The story of a hitman who (almost) always escapes justice

by: Ali Faez

When the political regime of Iraq fell on April 9, 2003, the dissolution of the former Iraqi military heralded the emergence of armed groups outside the scope of the state, groups which would form a parallel state thriving on economic rent, dominance over border crossings and various state institutions budgets. Among these organizations was the Mahdi Army, founded by Muqtada al-Sadr in late 2003 to fight occupying US forces and target Iraqi security forces as well as those collaborating with the US such as translators or any other work that could cast them as foreign agents.

After 2006, when sectarian conflict erupted in the aftermath of the bombing of the Shrine of the Two Imams (Ali al-Hadi and Hassan al-Askari), the Mahdi Army engaged in sectarian and ethnic cleansing. This policy led to the killing of tens of thousands of innocent civilians, and the bombing and razing of mosques and churches, which forced many to immigrate in order to escape the hell of a country that has since known no stability.

The combat operations and crimes practiced by the Mahdi Army contributed to the emergence of leaders known as front line commanders. In each city a man rose to prominence who had a set of characteristics that placed him as the local leader of Muqtada al-Sadr’s followers. For example, Abu Deraa, whose name is Ismail Hafidh al-Lami, dominated most districts of Baghdad and was known for his brutal role in the extermination of Sunnis during the sectarian war, and he still engages in crimes unchecked until today. 

The case of Kifah al-Kreiti

In Diwaniyah, 180km SouthEast of Baghdad, a leader emerged by the name of Kifah al-Kreiti, whose local hegemony was such that people referred to him the de facto governor of the province after 2003, with some referring to him as the “Abu Deraa of Diwaniyah”, seen how his methods reflect those of his counterpart in Bagdad. The same trend emerged in the remaining provinces and regions of Iraq.The story of Kifah al-Kreiti is a focus lens from which to examine all Sadrist leaders in fine detail, most importantly their relationship with the leader of their movement, Muqtada al-Sadr.

Because the case of Kifah al-Kreiti is highly sensitive and raises fear in the hearts of the community in Diwaniyah, we were forced to conceal the names of some sources who made sensitive statements. We did this also because of the nature of the jobs that some of them occupy.Iraq is an unsafe environment that one often assimilates to a state of chaos. Arms proliferation outside of the control of the government is widespread, while some have no qualms about killing and liquidating dissidents and those who speak out.

Before 2003, Kifah al-Kreiti was a simple vegetable vendor in a place locally called Alwa al-Makhdar, with shabby clothes and a face expressing by itself his past troubles. Kifah would sit in a dusty environment on ground covered with dry grass, in a place surrounded by dirty asinine water and with the owners of vegetable carts and local trucks going back and forth. At the time, people pitied him, and attempted to help him develop his work so that he could support his family.

This is how Abu Abdullah, a 51 years old citizen of Diwaniyah, remembers his encounters with Kifah, saying: “Kifah did not persist in this work or develop it, but upgraded to selling oil using a cart with a large tank pulled by a donkey. He roamed people’s homes to fill their oil reservoirs in exchange for cash.”

Until that moment, Kifah was not known as he is today. This remained the case until the change of the political regime in 2003 when his brother, Najah al-Kreiti, joined the ranks of the Mahdi Army led by Muqtada al-Sadr. Najah was a commander during battles against occupying US forces, and was previously a member of the National Guard. He was killed in late 2005, and his killing opened the door for his brother Kifah, then a prominent leader of the Mahdi Army in Diwaniyah along with his other brother, Kadeh al-Kreiti, who has been imprisoned since 2008.

Kifah al-Kreiti leapt from the sidelines to the forefront, and all the people of Diwaniyah remember the moment when an American helicopter threw a large bundle of leaflets, and their heads turned upward in anticipation. When the leaflets reached the ground, they saw printed on them a photo of a man with harsh features, a furrowed brow and receding hair. Written above the photo was: “Wanted for Justice, by the name of Kifah al-Kreiti” with the addition that a sum of 10,000 US dollars was to be given to anyone who could reveal his location, while preserving the confidentiality of the informant and their personal safety.

On December 2, 2006, Iraqi newspaper Al Mada published in its issue 1122 the news of his arrest: “On Monday afternoon, a force from the third regiment in Karbala province arrested wanted man Kadeh al-Kreiti, brother to wanted man Kifah al-Kreiti, both of whom are accused of crimes against civilians and security personnel in Diwaniyah.” The news report indicated that Kifah al-Kreiti, the brother of the detainee, is the most wanted man in Diwaniyah, and that the American forces offered a reward of $10,000 for anyone who helps arrest him and give information that assist in that regard.”

Crimes Remembered in Diwaniyah

R.F., a local of Diwaniyah who refused to reveal his name, was a witness to the most heinous crime committed by Kifah and his group. He says, “In 2006, there were raids and pursuits of elements belonging to the Mahdi Army by (Multi-National) Coalition forces and the National Guard. After fighting that lasted for days, Coalition forces withdrew, leaving behind a force from the 8th Division. Kifah al-Kreiti’s group managed to capture 13 of them, and offered them safety, swearing by the name of Muhammad al-Sadr (a religious authority and father to Muqtada al-Sadr, assassinated in 1999) promising them no harm. However, Kifah quickly reneged on his promise, and executed all of them against the wall of a yard that sells and rents construction equipment. They were buried in white cement after their bodies were mutilated and heavy cement blocks thrown at them, amid cheers of celebration.”

We can find details of this affair in the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court website as a decisions of the Federal Court of Cassation in 2010 reads: “After deliberation by the Federal Court of Cessation, Al-Qadisiyah Criminal Court ruled on case 189/c/2009 on May 17, 2009, finding guilty defendants (K), (H), (A), (A), and (S) in accordance with the provisions of Article 4/1 and in the context of Articles 2/3, Article 5 and Article 3/1 of the Anti-Terrorism Law. Each of [the defendants] was sentenced to be executed by hanging until death, for colluding and participating with the rest of the accused whose cases are listed as belonging to outlawed armed groups and attacks on members of the National Guard affiliated with the 8th Division Command, killing thirteen of them…” The statement continued, “On June 28, 2006, in the city of Diwaniyah, an outlaw armed group attacked the National Guard detachments affiliated with the 8th Infantry Division Command in Diwaniyah, Hay Al-Askari area, which is charged with the duty of maintaining security and law enforcement in the city. A fire exchange occurred between the two sides in which light and medium weapons were used, and the incident continued until the next morning. After some members of the National Guard, who are the aforementioned victims, ran out of ammunition, they were taken by the armed men and summarily shot in an incident that led to the killing of all of them. The armed men then chanted in celebration of the crime.”

Parliamentary Intervention

After this horrific crime, and the launch of what is known as Operation Knight’s Charge in 2008, news spread of the arrest of Kifah al-Kreiti. However, the people of Diwaniyah did not believe this story, dismissing it at that time as government propaganda to contain people’s anger and restore confidence in the security forces. Some in Diwaniyah claimed he was smuggled to Iran, returning to Diwaniyah after a short while, which was actually the case. Al-Kreiti was then visited by former MP Baha Araji who defected from the Sadrist movement and gave a famous speech in which he said: “This is the house of honorable resistance fighter Kifah al-Kreiti.”

Perhaps what justifies the doubts of Diwaniyah locals about Kifah’s arrest is a statement by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (2006-2014) to DW TV in the program “Iraq – Destruction of a Nation, Part 4”, when he said: “After Operation Knight’s Charge, the militias fled to Iran, and the Iranians called me to tell me that they are at the border and want to cross, so I told them: Take them, I never want them to return to Iraq.”

On the outskirts of the city of Diwaniyah, we visited one of its remote neighborhoods which had unpaved roads and dilapidated buildings, as if it had just emerged from an intense war. There lives the family of one of the soldiers who were executed by al-Kreiti and his group. Baqir Abdullah, 21 years old, is the son of one of the victims.  “I was a small child when I heard the news. I remember the screams of my mother and the other women who gathered in our house. I did not know at the time the meaning of ‘militias’ and ‘gangs’. The scene was blurry for me and I did not even understand the reasons for my father’s execution.” , Baqir explained. A photo can be seen on the wall of his father smiling and holding his weapon, with a black line in the corner of the frame along with the date of his death. Baqir continued, with tears creeping down his cheeks: “They told me that my father was executed by a bullet to the back of his head which left a hole in his skull. When they washed his body, they found signs of brutal torture, stabbings with knives, stone-throwing, and slices to his body.” He sighs, and his voice shakes as he continues: “We were terrified after the incident, fearing the militias might pursue us and continue their uglt deed by killing all of us. Therefore, we did not file a lawsuit or the like until the militias’ power waned a bit, so we filed a lawsuit despite great despair that shrouded the family, as the killer and his group are living life as normal, while we the victims’ family are afraid!”

A Hitman and a Contractor

A.B., a lawyer, explained that “Kifah al-Kreiti dominates three public departments in Diwaniyah: Health, the municipality, and education. He can hire and dismiss public administrators by force of arms and protection from the Sadrist movement. He also does contracting and collects royalties from state departments.” The lawyer, who refused to disclose his name, continued: “Kifah has an armed group of about twenty men, with modern vehicles, some of which are government issued, and advanced weapons. The group includes his sons, Muntazer and Hussein, who often post photos and videos from inside the convoy behind their father’s car, and sometimes they publish pictures showing the weapons and military equipment they possess, to sow fear in the hearts of the people and the security forces.”

The lawyer notes that, in one assassination in which al-Kreiti and his group were implicated, he was hired by the victim’s family to represent them, but as soon as he started his work he found a sticky bomb in his car, which forced him withdraw from the case.

A security officer in the Ministry of the Interior stated to The Red Line that, “Al-Kreiti is a member of the Committee for the Rights of Those Affected by the Occupation Operations and Operation Knight’s Charge. As a member of the committee, he began to engage in extortion against the other claimants, and gave the money paid in damages, which amounted to 79 million dinars (nearly 55 thousand US dollars) with a pension of two million dinars (about 1370 US dollars per month), to those with whom he has personal relations.” The officer, who refused to reveal his name, explains that “every person who registers in the Committee for Affected Persons is required to pay Kifah al-Kreiti 50 million Iraqi dinars as a bribe, adding, “Al-Kreiti also worked as a hired killer, and receives huge sums of money to liquidate influential figures in the province.”

The Red Line was unable to contact the al-Kreiti family or others close to him, which was substituted with his official Facebook page. The page is filled with posts praising the Sadrist leader, expressing support for him and commitment to what he called the “Ashura Revolution” which ended with armed violence and which Muqtada al-Sadr disavowed last month.

In the comments, and in responses to those who accuse him of corruption, Kifah refers to himself as a “contractor” like any other citizen. In another post, al-Kreiti appears among a group of tribal sheikhs in Al Diwaniyah Governorate.

Al-Kreiti’s social media is not limited to self-promotion, as he sometimes expresses support for figures known among the people of Diwaniyah for corruption. In one post, al-Kreiti writes, “I, Hajji Kifah al-Kreiti, and the Peace Companies are in support of Dr. Lamia al-Hasnawi, and as long as we are with her, no one will be able to dismiss her.” It is worth noting that Lamia al-Hasnawi was the Director General of the Health Directorate in Diwaniyah, and was dismissed from her position last year over charges of corruption.

Disavowal on Paper

Some sources report that there are more than forteen terrorism and murder cases for which al-Kreiti is wanted, and The Red Line obtained a set of photocopies showing these cases, according to which a ruling was made against him according to Article 4 of the Anti-Terrorism Law.

Diwaniyah residents accuse al-Kreiti and his group of targeting activist Thaer Karim Al-Tayeb with a sticky bomb planted in the car he drove, leading to his death on 25 December 2020. A high-ranking security source ruled out al-Kreiti’s role in al-Tayeb’s assassination, justifying this by saying: “Thaer had good relations with the Sadrist movement in Diwaniyah, and was a subject of respect and appreciationl. He had no involvement in anything that could hinder al-Kreiti’s activity in the city.” Speaking to The Red Line, the security source speculated that, “Al-Tayeb was targeted by the pro-Iran militias that intimidated and assassinated activists and journalists in the governorate,” and concluded by saying that the court has the final say in this matter.

On June 17, Saleh Muhammad al-Iraqi, an advisor to Muqtada Al-Sadr, issued a statement claiming that the Sadrist movement disavowed a group headed by Kifah al-Kreiti. He explained that these individuals have exploited the al-Sadr family name and the notion of jihad, to steal the people’s money. The statement demanded from those named repentance and reform so that they could return to the Sadrist movement. The statement described the group’s actions as “outrageous and disgraceful” and called on the members of the Peace Brigades to boycott them and never to deal with them again.

Despite these statements disavowing al-Kreiti, he continues to sit in the front rows in events organized by the Sadrist movement in Diwaniyah and other provinces. Footage obtained by The Red Line shows al-Kreiti participating in a demonstration to shut down an office and a mosque affiliated with Marja’ Mahmoud al-Sarkhi, and demanding the local government to cancel the granting of licenses to liquor stores. In these photos and videos, al-Kreiti walked side by side with the Diwaniyah Friday preacher Hassan al-Qasir, and other preachers affiliated with the Sadrist movement, in the center of the city and in sight of the security forces.

Activist M.F, speaking under the condition of anonymity, explained the The Red Line that it is impossible for the Sadrist movement to expel one of its members. “This is true with someone like Kifah al-Kreiti who dominates the governorate’s local economy and has a wide influence in the city, making him the actual ruler at the expense of the province’s governor.” He continues: “Al-Kreiti represents a cash cow to the movement, and statements disavowing him are nothing but ink on paper aimed at whitewashing the movement’s reputation to the media, nothing more. In reality. al-Kreiti is part of the movement, and provides them with services that no one else can provide. Moreover, an actual expulsion of al-Kreiti would prompt him to join more extremist militia parties than the Sadrist movement, which is feared even by Muqtada al-Sadr himself, as his experience tells him that those who are expelled can spread the secrets of the movement and its weaknesses.”

Some of the photos obtained by The Red Line show al-Kreiti’s presence and participation in the electoral campaigns of a resigned MP from the Sadrist bloc, Haider Haddad al-Khafaji, and al-Kreiti’s participation in the “Ashura Revolution” last month.

In this context, The Red Line conducted a search on the website of the office of Muqtada al-Sadr, and found a news update published on February 23, 2012, with its text being the following: “His Eminence, Hujjat al-Islam and the Muslims, the leader Muqtada al-Sadr, may God honor him, responded to a letter of pledge presented to His Eminence by the so-called Kifah al-Kreiti, declares his innocence of the dissident faction, and pledging before God to remain on the pure line.” The image containing al-Sadr’s response in his handwriting and seal was deleted, but The Red Line obtained the image from other sources, which contained a signed statement with the text of al-Sadr’s response: “As for me, I accept your repentance and I ask God to accept it and make it irreversible. I hope that the world will not tempt you again, and that you will be patient with the affliction, and I hope that everyone will turn the page of the past.

It is worth mentioning that the dissident faction is the one who left al-Sadr and became affiliated with the armed faction Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq led by Qais al-Khazali. This is evidence that the expulsion of Kifah and his disavowal is not related to his criminal actions as much as it relates to loyalty and obedience to al-Sadr.

Despite all of al-Kreiti’s crimes, and the fact that this name raises fear in the hearts of the people of Diwaniyah, The Red Line found footage showing the complicity of some internal security forces with al-Kreiti and his group. Al-Kreiti posted photos honoring a number of security personnel in the city, including one with the rank of brigadier general.

Al-Kreiti’s Arrest, Between Myth and Reality

An employee in the media department of Diwaniyah police, who refused to be named due to the sensitive nature of his testimony, says that al-Kreiti’s arrest was caused by two things which, strangely, are unrelated to the murders he committed. The first is his role in the bombing of a bar that served alcoholic beverages in Diwaniyah, on July 22nd of this year. The second was that he and his armed group conducted a show of force in front of the security headquarters in the governorate and threw grenades at its doors, after a group of security officers reported violations in a garage and car wash owned by al-Kreiti. The staff member added that a security dispatch pursued al-Kreiti and seized his vehicles, finding a cache of weapons, as he fled to an unknown location.

The police staffer also stated: “The bar owner has good relations with high-ranking military and security officers in Baghdad, and as a result of his continuous pressure to uncover al-Kreiti’s crimes, and to create strong public opinion, security forces were embarrassed. This led to al-Kreiti’s arrest on September 5th, and a statement was issued by Diwaniyah Police Command which said: “Diwaniyah combat police formations were able to arrest a man accused and wanted for various cases, according to the arrest warrants issued by the court.” The arrest followed a monitoring and investigation operation, at the moment that al-Kreiti was present in the municipality directorate, “while he was immediately arrested by the investigative judge in preparation for his referral to the competent authorities for interrogation.”

This news did not inspire much hope in the hearts of Diwaniyah locals, as this is not the first time that a criminal has been arrested with a lot of people’s blood on his hands, only to be released soon or his case deferred, because he is influential and supported by parties that have political weight and force of arms.

It also bears mention that, during the October 2019 protests, nearly 737 protesters were killed and more than 25,984 injured, according to a report published by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EuroMed Rights), during the period from 1 October to 1 June.

According to the United Nations, Iraq is fertile ground for the killing of activists and silencing of peaceful dissent, due to the state of complete impunity that perpetrators enjoy without accountability, and as such, their crimes remain a matter of statistics and numbers. Kifah Al-Kreiti is symptomatic of this reality. His privileged ties with the Sadrist movement remind us that the latter did not manage to become the largest political force in parliament by the sheer usage of democratic means and fair elections. 

VIAAli Faez