From Tehran apartments to beaches in Lebanon, figures in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah acted as handlers of Qais al-Khazali as the Iraqi split from Muqtada al-Sadr and formed the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia.
While under interrogation at the hands of the US armed forces following his capture in March 2007, Khazali spoke about his ties with ‘Hajj Yusif,’ a member of the IRGC’s elite Qods Force, and ‘Sayid Sadiq,’ Hezbollah’s military pointman in Iraq.
A cross-reference of the interrogation notes, which were declassified in 2018, with other publicly available data reveals the identities of both these figures, shedding further light on the operations of the IRGC and Hezbollah.
In June 2003, as the US scrambled to establish authority in Iraq following its invasion, Khazali joined Sadr for a trip to Tehran to discuss the possibility of Iranian financial support for the Iraqi cleric and his nascent efforts to counter the US. During this visit, Khazali met for the first time with ‘Hajj Yusif.’ It was the beginning of a close relationship.
Although Khazali did not provide his interrogators with ‘Hajj Yusif’s’ full name, he identified the Iranian by photo. Known to Khazali as ‘Hajj Yusif,’ the Qods Force officer is Abdul Reza Shahlai, who went on to become the IRGC’s pointman in Yemen.
In the initial Tehran meetings, Sadr struck a cautious note. While Shahlai offered for the Qods Force to fund the Iraqi cleric, Sadr did not accept at the time as he did not want the IRGC to control his operations. Sadr decided to use Khazali as a conduit to Tehran to distance himself personally from the Iranians.
The Iranians, for their part, began to use Khazali for their own purposes after Sadr started accepting Iranian money. Khazali told interrogators that during a late 2003 trip to Tehran, Shahlai approached him to “act as a safety valve for the Iranian,” who were uncomfortable putting their support behind only Sadr.
It was not just one-way traffic to Tehran. Shahlai would travel to Najaf, including in early 2004 when Sadr turned down a meeting with the Qods Force officer. Khazali, however, met in private with the Iranian, one of multiple sit-downs the two would hold in the Iraqi city to discuss the mechanics of Iranian support against the US.
Najaf became a battleground, with Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi group battling US-led coalition forces in the early and late summer. Shahlai visited the embattled city during the fighting, as a rift erupted between Khazali, who led a brigade in Jaysh al-Mahdi, and Sadr over how to fight the US. Shahlai and Khazali both perceived Jaysh al-Mahdi to have fought ineffectively.
Despite Khazali’s growing separation from Sadr, the Iraqi cleric dispatched him to Tehran in late 2004 to discuss the parliamentary elections scheduled for January. Sadr wanted to boycott the vote, while Tehran was insistent he support the participation of Shia groups. Shahlai drove home Iran’s stance during a meeting with Khazali and accompanied him for a meeting with Qods Force chief Qassem Soleimani to discuss the elections.
Upon Khazali’s return to Iraq, Sadr erupted in anger at the Iranian pressure, but eventually relented. In his interrogations, Khazali blasted Sadr and depicted him as a paranoid and incompetent leader. The stage was set for Shahlai to take advantage of Khazali’s bitter feelings and recruit him directly for the IRGC.
In 2005, Shahlai organized a vacation for Khazali in Lebanon, where the Iraqi militiaman brought his brother to specialized clinics to treat him for a Parkinson’s-like disease. They were escorted by a Hezbollah official who Khazali identified only as ‘Sayid Sadiq,’ a short, ruddy-complexioned man sporting a trim salt-and-pepper beard.
‘Sayid Sadiq,’ whose real name is Yusuf Hashim, served as the head of Hezbollah’s Unit 2800 and a pointman for the Lebanese organization’s military operations in Iraq.
Hashim did not broach specifics on Khazali’s work in Iraq during the militiaman’s five-day trip to Lebanon. Instead, the Hezbollah official took Khazali and his brother around to tourist sites and beaches and spoke in generalities about the conflict in Iraq.
Following his vacation to Lebanon, Khazali met with Shahlai in his apartment in northern Tehran with a view of the Alborz Mountains. Hashim joined the get-together and told Khazali he wanted to help his efforts against the US. The Hezbollah official made an offer for concrete support that Khazali accepted.
Shortly after the meeting at the Qods Force officer’s apartment, Hashim tasked another Hezbollah official to work with Khazali to bolster his network of fighters in Iraq, which split from Jaysh al-Mahdi in 2006 to become Asaib Ahl al-Haq.
Hezbollah’s pointman for Khazali was Ali Moussa Daqduq, a Farsi-speaking Lebanese national who also held an Iranian passport. Daqduq revamped Khazali’s network of fighters, creating cells to conduct kidnappings, mortar attack, and roadside bombings of US forces with highly lethal explosively formed penatrators.
Khalazi told interrogators that the structure of his group was the “brainchild” of Ali Moussa Daqduq and his Qods Force contact, Shahlai. While Daqduq played an integral role in Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s military development, he only came to Iraq for short periods of time.
Daqduq, who actively tried to obscure his role in Hezbollah, would travel from Lebanon to Iran, where he would then sneak across the border into Iraq via marshlands. A shadowy Iraqi with strong ties to Tehran, Abu Sajjad al-Gharawi, would help smuggle Daqduq traverse the border smuggling routes.
Gharawi, a long-time resident of Iran, served as a facilitator for the Qods Force’s armament of Shia militias in Iraq. Khazali recounted to interrogators how Gharawi operated as a cut-out for the smuggling of weapons, contacting Shahlai to clear Iraqi requests for arms.
Beyond the moving of weapons, Gharawi also facilitated Khazali’s trips to Tehran, picking the militiaman up at the border and taking Khazali to a safehouse in Ahvaz before his flights to the Iranian capital.
Bolstered with Hezbollah and Qods Force support, Asaib Ahl al-Haq began a series of attacks. In January 2007, commandos from Khazali’s conducted a dramatic raid on US forces in a provincial security headquarters in Karbala, kidnapping four soldiers who they later executed.
Two months later, British special forces captured Khazali along with Daqduq. Khazali remained in custody until 2010, when he was swapped for a British hostage. He resumed his role as leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, growing to become one of the most influential Shia militia figures in Iraq.
In December 2017, Khazali visited Lebanon again, this time in a show of support for Hezbollah during a publicized tour along the border with Israel. Lebanese authorities later issued an arrest warrant for Khazali, saying he entered the country illegally.
Daqduq was released from custody in 2012. Israel’s Defense Forces in 2019 accused him of working to establish Hezbollah operations in Syria along the Golan demarcation line.
Meanwhile, Shahlai set up operations in Yemen’s capital of Sanaa. The US has offered an award for information on the Qods Force official, who Washington alleged funded the foiled assassination plot against Saudi Arabia’s envoy to the US in 2011.