Just over 10 years ago, Qasim al-Araji was being arrested a second time by American forces in Iraq. The charges were serious: smuggling arms used to attack U.S. troops and involvement in an assassination cell at the height of sectarian violence that engulfed Iraq following the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein.
Now, he heads of one of Iraq’s most powerful ministries.
With credentials that include training from Iranian special operators known as the Quds force and time spent as a guerrilla and militia commander, Iraq’s Interior Minister al-Araji is now trumpeting his respect for human rights and support for the U.S.-led coalition in the fight against the Islamic State group. But the forces he now commands have a long history of Shiite domination and abuse, factors that partially contributed to the rise in support for IS in Iraq.
Back in 2007, al-Araji was held by the United States for 23 months. He spent most of his captivity at Bucca prison, including long periods in solitary confinement.
Today, at the head of one of Iraq’s most powerful ministries, al-Araji laughs off questions about lingering hostility toward U.S. forces.
“That’s life,” he said in a recent interview with The Associated Press, his manner boisterous and unpolished as he shuttled between meetings at a small Interior Ministry office inside Baghdad’s highly fortified Green Zone. “I was their prisoner and now I meet with their ambassador.”
Al-Araji’s office confirmed that he met with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq within days of taking office to express his support for the U.S. role in the fight against IS and to request additional support for his ministry and forces.
Following a controversial March 17 strike in Mosul that killed more than 100 civilians, al-Araji took a rare public position for an Iraqi politician: he defended the U.S.-led coalition and the use of airstrikes in Mosul on the floor of Iraq’s parliament.
“My most important goal is to bring security to Iraq,” al-Araji said, “and (to achieve that) Iraq is in need of the friendship of the Americans.”
Under al-Araji, the Interior Ministry has already received more support from the U.S.-led coalition.
In the fight for Mosul, greater coalition air and ground support for Iraq’s federal police — who fall under the command of the Interior Ministry — have allowed them to take a lead role in the city’s west.
The U.S.-led coalition is also training and arming local and border police across Iraq, other forces that now fall under al-Araji’s command.
But Iraq’s police are some of the same forces who were accused of using excessive force, carrying out mass detentions of Sunni males and routinely torturing detainees in the lead-up to the summer of 2014, according to human rights groups and a 2013 State Department report on human rights practices in Iraq. The abuses contributed to Sunni resentment of central government rule and fueled support for IS extremists in Iraq’s Sunni north and west.
Al-Araji, who spent years in exile in Iran, first travelled there as a teenager in the 1980s and was trained by Iranian special forces as a guerrilla fighter to resist Saddam Hussein’s regime. In the Iran-Iraq war, he fought on Iran’s side. Al-Araji describes his years in Iran as a fighter as formative.
After the fall of Baghdad in 2003, al-Araji and thousands of other fighters poured across the border into Iraq.
“We didn’t have any military activities,” he said of his first days back in Iraq, “but we were supporting the overthrow of the regime. The Americans didn’t understand, we were both working for the same end.”
On April 19 that year he was arrested by U.S. forces on suspicion of commanding militia forces, held for 85 days and then released on insufficient evidence. In 2004, following the fall of Saddam, al-Araji said he fully transitioned to politics, running for local office in Baghdad’s Wasit province.
But three years later he was arrested again by U.S. forces. A secret cable from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Jan. 19, 2007 published by WikiLeaks stated that U.S. forces “had good information based on multiple sources,” that al-Araji was “involved in smuggling and distribution” of explosives that were being used to target U.S. forces and that he was “also suspected in involvement in an assassination cell.”
After nearly two years, al-Araji was again released on insufficient evidence.
“I believe every difficult stage leaves something inside a human being,” al-Araji said. “Being a prisoner taught me patience, it made me stronger.”
Al-Araji returned to local politics, rose through the ranks of the Badr organization and became a parliamentary bloc leader.
After the fall of Mosul, Badr’s military wing — closely supported by Iran — racked up a string of high profile victories against IS in 2014. In the months that followed, Badr and the group’s leader Hadi al-Amiri rode the wave of those victories for political gain in Baghdad and secured de-facto control of the country’s Interior Ministry.
Badr member Mohammed al-Ghabban was appointed to lead the ministry in October 2014, but was forced to resign in July 2016 amid mounting anger following a massive truck bombing claimed by IS in central Baghdad that killed more than 300 people.
Al-Araji — appointed in January — takes over the ministry at a critical time for the country’s security forces who are under increasing pressure to eliminate the last pockets of IS control, prevent an insurgency from bubbling up in the wake of territorial victories, and repair their reputation in Iraq’s Sunni heartland.
British Ambassador to Iraq Frank Baker told the AP he talks to al-Araji regularly. He described him as an “an Iraqi patriot” who “faces many challenges but is doing a very good job for Iraq and the Iraqi people.”
Looking back at his career, al-Arajii says some things about him have changed.
“With my current position comes great responsibility,” he said, explaining that because of that he considers the choices he makes carefully.
“But as a person, I have not changed, I’m the same.”