, Ameri has responded by setting his sights higher. Following his resignation as transport minister, he reportedly sought what is arguably Iraq’s most important ministerial portfolio, the Interior Ministry.

Despite the damage inflicted by the downfall of Maliki, this is not an unrealistic goal, particularly since the Sunni-led Iraqi Forces Alliance is intent on about getting its own candidate into the Defense Ministry, leaving the field clear for a Shi’ite candidate. Though the defense and interior portfolios are still vacant, this is mainly due to inter-Shi’ite disputes within the Shi’ite National Alliance.

“There is a crisis within the National Alliance over the Interior Ministry. Mr. Ameri’s bloc insists on being granted the Ministry despite their knowledge of a clear US veto on Ameri and militia leaders [holding the post],” said a prominent Shi’ite figure, who requested anonymity because he was not permitted to brief the media.

The same source spoke of “complex disputes within the National Alliance,” thanks to the insistence of the State of Law coalition—dominated by Maliki’s Islamic Da’wa Party—on nominating Ameri for the post of interior minister, despite their knowledge of the impossibility of sidestepping the US veto. Nonetheless, some key Islamic Da’wa Party figures remain in favor of granting the Ministry to Riyadh Gharib, though he failed to win parliamentary approval last week.

The two other major groups in the National Alliance favor Ameri, the source said. “The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq [ISCI] and the Sadrist Movement are inclined towards granting the Interior Ministry to Ameri, particularly after it transpired that the US wants to punish Shi’ite militias linked with or supported by Iran,” he added.

Ameri does indeed have close links to Iran. One—albeit unusual—sign of this may be his distaste for some elements of western clothing, specifically ties. Although seen wearing a tie during official international visits in his capacity as transport minister, Ameri is often criticized by his opponents who link his habit of not wearing ties with his relationship with Iran, where ties are not worn by senior government figures, even those who are not clerics.

Ameri, who prefers to be known as “Hajj Abu Hassan,” prides himself on his past record in fighting against Saddam Hussein’s regime. During the Iran–Iraq War, the Badr Brigade, the military wing of ISCI, fought alongside Iranian forces against the Iraqi army.

After the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, the Badr Brigade was rebranded as the Badr Organization before it was turned into a political organization within the framework of ISCI, itself previously known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. However, and on Khamenei’s instructions, Badr soon broke with ISCI, joining the ranks of Maliki’s State of Law coalition.

When appointed transport minister Ameri did not sever his links with Badr’s militia forces, the most controversial aspect of his record in government given the accusations that many members of the Badr Brigade infiltrated the new Iraqi security forces and used their newfound power to carry out massacres of Iraqi Sunnis. It is his past that has led many in Iraq to oppose his appointment as interior minister, spurring the US into putting pressure on Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to keep Ameri out of the cabinet.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Iraqiya MP Maysoon Al-Damluji said her parliamentary bloc led by Shi’ite former prime minister Iyad Al-Allawi opposes giving Ameri a key ministry like that of interior or defense.

Mohamed Al-Khalidi, a leading figure in the Sunni-majority Iraqi Forces Alliance, shares similar views. He said: “Putting an end to militias, which represent the other face of terror, has become an urgent need. Moreover, giving militia leaders ministerial portfolios that are as significant as that of the Interior [Ministry] means saying goodbye to what remains of Iraq.”