Meet Hadi al-Amiri, the unabashedly pro-Iranian leader of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite militia. His bloodthirsty fighters might be Baghdad's best hope of stopping the Islamic State.
- By Susannah GeorgeSusannah George is a freelance journalist based in Beirut.
BAGHDAD — Over the past three decades, Hadi al-Amiri has gone from being a guerrilla fighting on behalf of Iran against his home country, Iraq; to notorious militia leader accused of running “death squads”; to parliament member in Baghdad, where he has emerged as a key player in the fight against the Islamic State (IS).
“The Iraqi people, they love bravery,” Amiri said, by way of explaining his newfound influence.
We are sitting in his villa’s front garden inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified green zone. Amiri, a deliberate man with a hard stare, is quick to discuss his recent political and military successes. This evening, he’s traded in the military fatigues he recently wore while visiting the front lines with the Islamic State across the country for a pin-striped suit, his shirt open at the collar.
Amiri is the leader of the Badr Organization, a Shiite militia infamous during Iraq’s civil war for its brutal tactics, which has now transformed into a political party that maintains a military wing. While he has been a fixture of Iraqi politics since 2003, he has become increasingly central in Baghdad in recent months, as the Iraqi government has been forced to rely on his Shiite fighters in the war against the Islamic State. His rise illustrates one way the struggle against the jihadi group is transforming politics in Baghdad: He is unabashedly pro-Iranian, focused on building up his network of Shiite loyalists rather than reconciling with his Sunni enemies, and lately more inclined to portray himself as a battlefield commander than a politician.
“I worked for four years every day and people never recognized that. Now, just four months as a fighter and all the people are talking about is Amiri,” he said. “It’s because people love the one who defends them.”
As the Iraqi military threatened to crumble this summer, Amiri quickly made his Shiite militia indispensable. Following the fall of Mosul, he took his men to the front north of Baghdad, in Diyala province, quickly racking up a series of victories against the Islamic State. The prime minister at the time, Nouri al-Maliki, was impressed: He not only continued to funnel support and military supplies to the Badr Organization, but also placed all Iraqi military and security forces in the province under Amiri’s command.
While the appointment of the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, was supposed to pave the way for a more inclusive Iraqi government, Amiri’s influence has only grown under Iraq’s new leader. The Badr Organization commander is keenly aware that the new leader is still in dire need of the forces he offers. “I told Abadi: If you want us to give you all our weapons and we sit at home, we don’t mind,” he said jokingly. “But then if [the Islamic State] takes Baghdad, this is not our problem.” The clutch of assistants seated in his garden laughed.
Abadi has not only left Diyala under Amiri’s command, he has handed him a key security post. The new prime minister initially considered Amiri to head up the Interior Ministry, a move many Iraqi lawmakers saw as divisive and antagonistic to the country’s Sunnis. Badr Organization officials claim the nomination was ultimately nixed by U.S. officials, who believed the move violated Abadi’s promise to form a government that was more inclusive of Iraqi Sunnis. But Amiri won anyway: He was able to secure the interior minister position for a relatively junior member of his organization, in effect giving him control of the ministry. The Interior Ministry is a key piece of Iraq’s security apparatus, controlling the federal police and intelligence agencies, and boasting a budget for arms procurement that rivals that of the Defense Ministry.
Not that Amiri’s war is over. His recent battle against the Islamic State is just the latest battle in a long string of military campaigns, which began over two decades ago when he fought then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. It was a fight that continues to define him, forging ties with Iran that persist to this day. “I would like to illuminate you with some information,” he explained leaning back in his chair, “if there is anything I’m proud of in my life, it’s being part of the resistance against Saddam Hussein.”
Amiri initially worked to undermine Saddam’s regime from the inside. He fought on the side of the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq War — learning to fight like an insurgent, making use of improvised explosives, assassinations, and kidnappings. The Badr Organization was created during this period, and subsequently participated in the uprisings against Saddam in the early 1990s by attacking regime targets in southern Iraq. It was then too, he says, that he learned the value of being on the ground with his men rather than trying to direct the fight from afar.
“Iran supported us then,” Amiri said, referring to his time fighting against Saddam. “And Iran supports Iraq now. If Iran had not helped, IS would be in Baghdad.”
* * *
The Badr Organization emerged in the post-Saddam era as one of the most fearsome Shiite militias in the country. Today, its officials claim the group commands upwards of 10,000 men, with access to light weaponry, as well as rocket systems and tanks. The group is now not only fighting in Diyala, but also in Babil, to the south of Baghdad and in the capital’s suburbs, known as the Baghdad belt.
Most recently, Amiri scored a victory when the Badr Organization, along with other Shiite militias and security forces, cleared Jurf al-Sakhar, a town near Baghdad, of Islamic State fighters. The push came ahead of the Shiite commemoration of Ashura, when thousands of pilgrims, a prime target for Sunni jihadi attacks, are expected to travel within firing range of the town. Amiri said the capture of the town decisively secured the Iraqi capital: “With this operation complete, there are no more dangers [posed by the Islamic State] to Baghdad,” he said.
Amiri’s supporters have energetically publicized his triumphs. Throughout the push on Jurf al-Sakhar, photographs of Amiri poring over maps, allegedly coordinating operations, flooded social media. Another picture allegedly from near the town showed him chummily holding court with Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force, the special forces unit responsible for fighting Tehran’s battles abroad. The two commanders were also together during an earlier offensive on the Iraqi town of Amerli, where they were reportedly pictured together praying.
Amiri does not downplay his ties to Iran — if anything he celebrates them. He described Suleimani as “a friend, a good man and a good fighter,” and said that his organization is “proud” of its alliance with Tehran. “There’s nothing to hide there,” he said. “We have a 14,000-kilometer long border with Iran, we’re neighbors, what are we going to do? We’re not renting Iraq, we can’t just move somewhere else.”
While the team of Amiri and Suleimani have been successful in pushing back the Islamic State, their victories have come at a horrible cost. Following the fall of Jurf al-Sakhar, reports of graphic abuses at the hands of the Shiite militia fighters also began to emerge. Iraqi government and Western security sources claim that Shiite militias tortured and executed a number of captured Islamic State fighters as well as Sunni residents suspected of being sympathetic to the group.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) Iraq researcher Erin Evers said the Badr Organization was guilty of “systematic” abuses. “The allegations range from the Badr Brigade kidnapping and summarily executing people,” she said, “to expelling Sunnis from their homes, then looting and burning them, in some cases razing entire villages.”
Amiri dismissed this as little more than anomalies. “Of course there were mistakes,” he said. “I’m sure there still are mistakes.” The perpetrators, he said, were new volunteers who hadn’t received proper training, not the Badr rank-and-file directly under his command.
Amiri said the Badr Organization stepped in to instill order after young Shiite men took up arms en masse in June, after the fall of Mosul. The abuses that had occurred, he suggested, were no different from what occurs in the United States. “We see movies every day in America about gangsters and thieves. This is the reality in America, isn’t it?” he said. “Well, it’s the reality in Iraq.”
Evers said she doesn’t find such an explanation credible due to the Badr Organization’s widespread abuses throughout its “bloody history.” During the U.S. occupation of Iraq, a 2009 U.S. Embassy cable released by WikiLeaks indicated that the Badr Organization had infiltrated the Iraqi security forces, and was carrying out a widespread campaign of torturing and executing Sunnis. The cable indicated that Amiri may have been personally responsible for ordering the deaths of up to 2,000 Sunnis: “One of his preferred methods of killing allegedly involved using a power drill to pierce the skulls of his adversaries,” the cable reported.
The continuing abuses, Evers said, are even more troubling now with a Badr official heading up the Interior Ministry. “We’re essentially watching the officialization of militia rule in Iraq,” she said.
* * *
Amiri, not surprisingly, sees it rather differently. He describes Iraq’s Shiite militiamen — whom he calls volunteers — not as a danger, but an invaluable asset in the war against the Islamic State. With the Iraqi Army faltering against the Islamic State onslaught, the Badr Organization commander turned to the Shiite militias to seize areas from the jihadis in Diyala province, and only then called in the military to hold the territory.
“The biggest problem we’re facing in the Iraqi military is that their morale is very low,” he said referring specifically to the string of Iraqi military losses in western Anbar province. “The people who volunteered to fight, they already have high morale.”
Amiri’s rise may represent a hidden cost of Baghdad’s war against the Islamic State. Even if the Iraqi government does manage to beat back the jihadi group, the fight risks empowering sectarian figures who will sow the seeds for conflict in Iraq long beyond the current fight.
Amiri has long seen his government positions as less a national service than a way to enrich himself and his network of loyalists, according to officials and analysts who observed his career. His appointment in 2010 to head the Ministry of Transport, a position of middling authority, could have been seen as shortchanging his influence — but it fit Amiri’s ambitions perfectly. “It’s just not a particularly important ministry, unless you also happen to lead a militia,” said Kirk Sowell, a political risk analyst and publisher of the newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics.
According to Sowell, Amiri used his position to strengthen his ties to Iran and enrich his own organization by funneling ministry money to front companies tied to the Badr Organization.
During Amiri’s tenure as transport minister, he allegedly allowed Iranian overflights to supply Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with weapons during his regime’s brutal crackdown on a largely Sunni opposition. But perhaps the most infamous example of the corruption that pervaded the ministry under Amiri was an incident in March, when Amiri forced a Baghdad-bound plane to turn back to Beirut after his son missed his flight.
“I hated that guy!” exclaimed one senior official at Iraqi Airways, Iraq’s national carrier, which is run by the Transport Ministry. The official described the ministry as riddled with dysfunction, where nepotism and loyalty frequently trump competence and qualifications. Promotions were solely doled out to members of the Badr Organization, said the official: “[Amiri] only worked for his organization, he wasn’t for all the country.”
When it comes to security, Amiri’s ideas also seem to prioritize brute force over reconciling Iraq’s different communities. “We should build more Green Zones,” he said, when asked what he would do to improve security in the Iraqi capital. “Over the past 11 years, if we created another Green Zone each year, all of Baghdad would be protected.”
Entry to the heavily fortified Green Zone, where Amiri lives along with the rest of Iraq’s political elite, is so strictly controlled that civilians without the proper badges need to go through a series of screenings tighter than most U.S. airports. For Amiri, however, it’s not nearly enough: Ideally, he said, each member of Parliament would have his or her own fortified neighborhood, protected by personal bodyguards.
Amiri is far from the only Iraqi official who has used his position for personal enrichment — or who has unworkable ideas about how to return stability to Iraq. For the United States, it’s his close ties to Iran that likely represent a larger problem than any perceived corruption.
One of Amiri’s fellow members of Parliament, Dhiya al-Asadi, the leader of the Shiite bloc loyal to influential Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, says he cannot deny the strong role Iran plays in the Badr organization. “In terms of his political affiliation, [Amiri’s loyalty] is to Iraq and the Iraqi government,” Asadi said. “But Iran will continue to be his conscience and his moral leader.”
While Amiri describes the help he receives from Iran as invaluable, he claims the relationship stops at training and advice. “I don’t have a single bullet that comes from anywhere else besides the Iraqi government,” Amiri said. “We don’t receive any weapons directly from Iran, everything is from the state.”
“Besides,” Amiri added, “we don’t need weapons — we have weapons. We’re part of the Iraqi government now.”