By Abeer Mohammed
After an anti-American Shia insurgent group declared it would lay down its arms and join the political process in Iraq, some analysts warned this could create further divisions in an already turbulent situation.
Not only will the emergence of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the League of the Righteous, as a player further alienate Sunni Arab factions, it could increase rivalries between competing Shia groups, they say.
The government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki welcomed the declaration by Asaib Ahl al-Haq to renounce violence and enter politics, describing it as a step towards political stability.
Saad al-Mutlabi, an aide to Maliki, told IWPR that the government deserved credit for persuading insurgents to join mainstream politics.
“It’s an achievement to convince this group to lay down its arms and join us,” said Mutlabi. “We welcome them.”
Salam al-Maliki, a politician close to Asaib Ahl al-Haq, told IWPR that it was important to include as many factions as possible in shaping the future.
“This is a good time to let Iraq’s sons contribute to the building of their home,” he said. “There are disputes all the time, among everyone, but we can resolve them through dialogue.”
But Baghdad-based analyst Mariam Abdullah told IWPR that the timing of the step, immediately following the withdrawal of American troops in December 2011, was problematic.
Shia-Sunni tensions in government have been heightened by the arrest warrant issued for the country’s top Sunni politician, Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi. He has sought refuge in Kurdistan, most members of his Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc are refusing to participate in government, effecting paralysing the coalition.
Abdullah said that in general, Asaib’s move into politics “might have had a kind of positive impact, but right now, at a time Iraq when itself is suffering from political divisions, I doubt that will be the case. Adding a new faction to the already divided existing factions will result in chaos.”
Asaib Ahl al-Haq split from the Sadrists, the political/paramilitary faction behind Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, after a falling-out in 2007. Asaib was behind numerous attacks on United States forces during the occupation of Iraq.
The group recently said it was now willing to hand over the body of a British hostage, Alan McMenemy, kidnapped in 2007 along with four others, only one of whom was released alive.
Its critics say the group is sustained by covert Iranian funding, although Asaib members insist all donations are from sympathisers in Iraq.
Asaib’s former allies now form a key bloc supporting Maliki, and might have been expected to welcome them into the fold. Not so – in fact the Sadrists have bitterly opposed Asaib’s entry into politics.
Hussein Talib, a member of parliament from the Sadrist bloc, said his they would oppose their inclusion.
“We will not allow their participation, it threatens Iraq’s unity,” he said.
Muqtada al-Sadr issued a statement accusing Asaib of being “killers with no religion – all they care about is position”.
Salam al-Maliki denied that Asaib was involved in killings of Iraqis during the sectarian violence that followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
“The group acted as a resistance movement against the occupier, and their hands are not stained with Iraqi blood,” he said.
Abdul Sattar al-Shimeri, a writer and a journalist based in Baghdad, believes the Maliki administration may be using its emerging ties with Asaib as a way of clipping the Sadrists’ wings.
“The government is now reliant on its Shia supporters, and principally the Sadrists,” he said. “Bringing the Sadrists’ rivals into the coalition will strike a balance. It’s a message to the Sadrists – ‘I don’t need you, so don’t you pressure me.’”
Abeer Mohammed is IWPR editor for Iraq. This article was published at IWPR’s ICR Issue 385.