In Iraq, there are dozens of militant groups fighting under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces, which is loyal to the central government in Baghdad, fighting the Islamic State (IS), which occupies large parts of the country.
Hezbollah al-Nujaba is one of these groups. In 2006, it fought US forces during Iraq’s occupation under the name of Asaib Ahlul Haq (League of the Righteous), before the group changed its name in 2012. The group admits that it is ideologically and organizationally associated with Iran and that it is currently fighting in Syria.
Al-Monitor interviewed the group’s secretary-general, Sheikh Akram al-Kaabi.
The text of the interview follows:
Al-Monitor: What is the situation today on the Iraqi front? Do you think it is actually possible to eliminate IS?
Kaabi: The resistance factions, exemplified by the Popular Mobilization Forces, have taken full control of Tikrit today, together with the Iraqi army. Therefore, Tikrit is militarily in our hands. However, it is going to be a little while before Tikrit is declared fully cleansed as there are explosives and booby-trapped houses in the streets, and some suicide bombers are still hiding. Therefore, the forces are gradually pursuing the cleansing operations, the most important areas being the military district, Al-Diyum, part of the so-called Saddam street, Al-Awja and many other neighborhoods and streets.
After Tikrit, we will hopefully fully liberate Anbar city and then Mosul.
The situation on the Iraqi front is good. Our troops are advancing and the liberalization of Iraqi cities is going smoothly. We are chasing out terrorism in the rest of Iraqi cities. This week, we started far-reaching operations to liberate the city of Salahuddin with the participation of our brothers in the resistance factions (Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Asaib Ahlul Haq and Kataeb Hezbollah) and the Popular Mobilization Forces, and with the effective presence of advisers from [Iran’s] Revolutionary Guards and mujahedeen from the Lebanese group Hezbollah.
Of course, the resistance differs from classical armies in managing battles. We rely on quality plans and the element of surprise, and we use elite fighters who are experienced in carrying out operations. We rely on the resistance’s experience in arms manufacturing. In every battle, we introduce new quality weapons, treated or improved [weapons], or weapons that were completely built by the resistance’s hands, such as missiles.
Regarding IS, they are a failed force at all levels. They depend on two bases: creating intimidation and terror through heinous crimes that only cowards would commit, crimes such as beheadings, burning and destroying homes, killing children, raping women; and depending on Arab and Western media to promote their crimes and their actions, and dramatize their combat capabilities.
And now we see how they are being defeated in front of our heroic forces and how they are booby-trapping streets and houses, hiding behind families, and taking women and children as human shields.
Al-Monitor: You have been fighting for years and you’ve seen the course of things in Iraq since the occupation and until this moment. Why has Iraq arrived at what it is today and who is responsible for the emergence of IS?
Kaabi: What’s happening in Iraq is due to the remnants of the British-American occupation. And their interference to this day is complicating and worsening matters. Since they announced their intervention in this war, their role has been negative and they have been hitting fake targets to this day. We have intelligence information that, in the coming days, they will target the leaders of the resistance and of the Popular Mobilization Forces through terrorist groups.
We also have information that they are currently negotiating with the Izzat al-Douri wing of the Baath Party to resolve the issue of Mosul in a superficial way. Also, aid and weapons have been dropped in the IS areas that are besieged by the Popular Mobilization Forces. So the Iraqi government is to blame for the situation and it should not allow any US intervention in Iraq because the US intervention in Iraq aims to curb IS in the region but keep it in Iraq while finding a balance between [IS] and the Iraqi forces. And the Iraqi government should take a courageous stand and expel all military presence.
Al-Monitor: Iraqi factions are known to split from each other. You previously disengaged from Asaib Ahlul Haq, which in turn split from the Mahdi Army. Isn’t it better to unite to be stronger?
Kaabi: The rumor that Hezbollah al-Nujaba was formed from a split within Asaib Ahlul Haq is not true because I and a group of brothers believe in specialized work in the Iraqi arena and we tend toward jihad. But after the departure of the occupying forces from Iraq, I handed over everything to Sheikh Qais al-Khazali and I returned to complete my studies in the Hawza [Shiite religious seminary] and I completely stopped working. But after the events that took place in Syria and the targeting of the resistance axis, I returned to jihad work with a lot of brothers from the resistance. The name Hezbollah al-Nujaba originated in Syria and we are still a jihadist movement to this day. Regarding why we didn’t unite with the brothers in Asaib Ahlul Haq, it’s because we disagree on style and how work should be managed. So we are still calling on everyone, including the brothers in the leadership of Asaib Ahlul Haq, to unify the discourse and form a resistance Shura Council to unify the media and political discourse for all resistance factions. And today, in the field, the work is joint and coordination and cooperation is high.
Al-Monitor: How do you see the United States today, especially that you and [the United States] are fighting in the same trench in the face of IS?
Kaabi: The US government is an unjust and arrogant government and we are not fighting with them in the same trench. Their presence in Iraq is negative and provocative, and we send out our troops and have informed the Iraqi government that we will target US forces if they get near our troops. Our air defenses are ready to target their planes, which are helping IS by giving them weapons and ammunition.
Al-Monitor: What do you think of your inclusion in the US State Department’s terrorism list because of your role in fighting US troops and at the same time being one of the leaders of the Popular Mobilization Forces, which is fighting IS?
Kaabi: Our fight against the American forces is a legitimate national, moral and religious duty. Regarding our being on the terrorism list, it does not affect our determination and does not affect our work. But in fact it is evidence that we are still on the right path. Those who America approves of should review themselves and their religion. I am proud that I am the only Iraqi Shiite listed on the US terrorism list.
Al-Monitor: How can we define the Hezbollah al-Nujaba movement? How is it different from other Iraqi factions?
Kaabi: The Nujaba movement is one of the special Shiite groups that resisted the US occupation of Iraq, which began in April 2003. This movement started working under different names in 2004. The movement’s members have carried out more than 6,000 attacks on US [forces] in various regions of Iraq. Of course, these operations were not carried out under the movement’s name because the [attacks] were carried out by the movement’s members when we were working under different names of the resistance factions.
The movement has derived its approach and principles from the ideology of velayat-e faqih, represented by [Iraqi Ayatollah] Sayyed Mohammed al-Sadr and [Iranian] Supreme Leader [Ayatollah] Ali Khamenei.
We may not be too different from our brothers in the rest of the factions, but we distinguish ourselves by having a different management and style. We also don’t have secret goals. All our goals are public. The discourse is the same reality that we are working for and it is what we believe in.
Al-Monitor: Who supports you?
Kaabi: We do not hide the fact that the technical and logistical support comes from the [Iranian] Islamic Republic at all levels of training, arming and with the provision of advice through the presence of leaders and field advisers from the brothers in the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards. We have admitted this support and we have thanked the Islamic Republic for helping us and the rest of the resistance factions liberate Iraq from occupation as well as fight against terrorism.
Al-Monitor: You are fighting in Iraq today under the banner of the Popular Mobilization Forces and in Syria with the Syrian army and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement. Your fighting in Iraq is justified, but why are you fighting in Syria?
Kaabi: Our fight in Syria stems from our fighting doctrine, especially that the threat of terrorism in Syria and Iraq is one and the battle is one. We participated in most operations in Aleppo and its countryside, in al-Sfira, al-Rashidain, Abyad, Sheikh Saeed, Sheikh Maksoud, the Industrial City, Sheikh Najjar, Tel Shoaib, Neirab, Tarkan, Kafr El-Hamra, al-Leiramon, Hardatin, al-Mallah, Ritan, and in most operations to break the siege on Nibil and Zahra. Our forces had a prominent and distinctive role in the operations to open the Aleppo-Hama road. The resistance has given many martyrs in Syria. Our troops in Syria are special forces. And our operations are only offensive. After liberating the areas, we hand them over to the Syrian army and to the Popular Committees, and our troops move to other areas to begin new liberation operations.
Al-Monitor: Internet photos showing a military parade for your [group] at the infantry school in Aleppo have triggered criticisms from the Syrian opposition. What is their background?
Kaabi: The photos were taken at different locations in Aleppo and its countryside as well as in the countryside of Damascus. Regarding [the photos] at the military academy, they were taken when the Nujaba forces were preparing to join our brothers in the Syrian Arab Army in launching operations to lift the siege on our people in the cities of Nibil and Zahra.
Al-Monitor: How many troops do you have so that you can fight on two fronts at the same time?
Kaabi: The size of the military forces of the Nujaba movement is four brigades, fighting in Iraq and Syria. Of course, that’s aside from al-Tabia forces [a paramilitary volunteer militia established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini], which are classified as part of the movement’s reserve forces.