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Former Iraqi minister lifts lid on government talks with Asaib Ahl al-Haq - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Former senior member of the Sadrist trend, Salam al-Maliki, has spoken to Asharq Al-Awsat about the talks he mediated between al-Maliki’s government and the Asaib Ahl al-Haq group in 2009. Al-Maliki, who was Iraqi Minister of Transport in the Iraqi Transitional Government from May 2005 to May 2006, began by stressing that he is not a commander, spokesman, or member of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq group, which formed after its leadership split from Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army. Al-Maliki told Asharq Al-Awsat “I was not the spokesman for Asaib Ahl al-Haq; rather I was a mediator between this group and the government in order to open the door to dialogue for the purposes of national reconciliation.” However al-Maliki did not hide his sympathy with this armed resistance group, saying “yes, I am sympathetic towards them, and I support them and am convinced by their operations that they are a resistance organization against occupation and that they do not target Iraqis.” He added “their leadership are my brothers, as we were all leaders within the Sadrist trend [together].”

Al-Maliki, who conducted this interview with Asharq Al-Awsat via telephone from his home in the city of Basra, revealed that “in 2009, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki asked me to mediate for the purposes of opening dialogue between his government and the Asaib Ahl al-Haq organization, due to my strong relations with its leadership, particularly Sheikh Qais Khazali. This was with the intention of convincing Asaib Ahl al-Haq to participate in the political process.”

Al-Maliki told Asharq Al-Awsat that “Nouri al-Maliki – who is my neighbor in the Green Zone where I still have a residence – personally asked me to open dialogue between Asaib Ahl al-Haq and himself, he told me ‘speak with the group’ and the Asaib Ahl al-Haq leadership welcomed this proposal.”

He added that “dialogue took place with Asaib Ahl al-Haq leader Sheikh Akram al-Kaabi, who led the group during the absence of Qais Khazali and Mohamed Tabatabi, although Khazali – who was imprisoned during this period – was kept fully briefed about what was taking place with regards to dialogue and agreement, either via telephone or via meetings with his family. In fact, a government delegation visited Khazali in his cell to brief him about what was happening and reach an agreement with him, as well as check on his situation there.”

In response to a question from Asharq Al-Awsat, al-Maliki clarified that “Asaib Ahl al-Haq are led by three leaders; Khazali, Kaabi, and Tabatabi.”

The former senior members of the Sadrist trend told Asharq Al-Awsat “I approached the Asaib Ahl al-Haq leadership to open dialogue between the group and the prime minister…there were conditions on three axes; politics, security, and the issue of detainees.”

Al-Maliki revealed that “as for the political aspect, the conditions was that both parties (the government and Asaib Ahl al-Haq) would exchange pledges, with al-Maliki pledging to officially acknowledge Asaib Ahl al-Haq as being part of the resistance, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq pledging to support al-Maliki’s government. As for the security aspect, Asaib Ahl al-Haq stressed the importance of the withdrawal of US forces and that US forces would not participate in security operations. As for the detainees, we asked for the release of all Sadrist trend and Asaib Ahl al-Haq detainees who were established not to have been involved in terrorist operations targeting Iraqis, and this is indeed what happened, and 1,500 detainees were released, the majority of whom were members of the Mahdi army and Asaib Ahl al-Haq.”

Al-Maliki clarified to Asharq Al-Awsat that in return for this, “Asaib Ahl al-Haq, for its part, agreed to support the government and the political process, but they refused al-Maliki’s request to participate in the legislative elections saying that this was not the right time [for this], and that they would re-consider after the US withdrawal from Iraq.” He added “Nouri al-Maliki believes that Asaib Ahl al-Haq is a resistance organization against occupation, and that its hands are not stained with Iraqi blood, whilst al-Maliki has also praised Khazali a number of times for providing services that protect the security situation.”

As for the similarity in names between the former transport minister and current Iraqi prime minister, Salam al-Maliki told Asharq Al-Awsat that he has no connection by blood or marriage with the Iraqi prime minister and that “Bani Malik is a large tribe with different wings; I am originally from Basra and continue to live there, whilst Nouri al-Maliki is from the Middle Euphrates region, and there is nothing to connect us other than friendship.”

Salam al-Maliki also spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about the hostage deal agreed between Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Iraqi government for the release of British hostage Peter Moore in December 2007, saying this occurred following similar “pledges between Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the government.” Peter Moore was released by Asaib Ahl al-Haq in return for the Iraqi government releasing one of the group’s leaders, Qais Khazali, who was in Iraqi custody after being captured by the US forces.

The former senior member of the Sadrist trend also told Asharq Al-Awsat about the formation of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, saying “this organization was born from the womb of the Mahdi army that was under the command of Sayyed Moqtada al-Sadr; the Mahdi army had different brigades centered in different provinces, for example the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade was centered in Maysan province, the Moussa al-Kadhim Brigade in Baghdad, the Imam al-Askari Brigade in Samara, and the Imam Ali Brigade in Najaf. At the end of 2006, a dispute occurred between Sadr and Khazali – a prominent member of the Sadrist trend at this time – which resulted in him splitting from the Sadrist trend with these brigades, and he formed Asaib Ahl al-Haq with other commanders.”

He added “the name of the group [which means League of the Righteous] comes from a popular story that says that when the awaited Imam al-Mahdi arrives he will be accompanied by an army made up of a number of brigades, including the “League of the Righteous” from Iraq and the “Replacements of the People of the Levant.”

Al-Maliki played down the recent reports of Asaib Ahl al-Haq threatening to assassinate Sadrist leader Moqtada al-Sadr saying “yes, there are huge differences of opinion between the two, but I do not think that it has reached the stage of threats.” He revealed that “Sayyed Moqtada al-Sadr visited Khazali when he was released [from prison], and Khazali accepted this visit and met with Sadr.”

Salam al-Maliki also revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat that Qais Khazali “is in his late thirties, and it is extremely difficult to reach him due to the security situation.” He denied being involved in supporting or financing Asaib Ahl al-Haq, saying “I have not met with Sheikh Khazali for long months, despite our strong relations…I am not involved in the political process today as I am not convinced by what is happening [in Iraq], this is why I refused to stand at the last elections, despite many political leaders urging me to do so. I am a retired minister; in fact I am the youngest retired minister [in Iraq]. I was [also] the first Iraqi MP to resign from parliament, and that was in 2007, and despite the fact that I was very close to the political decision makers.”