Abstract: In January 2007, an Iranian-backed Shi`a militant group known as Asa`ib Ahl al-Haqq (AAH) carried out an audacious attack on an Iraqi-American Provincial Joint Coordination Center in Karbala, Iraq. The head of AAH, a young cleric named Qais al-Khazali, was captured later that year. Declassified interrogation reports from al-Khazali’s time in custody reveal new information about al-Khazali’s rivalry with prominent Shi`a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, suggesting that Iranian resources do not necessarily produce militant group cohesion. These intra-sectarian rifts are likely to persist and will complicate Iran’s ability to project its influence in the future.
On January 20, 2007, roughly a dozen Shi`a militants infiltrated an Iraqi-American Provincial Joint Coordination Center (PJCC) in Karbala, Iraq. Wearing uniforms resembling those of the U.S. Army, the militants immediately opened fire on the U.S. soldiers’ living quarters, killing one and severely wounding three others. The group fled the compound, eventually taking four other U.S. soldiers hostage and executing them in Babil later that evening.1 The United States would eventually discover that the attack was the work of an Iranian-backed Shi`a militia group known as the League of the Righteous (Asa`ib Ahl al-Haqq or AAH), led by a relatively young cleric named Qais al-Khazali.2 Al-Khazali was captured alongside his brother and a member of Lebanese Hezbollah and interrogated by U.S. forces later that year.3 Today, al-Khazali not only continues to lead AAH, but has extended his reach into Iraqi politics. His Sadiqun political bloc garnered 15 of the 48 seats won by the Iranian-influenced Fatih Alliance in the May 2018 Iraqi parliamentary elections.4
Al-Khazali’s political ascendance has deepened regional concerns about malign Iranian influences, from the Mediterranean coast in Beirut to Tehran through Iraq and Syria, that can destabilize the region.5 Yet, the degree to which resources and direction from Tehran can effectively serve to consolidate what may be a diverse group of militia commanders representing a variety of political interests has considerable implications for U.S. policy. U.S. Central Command’s declassification of al-Khazali’s interrogation reports from his time in custody (March 2007-January 2010) and researcher access to these documents offer a unique opportunity to assess and evaluate the degree to which Iranian resources contribute to cohesion within the ranks of Shi`a militia groups.6
A closer look at al-Khazali’s interrogation reports from his time in custody suggests that Tehran’s influence may not always produce unity. Throughout the interrogation reports, al-Khazali discusses his personal disagreements with Muqtada al-Sadr, describing al-Sadr as an incompetent and deeply paranoid leader. Al-Khazali even offers to turn other prisoners against al-Sadr. Intra-sectarian divides like the one between al-Khazali and al-Sadr are likely to persist and may challenge Iran’s ability to project its influence. Analysts advising the U.S. government on strategy toward Iranian-backed groups should avoid characterizing them as a monolithic bloc and instead show greater appreciation for factors that may lead these groups to diverge from one another.
Qais al-Khazali and Iranian Support
Al-Khazali once served as a trusted aide to Moqtada al-Sadr, the popular Shi`a religious cleric from Baghdad who won the highest number votes in the 2018 Iraqi election. They were once allied. Born in 1974, al-Khazali studied under Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr—Muqtada al-Sadr’s father—in the al-Najaf Hawza, a prominent religious seminary. After the elder al-Sadr’s assassination in 1999, al-Khazali helped preserve the Sadrist movement in Iraq, and, after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, he served as a trusted assistant to the young Muqtada al-Sadr.7 Al-Khazali split from al-Sadr’s movement after al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi’s (JAM) poor performance during the 2004 uprisings in Najaf, which he criticized for not having “the plan, the power, or the weapons to sustain a fight.” Al-Khazali then took on a leadership role managing the Iranian-backed “Special Groups,” a particularly lethal group of Iranian-backed militias.8
Al-Khazali described accompanying a senior delegation of Sadrists to Tehran in 2003,9 where they were hosted by senior Iranian officials, chief among them Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-Quds Force) Commander Qassem Soleimani and Hajji Yusif, a Quds Force deputy commander.10 Al-Sadr facilitated the al-Khazali-Tehran link. “Self-conscious” about Iranian influence and seeking some distance between his movement and the Iranians, al-Sadr tasked al-Khazali to serve as a conduit for Iranian support.11 At this point, Iranian backing for the Sadrists was primarily financial, consisting of $750,000-$1,000,000 but sometimes as much as $2-$3 million U.S. dollars per month.12 During the 2004 Shi`a uprisings in Najaf, Yusif offered to train al-Sadr’s JAM militia members so that they could be “more capable of fighting the occupiers.”13 Al-Sadr agreed, but asked al-Khazali to select individuals who would travel to Iran for training and identify regional commanders for what would become known as the Special Groups.14
During his late 2007 interrogations, al-Khazali also traced the finer points of Iranian support. He described Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah training—to include courses on light, medium, and crew-served weapons and Explosive Formed Projectiles (EFPs)—as well as the extent of Iranian direction to the Special Groups.15 Interestingly, al-Khazali claimed that Iran was sometimes selective in determining which groups received certain types of training. For example, Iran was restrictive in its provision of Surface to Air Missile (SAM) training but was willing to give EFP courses to “anyone.”16 Al-Khazali described how funding made its way into the Special Groups’ coffers, as well as the process for smuggling weapons across the Iran-Iraq border.17
Critically, al-Khazali admitted during interrogations that he provided “approval and authorization” for the PJCC attack that killed five U.S. soldiers, while also claiming to have been the “sole authorizing authority for operations performed by the ‘Special Groups.’”18 Chiding the coalition for “making a bigger deal out of it [the PJCC attack] than it was meant to be,”19 al-Khazali disclosed that “the Iranians planned it.”20
Disputes between al-Sadr and al-Khazali
Analysis of these now publicly available interrogation files confirms Iranian efforts to disrupt U.S. stability operations in Iraq and kill U.S. soldiers, as U.S. General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker highlighted at the time.21 But a deeper look into these files also reveals the limitations of Iranian resources and support in fostering unity amongst Shi`a militants in Iraq. Instead of pointing toward a cohesive bond between al-Khazali and other Iraqi Shi`a militia leaders based on a shared ideology and benefactors in Tehran, the documents expose deep divisions between fellow Shi`a group leaders.
Under interrogation, al-Khazali was quite critical of his former Iraqi Shi`a militant comrades. When he was questioned about whether al-Sadr’s JAM members were fighting in Lebanon, he “laughed and said that a JAM member would not last a second in that fighting.”22 Beyond their lack of military acumen, al-Khazali also claimed that “the followers of al-Sadr are somewhat confused, unstable both religiously and politically.”23
Al-Khazali also discussed his personal and often petty disagreements with al-Sadr. He described al-Sadr as an incompetent, mercurial, unqualified, and deeply paranoid leader, and even offered to turn other prisoners against al-Sadr. “Sadr is not stable … [and] he is constantly changing his mind,” al-Khazali told his captors.24 He also described al-Sadr as “not focused, organized, or competent” and a “self-centered” commander who is “famous for getting rid of his leaders as soon as they start to show a shred of competence.”25 In another instance, al-Khazali omitted the cleric from his list of top five “most respected Shi’a leaders.”26
Al-Khazali further noted that personal enmity between him and al-Sadr, driven by what he perceived to be al-Sadr’s jealousy of al-Khazali’s apparently “growing popularity” and “gaining too much power,” contributed to a rift between them.27 The rift apparently boiled over when al-Khazali arranged for a prominent cleric to deliver a sermon at the al-Kufa Mosque that described an unqualified “calf”—presumably a metaphor for al-Sadr—running a country when a far more capable “bull”—presumably a metaphor for an Ayatollah—remained sidelined.28 In the wake of this thinly veiled criticism of al-Sadr’s qualifications, al-Khazali feared that al-Sadr was trying to have him assassinated.29 The divide between al-Sadr and al-Khazali apparently led the latter to take more drastic steps to undermine al-Sadr’s influence both prior to and during al-Khazali’s incarceration. Al-Khazali told the coalition that before being captured, he had begun to form a committee to “end the dictatorship” of al-Sadr.30 While in prison, he offered to “form a committee inside the prison to teach prisoners against MAS [Muqtada al-Sadr].”31 Al-Khazali said he would speak with his fellow prisoners about how they remained imprisoned because of the “mistakes that Muqtada al-Sadr has made.”32
The depth of this disagreement laid bare during interrogation belies al-Khazali’s attempts in recent years to downplay his differences with the Sadr movement in public. When asked in a 2015 interview about conflicts between his forces and the Sadrists, for example, al-Khazali noted, “There is much more that brings us closer to the Sadrist movement than anything that separates us. It is true that there are some disagreements but we would never go so far as to make them into real conflicts.”33 In an earlier interview, he had similarly claimed that “from our side we do not have a problem with his eminence Muqtada al-Sadr … [We] will not, from our end, allow the dispute to ever expand.”34
Taken together and examined in context, the al-Khazali interrogation reports are noteworthy because they expose critical faultlines and fissures among Iraqi Shi`a militants in 2007. Iraqi Shi`a militants have their own parochial interests and rivalries that will likely shape their future behavior. Iraqi Shiite militia rivalries thus have implications for the development of Iraqi politics and for U.S. policy.
These disputes between al-Sadr and al-Khazali have continued to percolate after the latter’s release from prison. In December 2011, al-Sadr called AAH a “group of religion-less killers.”35 In May 2017, al-Sadr also publicly accused al-Khazali and AAH of kidnapping and extorting Iraqi civilians.36 Beyond these public statements, al-Sadr and al-Khazali’s respective supporters have clashed in the streets. In the summer of 2013, fighting between the two groups escalated, with AAH members burning Sadrist-owned shops, followed by eventual gunfire.37 These 2011-2017 episodes demonstrate that the rifts exposed during al-Khazali’s interrogations endure. They are not merely relics of al-Khazali’s period in detention.
Subsequent political maneuvers in 2018 suggest that al-Sadr will continue to resist the influence of al-Khazali and the Fatih alliance, at least in the short term. After the leader of Fatih, Hadi al-Amiri, nominated Falih al-Fayyadh, a chief of the pro-Iranian Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) militias, to Minister of Interior, al-Sadr in November 2018 publicly chastised al-Amiri for engaging in “deals … to buy ministries … with external support.”38 “I made an agreement with you, not the corrupt and militias,” al-Sadr proclaimed.39 Al-Sadr insisted on appointing independents as ministers of defense and interior—likely to the chagrin of al-Khazali and his Iranian-backed allies—in order to “preserve Iraq and its independence.”40 Taking passive aim at Iran, al-Sadr went on to proclaim that “our neighbors are our friends and not our masters.”41 This is not to argue that al-Sadr will be able to make a clean break from Fatih or even al-Khazali, however. The PMU remain militarily formidable, and al-Sadr will thus most likely need to engage his political rivals in dialogue and consider the effects his decisions may have on their behavior. Al-Sadr’s consideration of these consequences, however, should not be confused as a warm embrace.
It may be analytically tempting to view recipients of Iranian support as uniform in their cooperation with one another. Yet, the al-Khazali interrogation documents reveal that foreign resources do little to preclude Iraqi Shi`a intra- and inter-group factionalism. If this is the case, the United States should consider a nuanced strategy toward Iranian-backed political and militant groups and avoid presupposing any unanimity in their outlook or cooperation with each other. These groups each face different sets of incentives and will thus not respond to U.S. policy instruments uniformly.
Understanding these differences and longstanding fissures among groups supported by Iran has significant implications for U.S. policies dealing with Iraq, Iran, and the Middle East. In May 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the Trump administration’s policy toward Iran’s nuclear program and destabilizing regional activities. The announcement included a list of desired changes in Iranian behavior, to include calling on Iran to respect Iraqi sovereignty and to allow for the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of Shi`a militias.42 As the United States implements its Iran strategy, analysts advising the U.S. government should avoid overstating any unifying effect of Iranian support for Iraqi Shi`a political and militant “proxy” groups. Iranian support for Shi`a militias is certainly dangerous and worthy of U.S. policy makers’ attention. However, the case of Qais al-Khazali suggests that external support from Tehran may have limited ability to resolve internecine disputes between Shi`a militias within and beyond Iraq’s borders. CTC
Bryce Loidolt is a research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the George Washington University. His research focuses on irregular warfare in the Middle East and North Africa. The views expressed here are his own and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. Government.
 For details on the attack, see “Karbala Attackers User U.S. Army-Styled Uniforms to Gain Access,” American Forces Press Service, January 26, 2007; Stanley A. McChrystal, My Share of the Task: A Memoir (London: Porfolio, 2014), pp. 565-566.
 For more information on the development of the Sadrist trend and its associated militia, Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM), see Anthony Shadid, Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War (New York: Henry Holt, 2005); Yusri Hazran, “The Rise of Politicized Shi’ite Religiosity and the Territorial State in Iraq and Lebanon,” Middle East Journal 64:4 (Autumn 2010): pp. 521-541; Patrick Cockburn, Muqtada Al-Sadr and the Battle for the Future of Iraq (New York: Scribner, 2008); and Alec Worsnop, “Who Can Keep the Peace? Insurgent Organizational Control of Collective Violence,” Security Studies 26:3 (2017): pp. 482-516.
 For details on the raid itself, see McChrystal, pp. 571-578.
 “Iraq: Manual Recount Shows Few Changes to May Election Results,” Al Jazeera, August 10, 2018; Josh Rogin, “Iraqi Terrorist Turned Politician Told U.S. Interrogators he Worked with Iran to Kill Americans,” Washington Post, August 30, 2018.
 See, for example, Jonathan Spyer, “Who is Qais al-Khazali, and Why Should You Care?” Jerusalem Post, December 15, 2017. See also Dexter Filkins, “Iran Extends its Reach in Syria,” New Yorker, June 9, 2017, and “The Future of Iran’s Presence in Syria,” Israeli Defense Forces, undated.
 The declassified reports are all available via the American Enterprise Institute’s website. See “The Qays al-Khazali Papers” at http://www.aei.org/spotlight/qayis-al-khazali-papers/. The papers were declassified for the U.S. Army’s historical study of the Iraq War that is still pending release. See Michael Gordon, “The Army Stymied Its Own Study of the Iraq War,” Wall Street Journal, October 22, 2018.
 Shadid, p. 204.
 Tactical Interrogation Report 42, April 13, 2007, available via American Enterprise Institute’s “The Qays al-Khazali Papers” Collection. For more on the Special Groups, see Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman, Iranian Strategy in Iraq: Politics and “Other Means,” (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2008).
 Tactical Interrogation Report 4, March 23, 2007, available via American Enterprise Institute’s “The Qays al-Khazali Papers” Collection.
 Tactical Interrogation Report 1, March 21, 2007, available via American Enterprise Institute’s “The Qays al-Khazali Papers” Collection. Qassem Suleimani and Hajji Yusif were later named in U.S. Treasury Department designations. See “Designation of Iranian Entities and Individuals for Proliferation Activities and Support for Terrorism,” U.S. State Department, October 25, 2007, and “Treasury Designates Individuals and Entities Fueling Violence in Iraq,” U.S. Department of Treasury, September 16, 2008.
 Tactical Interrogation Report 16, March 29, 2007, available via American Enterprise Institute’s “The Qays al-Khazali Papers” Collection.
 Tactical Interrogation Report 200243-038, November 27, 2007, available via American Enterprise Institute’s “The Qays al-Khazali Papers” Collection.
 Tactical Interrogation Report 200243-008, June 18, 2007, available via American Enterprise Institute’s “The Qays al-Khazali Papers” Collection; Tactical Interrogation Report 200243-015, June 1, 2007, available via American Enterprise Institute’s “The Qays al-Khazali Papers” Collection; Tactical Interrogation Report 11, March 26, 2007, available via American Enterprise Institute’s “Khazali Files” Collection.
 Tactical Interrogation Report 21, April 1, 2007, available via American Enterprise Institute’s “The Qays al-Khazali Papers” Collection; Tactical Interrogation Report 18, March 30, 2007, available via American Enterprise Institute’s “The Qays al-Khazali Papers” Collection. For more on Iranian training for Special Groups, see Fishman and Felter.
 Tactical Interrogation Report 6, March 24, 2007, available via American Enterprise Institute’s “The Qays al-Khazali Papers” Collection.
 Tactical Interrogation Report 62, April 26, 2007, available via American Enterprise Institute’s “The Qays al-Khazali Papers” Collection.
 Tactical Interrogation Report 97, May 20, 2007, available via American Enterprise Institute’s “The Qays al-Khazali Papers” Collection. Iran’s role in the PJCC attack was also revealed in a U.S. Department of Defense press briefing after al-Khazali’s capture. Brigadier General Kevin Bergner, then-U.S. spokesmen for the Multinational Force Iraq, briefed reporters in July 2007 that al-Khazali, along with his Lebanese Hezbollah associate, admitted that “senior leadership within the Quds Force knew of and supported planning for the eventual Karbala attack.” See Jim Garamone, “Iran Arming, Training, Directing Terror Groups in Iraq, U.S. Official Says,” American Forces Press Service, July 3, 2007.
 Tactical Interrogation Report 13, March 27, 2007, available via American Enterprise Institute’s “The Qays al-Khazali Papers” Collection.
 Tactical Interrogation Report 200243-007, June 18, 2007, available via American Enterprise Institute’s “The Qays al-Khazali Papers” Collection.
 Tactical Interrogation Report 200243-041, December 21, 2007, available via American Enterprise Institute’s “The Qays al-Khazali Papers” Collection; Tactical Interrogation Report 200243-045, January 3, 2008, available via American Enterprise Institute’s “The Qays al-Khazali Papers” Collection; Tactical Interrogation Report 42.
 Tactical Interrogation Report 200243-022, July 20, 2007, available via American Enterprise Institute’s “The Qays al-Khazali Papers” Collection.
 Tactical Interrogation Report 200243-009, June 21, 2007, available via American Enterprise Institute’s “The Qays al-Khazali Papers” Collection.
 Tactical Interrogation Report 200243-010, June 23, 2007, available via American Enterprise Institute’s “The Qays al-Khazali Papers” Collection.
 Tactical Interrogation Report 200243-012, June 23, 2007, available via American Enterprise Institute’s “The Qays al-Khazali Papers” Collection.
 Mohammad al-Zaidi, “Interview with Militia Leader, Qais al-Khazali: ‘We Don’t Deny Militias Have Committed Violations,’” Niqash, August 19, 2015.
 Ili Shalhub, “Qais al-Khazali’s Interview: Hezbollah is the Most Prominent Resistance Movement in the Region and World,” Al-Akhbar (Arabic), January 27, 2012.
 “Sadr Describes Assa`ib Ahl al-Haqq As a Group of Religion-less Killers,” Al-Sumaria (Arabic), December 28, 2011.
 “Sadr Accuses al-Khaza`li’s Militia of Committing Kidnapping Crimes in Iraq,” Yaqin (Arabic), May 11, 2017.
 For an excellent round-up, see Joel Wing, “Sadrists-League of the Righteous Clash in Iraq During the Summer,” Musings on Iraq, September 5, 2013.
 “Al-Sadr Denies His Role in Delaying Government Formation…and Insists on Independents for ‘Interior’ and ‘Defense,’” Al-Sharq al-Awsat (Arabic), November 28, 2018.