By Hamza Mustafa
BAGHDAD—Wathiq al-Battat, secretary-general of Hezbollah in Iraq, seems to be paying little attention to the arrest warrant issued against him by the Iraqi interior ministry after he formed the militia dubbed jaysh al-mukhtar, or the Mukhtar Army. The confusion and uproar was compounded by the appearance of pictures and posters in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities in the country’s south and center which declare, “Support the Era of Mukhtar!” with Mukhtar here meaning Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
These slogans and posters were accompanied by an escalation in the demonstrations in the Sunni-dominated western provinces of Iraq in opposition to Maliki’s policies.
A series of events has added to the confusion: recruitment forms for the Mukhtar Army have been distributed throughout the streets, rocket attacks on Camp Liberty have begun anew, and leaflets have been scattered about in some Baghdad neighborhoods openly threatening citizens. Maliki has decided to address these new developments by issuing an arrest warrant for Mr. Battat, while simultaneously hoping to disambiguate the terms “era of Mukhtar” and “the Mukhtar Army.”
Terrorist Wathiq al-Battat of Iraqi Hezbollah
Maliki went as far to call on ordinary citizens to aid him in arresting Mr. Battat. Yet despite the authorities’ inability to track Mr. Battat, various Iraqi and Arabic media outlets, including Asharq Al-Awsat, were able to reach him by telephone. He did not conceal his location during the call, saying he was in the holy city of Najaf.
Interior ministry spokesman Lt. Col. Saad Maan blamed the authorities’ inability to locate Mr. Battat ten days after the issuance of the warrant for his arrest, on the authorities’ “inability to track his phone calls.” He added in a statement to Asharq Al-Awsat that “The government is serious about imposing security and stability in all parts of the country, and those who scatter leaflets or issue threatening statements online aren’t necessarily capable of posing a serious threat.”
Lt. Col. Mann added, “The right to use coercive force belongs solely to the state, and no extrajudicial army or militia of any name is permissible, and thus the authorities will continue to pursue those who sow division regardless of affiliation.”
Mr. Battat, who seemed relaxed throughout his telephone conversation with Asharq Al-Awsat, believes that the decision to issue a warrant for his arrest was misguided, for two reasons: First, because he has not collided with the government, having entered the political fray two years ago, following the US withdrawal. Second, if the government wants him arrested because he founded the Mukhtar Army, it will have a difficult time doing so due to the thousands of jihadists he has at his beck and call.
Mr. Battat said, “I am surprised that they have decided to issue a warrant for my arrest while I am the secretary-general of a party that boasts tens of thousands of jihadist militants and thousands of rockets, that party being Hezbollah – Islamic Renaissance, which had been previously been named Islamic Resistance prior to the American withdrawal.
“The Mukhtar Army came about at a difficult time. It is not an organized army, nor does it have weapons or structures of command like that of Hezbollah. It is a local group formed to protect the people. However, our enemies, which include al-Qaeda, Salafist militias, and other armed groups, are openly hostile towards us. They fear the Mukhtar Army, and this prompted the government to issue this arrest warrant that neither I nor the jihadists of my party find necessary.”
Militias in Iraq
The fall of the Baathist regime in 2003 and subsequent dissolution of the Iraqi army by Paul Bremer, then the administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority of Iraq, paved the way for militias and groups that had been fighting against the former regime. Jihadist groups had two options: either continue carrying out operations under the guise of “resisting the occupation,” something which Hezbollah in its various incarnations chose to do (Mr. Battat’s group included), or enter the political process and incorporate the militias into the ranks of the new National Guard forces which was formed in 2004 during the government of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
The formation of this new army did not mark the end of the militia phenomenon in Iraq, rather it marked a shift towards these group assuming political, partisan, and regional dimensions. The period of sectarian strife and civil war from 2006 to 2008 was the most trying test for the sectarian balance, with Sunni Al-Qaeda in the western provinces of Iraq and the Shi’ite Mahdi Army in country’s central and southern governorates, and Baghdad divided along sectarian lines by neighborhood.
The various awakening movements among the people, aggressive government measures, and noticeable help from the Americans all but eradicated the militias. In late 2007 the irregular armies of Iraq splintered into the Mahdi Army, the Army of Muhammad, Islamic Army, and others. The Sunni Awakening in the western regions of Iraq, first established in the Anbar Governorate at the hands of the late Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, pursued Al-Qaeda, paving the way for American and Iraqi military forces to neutralize many Al-Qaeda field generals, which including killing the Egyptian Abu Hamza and arresting Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi. In the south, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki undertook Operation Charge of the Knights which successfully drove the Mahdi Army out of its stronghold in Basra. Muqtada Al-Sadr, after whom the army had been named, fled Iraq for Iran where he lived in exile for four years. Mr. Battat told Asharq Al-Awsat that at that time offshoots of Hezbollah were, “…part of the Mahdi Army up to a certain point in time, after we had discovered that we shared a common cause, not to mention that I was already working in the Office of Al-Shahid Sadr.” The Sadrists had already entered the political process, participating in elections and winning dozens of seats in parliament. Meanwhile Hezbollah – Islamic Resistance remained disconnected from the political process and convinced that “Combating the American occupiers was what was needed,” according to Mr. Battat.
The various awakenings later allied with the government and enjoyed a honeymoon of sorts for several years, before a series of disputes wiped away any semblance of amiability between the two. With the outbreak of demonstrations in the country’s western regions, Anbar Salvation Council leader Ahmed Abu Risha became highly critical of Maliki’s policies. Meanwhile Muqtada al-Sadr, who joined Maliki in the Iraqi National Alliance, seemed to turn against Maliki in 2012 when he joined a coalition with the president of Iraqi Kurdish Region Massoud Barzani and with the leader of the Iraqi List Iyad Allawi, which attempted to topple Maliki’s government with a vote of no confidence.
Mr. Battat seems more candid than the rest regarding his links to Iran. He says that he is “ideologically bound to the authority of the faqih.” Mr. Battat says that he does not see “any contradiction between my being an Iraqi national, and my religious identification with the Islamic Republic [of Iran], based on my adherence to the guidance of the faqih…It would be difficult to impose the rule of the faqih over Iraq because of its pluralistic makeup…any comrade, whether a comrade through religion or through ethnicity, must respect the will of the majority in Iraq… The most suitable form of government for Iraq is the presidential system, or at the very least the system of majority rule.”
Wathiq Battat was born in 1973 to a Shiite family in the Masharah District in the Maysan Governorate (400 km south of Baghdad). His convictions were first forged here when Saddam Hussein drained the marshes that dominated the landscape of his hometown, and again when this area was exposed to repeated shelling during the Iraq-Iran War of the 1980s.
He moved with his family to the nearby city of Amara where he completed his primary school education. During the 1990s he moved with his family to Baghdad where he completed his secondary school education and one of his brothers worked in a military factory. After secretly joining jihadist groups opposed to Saddam’s regime, he moved to the marsh regions of Iran in 1993. These groups fell under the leadership of Hezbollah in Iraq, led by Hassan Al-Sari (now a leading figure in the ruling Dawa Party in Iraq), where he adopted the nom de guerre Abu Asadullah.
His father and brother were arrested while he was in Iran operating under the leadership of Dr. Hussain Al-Shahristani. Dr. Shahristani is currently the Iraqi deputy prime minister and was one of the most prominent rebels, and languished in Sadam’s prisons for many years due to his refusal to take part in Iraq’s nuclear project under Saddam Hussein.
Mr. Battat said that: “Dr. Shahristani established jihadist militias with Iran’s backing opposed to the Baathist regime of Saddam. A group of my peers and I joined despite the fact that these groups did not have any official name at the time. We carried out missions against the former regime, sometimes entering western Iraq from Dehloran in Iran. I adopted the nom de guerre Sayed Ali Sayed Taher al-Battat. Our group was 300 strong however the authorities were able to arrest of 270 of us, and I was among the captives.”
His nom de guerre allowed him to escape identification, and from there on he was tied to Iranian cells. “We were assigned missions within Iraq, most notably operations against the People’s Mujahedin of Iran which opposed the Iranian regime. Soon after they sentenced me to death in absentia and I was arrested.” Fearing for his life, he fled to Iran to join the Badr Brigades and enrolled in the University of Tehran where he obtained a BS in Military Science and later a master’s degree in the same subject. He later went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in law from the University of Kufa in Iraq.
As a member of the Badr Brigades, Mr. Battat was assigned the most difficult mission of his life in 1998: the assassination of Ali Hassan al-Majid, also known as “Chemical Ali.” “We were ordered by the Badr Brigades, which at that time operated under the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, to assassinate Ali Hassan al-Majid. However we were arrested en route, but because they did not identify us we were granted amnesty by Saddam Hussein and released. Soon after I was arrested again, and this time they managed to identify me. I was imprisoned for a year and 8 months and three death sentences were issued against me but none of them were carried out. I was pardoned and released again, and subsequently founded Thar Allah in 2002. From Saddam’s fall in 2003 until 2006 I was in the ranks of the Mahdi Army, during which time I traveled to Lebanon and thereafter formed Hezbollah in Iraq which is tied to the rule of the faqih in Iran.”
The just dictator
Mr. Battat does not shy away from many topics. He willingly discussed his vision of a just dictator and the reasons behind why he chose to name his militia the Mukhtar Army. He admits that he believes in the system of government advanced by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, the ‘rule of the supreme jurist,’ or velyat-e faqih, in which a qualified religious figure acts as a just dictator.
How do others perceive this? According to Adnan al-Sarraj, a prominent figure in the State of Law Coalition led by Nuri al-Maliki, the government does not support the existence of militias. Mr. Sarraj told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The Rule of Law, unlike other political groups, does not maintain any militias or believe that they can be part of the political process, something which is apparent to everyone . . . On the contrary, we fought the militias and stood firmly against them. We are determined that weapons are limited to the state, and that the Iraqi Army is the only army.”
As for the symbolic act of naming the group “Mukhtar,” Mr. Sarraj says: “Aside from names, the state issued an arrest warrant against him. It is the state’s right to pursue and prosecute militia leaders, subject them to the law, and see that they get their correct punishment . . . Some of these militias take shape after calls for their establishment from here or there, especially from radical clerics in some governorates during Friday sermons or the like.”
The Iraqi List called upon Maliki to eliminate what it called the Battatian phenomenon (referring to Mr. Battat) and the Khazalian phenomenon (referring to Qais al-Khazali, commander of the League of the Righteous). Hamid al-Mutlaq, a leading figure from the Iraqi List, told Asharq Al-Awsat that, “These phenomena are caused first by failing to build a professional army capable of securing the homeland and that does not follow a certain party or sect. Secondly, from the outset, the army, which was established by the American administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority of Iraq Paul Bremer, was composed of partisan and sectarian militias . . . We have suffered from these mistakes for a long time, as we will continue to suffer from the government’s lack of commitment to eliminating these groups.”
Hussein Fawzi of the Democratic Movement in Iraq said in a statement to Asharq Al-Awsat that “The
formation of one of these groups, no matter its pretext or motives, is done to protect a group of people. It signals the weakness of the authorities and their failure to maintain security in the country. The constitution prohibits armed groups of any kind, and these armed militias are tantamount to a giant sword dangling above all of our heads, threatening the foundations of the state and its weakening institutions . . . Mr. Battat announced that he owes his allegiance to the faqih in Iran. There are religious authorities in Iraq to whom he owes his allegiance. They are from the same homeland and from foreign lands. Therefore if he was committed to the political process as he claims then he must respect the Iraqi state despite its shortcomings.
Hezbollah comes to Iraq
Hezbollah in Iraq is part of the Hezbollah organization, which includes Hassan Nasrallah’s Hezbollah in Lebanon. The latter group also pledges its allegiance to the faqih in Iran, from whom they directly derive their instructions as well as their funding.
Hezbollah in Iraq, led by Mr. Battat, is an offshoot of Hezbollah and Thar Allah, which were active in the Mesopotamian marsh regions during the war between Iran and Iraq and after the Shiite uprising in 1991. Mr. Battat founded his group in 2006 in Lebanon under the name of Hezbollah–Islamic Resistance, but after the withdrawal of the Americans at the end of 2011, ‘Resistance’ was changed to ‘Renaissance.’
According to statements by Mr Battat in a recent interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, his group can call upon 387,000 armed members and an arsenal of more than 10,000 missiles.
He also claims that his group carried out some 1,200 military operations against US forces. They also bombed the Kuwaiti port Mubarak during tense talks regarding this port between the Iraqi and Kuwaiti governments.
As for its other activities, Mr. Battat says his group carried out its first operations in Iraq against the People’s Mujahedin of Iran. He recently admitted to bombing Camp Liberty, which houses elements of the People’s Mujahedin, with more than 50 rockets. This raised fears that his group will possess formidable military force as long as it openly pledges allegiance to Iran and, as he says, it’s just dictator.