London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Well informed Iraqi sources in the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Qom have revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat that the leader of the Sadrist movement, Moqtada al-Sadr, who returned to Iran after spending only two weeks in Iraq, left after receiving threats from the Asaib Ahl al-Haq group, and due to fears that the arrest warrant, issued against him against the backdrop of the assassination of Shiite cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoei in April 2003, would be enforced.
Informed sources in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf disclosed to Asharq Al-Awsat that “those observing what is happening did not expect al-Sadr to remain in the city of Najaf for long, because of rumours about serious threats being issued against him by the Asaib Ahl al-Haq group. The Asaib Ahl al-Haq group is said to have issued a statement declaring the killing of Moqtada al-Sadr lawful. This statement was then distributed to some residents of Najaf, who subsequently detailed its content to the leader of the Sadrist movement.”
The Najaf source also revealed that “sources close to al-Sadr informed him of their fears that governmental parties – in a reference to Nouri al-Maliki – will try to exploit the arrest warrant issued against him by a Najaf investigative judge in late 2003…for al-Khoei’s death.”
Asaib Ahl al-Haq is a Shiite insurgent group in Iraq, led by Qais Khazali, which has claimed responsibility for over 6,000 attacks on US, Coalition, and Iraqi forces, and is known to specialize in assassination and kidnapping operations. The group was previously part of the Mahdi army, a paramilitary force led by al-Sadr, and he utilized this group to carry out a number of operations against his political opponents. However Asaib Ahl al-Haq split from al-Sadr and the Mahdi army after it began to receive direct financial and logistical support from Tehran, and today it is recognized as being the largest Special Group in Iraq. Khazali was captured by US forces in March 2007, before being released as part of a hostage deal.
Sources informed Asharq Al-Awsat that [members of] Asaib Ahl al-Haq received training in Iranian [military] camps close to Iraq, directed by the Iranian Qods Force, which is led by Brigadier General Qassim Soleimani. The source added that this militia has strong influence in “Baghdad, the Middle Euphrates region, including Karbala and Najaf, as well as the southern provinces, most notably Basra.” The source added that “Qais Khazali is one of the main suspects in the murder of al-Khoei, and he was Moqtada al-Sadr’s right-hand man. He was also responsible for the kidnapping of 5 Britons from the Ministry of Finance headquarters in central Baghdad in May 2007, with the aid of government and security officials. These 5 Britons were detained on Iranian territory close to Basra.”
The al-Maliki government released Khazali in December 2009 as part of a deal with the Asaib Ahl al-Haq group, in return for the release of British hostage Peter Moore, who was kidnapped from the Iraqi Finance Ministry in May 2007, along with his 4 security guards.
The Najaf sources confirmed to Asharq Al-Awsat that “Moqtada al-Sadr left the city of Najaf in secret, after he arrived [in Iraq] on the 5th January 2011, on the same plane that transported Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi from Tehran, who was carrying out his first visit to Iraq.” The source added that “news of Moqtada al-Sadr leaving the country remained a secret until after he had set off from Najaf. Even the senior members of his own movement did not know he would be travelling, due to the gravity of the threats issued against him by Asaib Ahl al-Haq. This also led to heightened security around his house in the Al-Hanana neighbourhood [of Najaf], and restrictions were applied to his visitors, with senior members of the Sadrist movement unable to meet with him.”
National Alliance MP Baha al-Araji, who is a senior member of the Sadrist movement, confirmed to Asharq Al-Awsat that al-Sadr’s return to Qom, after just two weeks in Iraq, came as a surprise.
Al-Araji told Asharq Al-Awsat that “al-Sadr decided to begin a regional tour that was planned in advance, before his return to Iraq” adding that “he decided to begin his tour in Iran”. Despite this, al-Araji refused to name the countries that al-Sadr intends to visit, or give any further details about this regional tour.
However, informed Iraqi sources in the Iranian holy city of Qom told Asharq Al-Awsat that “al-Sadr returned to his residence, close to the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security headquarters in Qom, in the upscale Salariya neighbourhood, where he also has a guest house to meet with important visitors.” The source added that “the house which al-Sadr is residing in, along with the guest house, belong to the Qom Security Directorate, and he [also] has an office under the name of Martyr al-Sadr, in the Safayia neighbourhood of central Qom.”
The source, who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat on Sunday 24th of January, also revealed that “al-Sadr’s protection team, who are all Iraqis, and his luxury car, the Peugeot Pars, have been sighted close to his residence in Salariya. He has not met with anyone since his return, whether they are guests or Iranian officials.” The source denied that al-Sadr had returned as part of a regional tour, but that “he has returned to stay for a long period of time. However, he may visit Iraq [in the future], in an intermittent and secret manner.”
The source also claimed that Moqtada al-Sadr “was planning to reside in Lebanon as a secondary choice after Iraq, because he has not been able to relax in Qom due to the pressure being applied on him by Iranian officials.”
As for the gravity of threats issued against al-Sadr by the Asaib Ahl al-Haq group, the source said that “these threats are serious, but Asaib Ahl al-Haq are unable to operate in Iran, and Iranian officials do not want security problems within their territory, for whilst they support al-Sadr politically, they [also] support Khazali financially and logistically.” The source also explained that “there are Islamic jurisprudential disputes [between al-Sadr and Khazali] with regards to religious marjas. Whilst al-Sadr follows [Grand Ayatollah] Kazem al-Haeri as his religious marja, Khazali follows [Grand Ayatollah] Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, who was born in Najaf but holds Iranian nationality, and was Chief Justice of Iran.”