Issa T. Salomi, a US civilian contractor, behind a flag that reads “League of the Righteous, Imam Ali Regiment.” Associated Press photo.
An Iranian-backed Shia terror group that claims it seeks reconciliation with the Iraqi government has kidnapped a US civilian in Baghdad. The US recently released the top leader of the group under the guise of a reconciliation program, but the release actually was related to a hostage exchange.
The Asaib al Haq, or the League of the Righteous, kidnapped Issa T. Salomi, a US civilian contractor, in Baghdad in late January. Salomi went missing in Baghdad sometime after Jan. 23, the US Department of Defense noted in a press release on Friday.
The League of the Righteous issued a videotape of Salomi, who is pictured in US Army digital fatigues in front of a banner that reads “League of the Righteous, Imam Ali Regiment.”
The League of the Righteous has demanded that the Iraqi government release all members of the League and “bring the proper justice and the proper punishment to those members of Blackwater company that have committed unjustifiable crimes against innocent Iraqi civilians,” according to a partial translation provided by The Associated Press.
The kidnapping of the US contractor comes just a little more than a month after the US military released Qaiz Qazali, the leader of the League of the Righteous. Qazali was behind the kidnapping and murder of five US soldiers in Karbala in January 2007 and numerous other acts of terrorism before he was captured in March 2007.
Qazali was released in late December 2009, purportedly as part of a reconciliation process, which the League has suspended this week as it claims the Iraqi government will not free all of its members.
But Qazali was released at the same time that a British contractor, who had been captured by the League of the Righteous in May of 2007, was turned over to the British. The Shia terror group previously executed four other British contractors who had also been held hostage.
The release of Qazali and his brother Laith, who was freed in July 2009 along with more than 100 other members of the group, has angered US military and intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal. At the time of Qazali’s release, US military and intelligence officials said that the reconciliation program was an excuse to conduct a hostage exchange and warned that the group would return to terrorism.
“The official line is the release of Qazali is about reconciliation, but in reality this was a prisoner swap,” a military intelligence official said after Qazali’s release in December. Another military officer described Qazali’s release as “a deal signed and sealed in British and American blood,”
The kidnapping of the US contractor is seen as evidence the League of the Righteous has no intentions of reconciling as claimed and will continue to use violence to achieve their ends.
“We’ve been had,” a senior military officer told The Long War Journal. “Anyone who closely followed the League of the Righteous should have known this was inevitable.”
Background on Qais Qazali
Qais Qazali was the commander of the League of the Righteous before US forces detained him and several other Shia terrorists in 2007. Qais commanded a large Mahdi Army faction and served as a spokesman and senior aide to Muqtada al Sadr. The terror group, which was part of the Mahdi Army until the spring of 2008, has received extensive financial and military support from Iran’s Qods Force, the external division that backs Hezbollah and is tasked with supporting the Khomeinist Islamist revolution.
The League of the Righteous was directly implicated by General David Petraeus as being behind the January 2007 attack on the Provincial Joint Coordination Center in Karbala as well as other high-profile terror attacks in Iraq. Five US soldiers were killed during the Karbala attack and subsequent kidnapping attempt. The US soldiers were executed after US and Iraqi security forces closed in on the assault team.
The attack on the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Center was a complex, sophisticated operation. The assault team, led by tactical commander Azhar al Dulaimi, was trained in a mock-up of the center that was built in Iran. The unit had excellent intelligence and received equipment that made them appear to be US soldiers. Some of the members of the assault team are said to have spoken English.
The US military caught a break when it detained Laith and Qais and several other members of the network during a raid in Basrah in March 2007. Also detained during the raid was Ali Mussa Daqduq, a senior Hezbollah operative who was tasked by Iran to organize the Special Groups and “rogue” Mahdi Army cells along the lines of Lebanese Hezbollah. Daqduq is a 24-year veteran of Hezbollah, and he commanded both a Hezbollah special operations unit and the security detail of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Azhar al Dulaimi, the leader of the January 2007 Karbala assault team, was killed in a raid in Baghdad in May 2007.
Background on Iranian activity in Iraq
Flash Presentation on the Ramazan Corps and the Iranian Ratlines into Iraq. Click the map to view. A Flash Player is required to view, click to download. Presentation by Nick Grace and Bill Roggio, December 2007.
Both the Iraqi government and the US military have stated that Iran has backed various Shia terror groups inside Iraq, including elements of the Mahdi Army. While the Iranian government has denied the charges, Iraqi and US forces have detained dozens of Iranian Qods Force officers and operatives, captured numerous Shia terrorist leaders under Iranian command, and found ample documentation as well as Iranian-made and Iranian-supplied weapons.
Since late 2006, US and Iraqi forces have captured and killed several high-level Qods Force officers inside Iraq. Among those captured were Mahmud Farhadi, one of the three Iranian regional commanders in the Ramazan Corps; Ali Mussa Daqduq, a senior Lebanese Hezbollah operative; and Qais Qazali, the leader of the Qazali Network, which is better known as the Asaib al Haq or the League of the Righteous. Azhar al Dulaimi, one of Qazali’s senior tactical commanders, was killed in Iraq in early 2007.
Since mid-October 2008, Iraqi and US forces have killed one Qods Force operative and captured 17 during raids throughout southern and central Iraq.
Qods Force, the special operations branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, has supported various Shia militias and terror groups inside Iraq, including the Mahdi Army. Qods Force helped to build the Mahdi Army along the same lines as Lebanese Hezbollah. Iran denies the charges, but captive Shia terrorists admit to having been recruited by Iranian agents and then transported into Iran for training.
Immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iran established the Ramazan Corps to direct operations inside Iraq. The US military says that Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah have helped establish, fund, train, arm, and provide operational support for Shia terror groups such as the Hezbollah Brigades and the League of the Righteous. The US military refers to these groups along with the Iranian-backed elements of the Mahdi Army as the “Special Groups.” These groups train in camps inside Iran.
US military officers believe that Iran has been ramping up its operations inside Iraq since its surrogates suffered a major defeat at the hands of the Iraqi military during the spring and summer of 2008. Iraqi troops went on the offensive against the Mahdi Army and other Iranian-backed terror groups in Baghdad, Basrah, and central and southern Iraq.
More than 2,000 Mahdi Army members were killed and thousands more were wounded. The operation forced Muqtada al Sadr to agree to a cease-fire, disband the Mahdi Army, and pull the Sadrist political party out of the provincial elections. Sadr’s moves caused shock waves in the Mahdi Army, as some of the militia’s leaders wished to continue the fight against US forces in Baghdad and in southern and central Iraq.
Iranian-backed Shia terror groups in Iraq
The League of the Righteous was a faction of Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army that splintered after Sadr announced in June 2008 that he would disband the Mahdi Army and formed a small, secretive military arm to fight Coalition forces. The new group, called the Brigade of the Promised Day, has not been linked to any attacks since its formation in the summer of 2008.
Sadr loyalist Qais Qazali was commander of the League of the Righteous up until his capture in 2007. The group is now said to be under the command of Akram al Kabi, a former Sadr loyalist.
The League of the Righteous receives funding, training, weapons, and direction from the Qods Force. The League of the Righteous conducts attacks with the deadly armor-piercing explosively formed projectiles known as EFPs, as well as with the more conventional roadside bombs.
The size of the League of the Righteous is unknown, but hundreds of members of the group were killed, captured, or fled to Iran during the Iraqi government offensive against the Mahdi Army from March to July of 2008, according to the US military.
Sadr is looking to pull the rank and file of the League back into the fold of the Sadr political movement. Back in late 2008, Sadr issued a message rejecting the US-Iraqi security agreement and said he “extends his hand to the mujahideen in the so-called Asaib but not their leaderships who have been distracted by politics and mortal life from the [two late] Sadrs and the interests of Iraq and Iraqis.”
The Promise Day Brigade, the newest of the Iranian-backed groups, was formed by anti-American Shia leader Muqtada al Sadr during the summer of 2008 after he announced he would disband the Mahdi Army and formed a small, secretive military arm to fight Coalition forces in June. The group actively receives support from Iran, the US military told The Long War Journal.
“According to US and Iraqi intelligence sources, the Promise Day Brigades (PDB) terrorist organization is an Iranian-sponsored group actively targeting US Forces in attempt to disrupt security operations and further destabilize the nationalization process in Iraq,” Lieutenant Todd Spitler, a Press Desk Officer at Multinational Forces Iraq, said.
The Hezbollah Brigades, or Kata’ib Hezbollah, has been active in and around Baghdad since 2007. The terror group has increased its profile by conducting attacks against US and Iraqi forces, using the deadly explosively-formed penetrator land mines and improvised rocket-assisted mortars, which have been described as flying improvised explosive devices. The Hezbollah Brigades has posted videos of these attacks on the Internet.
The terror group is an offshoot of the Iranian-trained Special Groups, the US military said last summer. Hezbollah Brigades receives funding, training, logistics, guidance, and material support from the Qods Force.
Both the US military and the Iraqi military believe that the Special Groups are preparing to reinitiate fighting as their leaders and operatives are beginning to filter back into Iraq from Iran. On Feb. 4, 2009, Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, the deputy commander of Multinational Forces Iraq, said that Iran continues to arm, fund, and train the Special Groups, and that munitions traced back to Iran continue to be uncovered in Iraq. Recent intelligence and the finds of new Iranian caches “lead us to believe that Iranian support activity is still ongoing,” Austin warned.
In July 2009, General David Petraeus, the commanding officer of US Central Command, said during an interview at the World Affairs Council Global Leadership Series that Iran continues to back the Special Groups.
“There is no question that Iran continues to fund, train, equip, and direct to varying degrees some of the groups still active in Iraq,” Petraeus said.
Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.