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Is this the end of Iran’s “Iraqi Hezbollah”?

September 19, 2016
Reza HaghighatNejad
7 min read
Is this the end of Iran’s “Iraqi Hezbollah”?
Is this the end of Iran’s “Iraqi Hezbollah”?
Wathiq al-Battat, Leader of Mukhtar Army
Wathiq al-Battat, Leader of Mukhtar Army
Wathiq al-Battat, Leader of Mukhtar Army
Wathiq al-Battat, Leader of Mukhtar Army
The Emblem of the Mukhtar Army
The Emblem of the Mukhtar Army

Over the last two weeks, the remaining 280 members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK) based in Iraq have relocated to Albania. With their departure came one vital question: What happened to Jaysh al-Mukhtar, or the Mukhtar Army, the group that had been fighting against them in Iraq?

The Mukhtar Army first came to public attention in February 2013, when it claimed responsibility for a mortar attack on Camp Liberty in Baghdad, where MEK members had been staying. Seven residents of the camp were killed.

The army is named after Mukhtar al-Thaqafi, a 7th-century Shia hero, and it is led by Wathiq al-Battat, a cleric from the holy Iraqi city of Najaf. The group stated that its purpose was to help the Iraqi government to fight corruption and Al Qaeda. When it formed, members considered Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister at the time, as a latter-day Mukhtar. The group has also been given the nickname Iraq’s Hezbollah.


Khamenei’s “Foot Soldier”

Some in Iraq had accused the group of being “made in Iran,” an accusation that was not necessarily unfounded. In a phone interview with the Associated Press shortly after the February 2013 attack, al-Battat described himself as a follower of the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and said that his group was receiving arms and support from Iran. In another interview in October 2013 he said that in the case of a war breaking out between Iran and Iraq, he would side with Iran. “I am a foot soldier for Ayatollah Khamenei,” he said with pride.

According to reports [Persian link], al-Battat’s relations with Iran went back two decades. In 1993, al-Battat sneaked into Iran with the intention of making contact with Iranian security and military agencies. He then traveled to the holy city of Qom, where he was introduced to the Islamic Dawa Party, an anti-Saddam Hussein Iraqi group that operated from Iran. The party sent him to its military training camp for members, which was located in the southwestern province of Khuzestan bordering Iraq and home to most of Iran’s Arab ethnic minority. He proved to be a fast learner and was soon appointed as commander of a brigade.

The People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK) played a role in overthrowing the Shah, but fell foul with Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Not long after the Iran-Iraq war began in 1980, it solidified its enemy status by moving its headquarters to Iraq and joining Saddam Hussein in fighting Iran. While al-Battat was in Iran, the Iraqi government also arrested his brother. Al-Battat requested to be sent to Iraq to participate in military operations there. His mission was to strike at MEK in Iraq, but before long Iraqi intelligence agencies identified him and he was sentenced to death in absentia. He was forced to return to Iran. He settled in Tehran and enrolled in a Master’s degree program in military science at Tehran University.

In Tehran, he began cooperating with the Badr Organization, the military wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which is based in Iran. He was sent to Iraq to assassinate General Ali Hassan al-Majid, a cousin of Saddam Hussein who became known as “Chemical Ali”. But authorities arrested al-Battat and his two companions for illegally entering Iraq. At the time of the arrest, they were carrying fake IDs and the police failed to identify al-Battat as the man who had been sentenced to death in absentia. They mistook him for a smuggler and he was sentenced to 20 months in prison, after which he returned to Iran again.

Upon his return, he was appointed as a high-level commander in the Badr Organization. In 2002, he established his own military organization called Sarollah. Then came the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. Al-Battat moved his group to Iraq and joined the Mehdi Army run by the anti-American Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. In 2006, al-Battat traveled to Lebanon and was inspired by Lebanese Hezbollah. On his return to Iraq, al-Battat and others announced the creation of the Iraqi Hezbollah. In the following years, internal differences led the group to break up.

Then came the creation of the Mukhtar Army, which took as its an emblem a symbol that closely resembled that of Lebanese Hezbollah. Shortly after, the army launched its 2013 attack on Camp Liberty. At the time, conservative Iranian media reported that the attack had been in retaliation for the 1991 massacre of Iraqi Shias carried out jointly by Saddam Hussein’s forces and members of the MEK. “In reality the operation against Camp Liberty was carried out by the Iranian regime with the cooperation of the government of Iraq," a spokesman for MEK said in Paris. "Al-Battat is part of this terror machine.”

Conquering Saudi Arabia

Al-Battat, however, was not content with having a minor role in the events unfolding.  In interviews conducted with him after the attack, he referred to “a million-man Shia army” and claimed that a number of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army had joined him, a claim that was denied by the Mehdi Army. He also boasted that his army was going to conquer Saudi Arabia.

Al-Battat threatened opponents of the then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and told Fars News Agency that he had 23,000 trained troops ready to “strike at American interests anywhere in the Persian Gulf” region.

These were big claims, but he did try to carry out what operations he could. In November 2013, the Mukhtar Army carried out a mortar attack against a Saudi border post near the Iraqi border, though it failed to do any damage. “The goal was to send a message of warning to Saudis, to tell them that their border stations and patrols are within our range of fire,” al-Battat told Reuters. He said his militia wanted Riyadh to stop “interfering” in Iraq and that it had also been angered by Saudis and Kuwaitis, who he said had insulted the Prophet Mohammad's daughter. “This is just the beginning. There will be more attacks if they [the Saudis] do not stop,” he said.

With the attack on Saudi soil, the Iraqi government and even Maliki, who had enjoyed such strong support from al-Battat, had enough. The government issued an order for al-Battat’s arrest. He was detained, although not for long. 

Death and Resurrection

Then came a series of conflicting reports about al-Battat. In December 2014, Iranian media reported that he had been killed. First the death was attributed to a clash with “terrorists,” but then there were claims that he had been killed by a roadside bomb planted by agents from Saudi Arabia. The website Mashregh News even published what it claimed was a photograph of his body.

A day later news reports said rumors of his death were unfounded. One Iranian website claimed that al-Battat had not even been in Iraq at the time. On July 5, 2015 Fars News Agency — which had previously reported that he had been “martyred” — published a report saying that he had participated in a Quds Day parade in Mashhad and attended the Friday Prayers following the parade.

Shortly after al-Battat reemerged, the Mukhtar Army staged another attack against Camp Liberty in October 2015. This time the army used rockets instead of mortars, demonstrating that the group had been supplied with better equipment. The attacked killed 25 people and injured 200 MEK members. "We warned the members of this terrorist organization to leave Iraq as soon as possible ... If they don't do so, there will be more similar attacks,” al-Battat said, according to reports published by Fars News Agency.

But shortly after, the conservative media in Iran went silent on the matter, and scarcely mentioned al-Battat or the Mukhtar Army. In June 2016, Mehr News Agency published a report about the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, a coalition of Shia paramilitary forces fighting against ISIS. In the report, the Mukhtar Army was referred to as a small group — whereas a few years earlier, al-Battat had boasted about his “million-man army”.

So why is the Iranian regime currently downplaying the Mukhtar Army? The most likely answer is that the group was originally formed to harm MEK, and now that its members have all left Iraq, al-Battat and his group’s usefulness has come to an end. And since al-Battat has shown himself to be an abrasive character with unpredictable tendencies —  embarrassing even Iran’s Shia allies in Iraq — perhaps it seems like an appropriate time for powerful individuals and institutions in Iran to distance themselves from him and his army. 

On the other hand, tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to mount. So if one day soon, the Mukhtar Army or something very similar to it enjoys a period of resurrection and is given the task of dealing with Saudis in Iraq, it will come as no surprise. 


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