In February, security forces affiliated with the Iraqi government's Hashd Sha'abi commission carried out a raid on a base of the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces, which is headed by Sheikh Aws al-Khafaji. This raid led to the arrest of Khafaji himself and as of the time of writing he remains detained.
The Hashd Sha'abi commission's media directorate presented this raid as part of a crackdown on "fake bases claiming to be affiliated with the Hashd." To be sure, the issue of criminal gangs using the cover of the Hashd is a real problem. Indeed, the directorate's Twitter announcement on the matter also mentioned raids that targeted bases that claim affiliation with the Hashd's 40th brigade (Kata'ib al-Imam Ali) and the 47th brigade (Saraya al-Difa' al-Sha'abi, a Kata'ib Hezbollah affiliate). Both of those factions are well-known for their alignment with Iran.
But why would Khafaji and his Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces be classified as 'fake Hashd'? The incident raises questions about who exactly the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces are and how they fit into in the wider picture of Shi'i armed factions in Iraq and Syria.
Originally from southern Iraq, Khafaji comes from the Sadrist trend in Iraqi Shi'i Islamist politics. More precisely, Khafaji can be seen as an example of a Sadrist splinter as he fell out with Muqtada al-Sadr.
Khafaji first came to wider media prominence for his involvement in the mobilization of Iraqi Shi'i militiamen on the side of the Syrian government in the Syrian civil war- justified on the grounds of defending Shi'i shrines in the country like the Sayyida Zainab shrine in the Damascus area. In the public realm, this mobilization initially took the form of Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA), headed by Abu Ajeeb (a Syrian Shi'i originally from Aleppo province) and featuring many Syria-based Iraqis in its ranks.
Over the course of 2013, these Syria-based Iraqis who were in LAFA split off to form their own groups, such as Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar and Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib, even as more familiar Iraqi groups like Kata'ib Hezbollah and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq began advertising their own involvement in Syria.
Khafaji maintained links to those Iraqis who were originally in the LAFA network, and by 2014 he established his own Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces inside Iraq. It should be emphasized though that Khafaji's group is not affiliated with Abu Ajeeb's LAFA.
Khafaji came to be seen in the media as a figure representing the Hashd. He may also have had some kind of official position in the government-affiliated Hashd bodies and can be seen in photos alongside powerful Hashd commission figures like Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis. However, the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces did not become affiliated with the Hashd Sha'abi commission and does not have a Hashd Brigade number. For example, in 2017, one Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces source affirmed to me that the group was not affiliated with the Hashd Sha'abi commission, but was 'Islamic Resistance only.' Undoubtedly, this lack of affiliation with the Hashd Sha'abi commission provided an official pretext for the move against the group's base.
Criticizing Iranian influence
The other key point to observe is that despite Khafaji's fallout with Muqtada al-Sadr and his involvement with Iraqi Shi'i militia mobilization in Syria (something that Sadr never endorsed), Khafaji has always been a Sadrist and does not identify with Iran ideologically. Neither he nor members of his group have shied away from criticizing Iranian influence in Iraq, with perceived opportunities for criticism likely growing on account of the conventional defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and a greater focus on issues such as the country's public services and water crisis. For example, in June 2018, in response to a news item on water shortages in Iraq partly caused by Turkish and Iranian policies, Hussein al-Yasiri, a commander in the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces, wrote: "Every noble Iraqi must boycott Iran and Turkey in business, tourism and politics. This is the fate of a country and the Messenger of God (SAWS) said: a non-Arab has shown no compassion for an Arab at all by the Lord of the Ka'aba."
Shortly before his arrest, Khafaji took to being vocal in media about his criticism of Iranian influence inside Iraq, asserting that his marja'iya (religious reference authority) is Sadrist and that he does not like Iranian interference in the country. Thus, as Khafaji's own supporters see it, Khafaji's nationalist positions and criticism of Iran are the reason behind his arrest. For instance, Marwan al-Asadi, an Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces member who was previously known for his involvement in fighting in Syria, wrote shortly after Khafaji's arrest:
"Today we are going through an awakening of conscience: either you are a proud Iraqi defending your country Iraq, or you are an appendage for foreign agendas. And if you insist on your nationalism, you face a policy of silencing of mouths that the regime of Haddam al-Ba'id [Saddam Hussein] employed. And today we the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces are facing arrest by sides loyal to other states in the garment of religion and jihad. I ask you to share the post. - Marwan al-Asadi, 9th February 2019."
Salam al-Safir- another Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces member well-known for his involvement in Syria- expressed similar sentiments, writing:
"Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas [i.e. Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces] has more than 600 martyrs who were martyred in their battles against Da'esh [Islamic State], and in this frivolous way are its bases in Baghdad assaulted by Iran's thugs...the truth is that Liwa Abu al-Fadl and Saraya al-Salam [Muqtada al-Sadr's faction] and a few factions whose numbers do not exceed the fingers of one hand, these people do not represent the Hashd and do not take their orders from the Hashd commission, because the Hashd commission harbours and contains the armed factions that are affiliated with Iran only, and all who do not represent Iran and take their orders from [Qasim] Suleimani are in the view of the Hashd commission liars whose bases must be closed."
It should also be noted that despite the arrest of Khafaji and criticisms of Iran, the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces appears to maintain a small presence in Syria with links to the Syria-based groups led by Iraqis. For his part, Hayder al-Juburi, the leader of Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar, issued a brief statement of condemnation of Khafaji's arrest. More recently, Salam al-Safir put up a post of a "meeting of the Islamic Resistance in Syria: Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar, Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein, Liwa Usud al-Iraq, Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces."
Some broader analytical observations emerge from this episode surrounding Khafaji. First, while it can be easy to become engrossed in merely counting the number of different militia groups in Iraq that one can find on social media, the most reliable guide to the most relevant and powerful factions is to note which groups have registered brigade numbers on the Hashd commission. Even if some individual members received salaries from the Hashd commission and Khafaji had relations with Hashd leaders, the fact that Khafaji's group does not have a registered Hashd commission brigade number is relevant to consider here when assessing its overall power and influence in Iraq. In the grand scheme of things, the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces is in truth a minor faction, and if Khafaji and his group had really been so powerful and influential, the assault and arrest would not have occurred in the first place.
Second, Khafaji's story shows that the Iraqi groups operating in Syria are by no means a monolithic bunch ideologically and in terms of alignments. Groups like Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar and Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein are not the same as a group like Kata'ib Hezbollah. Broadly speaking, a distinction can be drawn in Syria between the groups led by Syria-based Iraqis that emerged out of LAFA and the more familiar Iraqi groups that have close ties to Iran.
Thus, rather than seeing Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar's links with Rami Makhlouf's al-Bustan Association and links of Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein (which professes Sadrist affinities) with the Syrian army's 4th Division as an Iranian masterplan to integrate proxies into Syrian state structures, the observer should consider these links to be an outgrowth of the fact that these groups are led by Iraqis living in Syria, not all of whom are ideologically aligned with Iran. However, I would not go so far as to interpret this phenomenon as a case of competition between Iran and the Syrian government to control Shi'i groups in Syria.
Of course, the likes of these Syria-based Iraqi groups and the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces do not wield the same power and influence as the more established Iranian-backed factions, but it is highly interesting to note some of these nuances that emerge from Khafaji's arrest