The Battle of Khazir (Arabic: يوم الخازر, romanized: Yawm Khāzir) took place in August 686 near the Khazir River in Mosul’s eastern environs, in modern-day Iraq. The battle occurred during the Second Muslim Civil War (Second Fitna) and was part of the larger struggle for control of Iraq between the Syria-based Umayyad Caliphate, the Kufa-based pro-Alid forces of Mukhtar al-Thaqafi, and the Mecca-based caliphate of Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr. It ended in a rout for the Umayyads and the expansion of Mukhtar’s rule into the region of Mosul.
The Muslim civil war left the Umayyad realm restricted to Damascus and its environs after most of their territories came under Ibn al-Zubayr’s orbit. However, an Umayyad resurgence began with the accession of Caliph Marwan I, who dispatched an army led by Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad to reconquer Iraq. This army’s advance into Mosul precipitated the Battle of Khazir and its commander, Ubayd Allah, was an enemy of Mukhtar’s pro-Alid partisans. Thus, Mukhtar quickly moved to halt the Umayyad advance, sending his Persian mawālī-dominated forces led by Ibrahim ibn al-Ashtar to confront the predominantly Syrian Arab army of the Umayyads. During the initial combat, part of Ibn al-Ashtar’s forces were put to flight, but then regrouped under his command and charged against the Umayyad centre. This resulted in heavy casualties on both sides and Ubayd Allah and several of his lieutenants were slain. The Umayyad commander Umayr ibn al-Hubab and his Sulaymi tribesmen deserted while the pro-Alids pursued the remaining Umayyad troops, scores of whom drowned in the Khazir River.
Khazir was a major setback for the Umayyads, who did not launch another invasion of Iraq until 691. However, Mukhtar’s victory was short-lived as he was killed a year later when the Zubayrids took over Kufa. Meanwhile, the blood feud between the Qaysi and Yamani tribal elements of the Umayyad Caliphate intensified due to Umayr’s mid-battle defection and subsequent spearheading of attacks against the tribes of Taghlib and Kalb. In these later battles, the Kalb were led by Humayd ibn Hurayth al-Kalbi, an Umayyad commander who survived Khazir.
The Umayyad Caliphate was shaken by the deaths of Caliph Yazid I and his successor Mu’awiya II in 683 and 684, respectively, amid the Second Muslim Civil War. In the aftermath, they lost authority over Iraq (the part of Mesopotamia south of Tikrit) while the governors of northern Syria and Palestine switched their allegiance to Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr, the anti-Umayyad claimant to the caliphate. These and other defections restricted Umayyad rule to the region of Damascus. After the Umayyad governor of Iraq, Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad, was forced out of his province, he left for Damascus to prop up Umayyad rule. As a result of his efforts and the consensus of loyalist Arab tribes, later collectively known as the “Yaman”, the Umayyad elder, Marwan ibn al-Hakam, became caliph in June 684.
In August 684, the Umayyads and their tribal allies routed the pro-Zubayrid Qaysi tribes at the Battle of Marj Rahit. The Umayyad victory brought all of Syria under Marwan’s authority, but also led to the long-running feud between Qays and Yaman. Later, Marwan dispatched an army led by Ubayd Allah to wrest back Iraq. Control of that region was split by a number of anti-Umayyad factions, including the partisans of Mukhtar al-Thaqafi, other pro-Alids (supporters of Caliph Ali and his family) and Ibn al-Zubayr. Marwan promised Ubayd Allah the governorship of all the territories that he conquered. In early January 685, Ubayd Allah was mobilising his troops at the Euphrates River town of Jisr Manbij. Around that time, his second-in-command, Husayn ibn Numayr al-Sakuni, destroyed the Penitents, a pro-Alid band led by Sulayman ibn Surad, at the Battle of Ayn al-Warda in modern-day Ras al-Ayn. Marwan died in the spring of 685, while Ubayd Allah’s army was camped at Raqqa, and Marwan’s son Abd al-Malik succeeded him as caliph.
In the eighteen months following the Umayyad victory at Ayn al-Warda, Ubayd Allah’s troops were bogged down by struggles with the Qaysi tribes of the Jazira (Upper Mesopotamia) led by the pro-Zubayrid Zufar ibn al-Harith al-Kilabi. In the summer of 686, Ubayd Allah’s troops advanced toward Mosul, long controlled by a Kufan military elite, with the ultimate aim of conquering Iraq. Mukhtar, who in the weeks prior had seized Kufa from Ibn al-Zubayr’s governor, rapidly organised and dispatched a force under his commander, Ibrahim ibn al-Ashtar, to confront the Umayyad army. Ubayd Allah defeated this force on 09-10 July 686. Meanwhile, Mus’ab ibn al-Zubayr and the ashraf (Arab tribal nobility) of Kufa used the absence of Mukhtar’s forces as an opportunity to recapture Kufa. The attempt failed as Mukhtar was able to recall his troops and defeat the pro-Zubayrid forces by the end of July. With Kufa secured, Mukhtar again dispatched Ibn al-Ashtar to confront Ubayd Allah’s army.
The ranks of Ubayd Allah’s 60,000-strong army consisted of Arab tribesmen from Syria and as such was referred to in medieval sources as jumū’ ahl al-Shām (host of the Syrians). At the time, according to one report cited by 9th-century historian al-Tabari, “[Caliph] Marwan’s army was from Kalb and their commander was Ibn Bahdal”, while “the whole of Qays was in al-Jazira and were opponents of Marwan and the family of Marwan”. Historian Hugh N. Kennedy asserts that this “report is exaggerated” because Ubayd Allah recruited commanders from both Qays and Yaman (the latter were dominated by the Kalb), “but it does point to a general problem” regarding the effect of the Qaysi–Yamani rivalry on the Umayyad army.
Mukhtar’s forces were smaller than Ubayd Allah’s army, but the morale of his men was high due to their victory in Kufa and their desire to avenge Husayn ibn Ali and Ibn Surad’s Penitents, whose deaths were attributed to Ubayd Allah. The report of the Arabic historian Abu Mikhnaf (d. 774) has Ibn al-Ashtar’s army as a well-organised, 20,000-strong cavalry force, while the account of the contemporary Syriac historian John bar Penkaye describes this force as a rag-tag army of 13,000 foot soldiers. The foot soldiers were referred to as Mukhtar’s shurṭa (select troops).
The army Mukhtar sent under Ibn al-Ashtar’s command consisted largely of mawālī (sing. mawlā; non-Arab clients of Arab tribes). The ranks of the mawālī were dominated by the Persians of Kufa led by Abu Amra Kaysan; the latter, a mawlā of a Bajila tribesman, either commanded the shurṭa or the ḥaras (personal guard) of Mukhtar. The predominance of Persians in Mukhtar’s army was noted by Umayyad defectors to Ibn al-Ashtar; they complained to have rarely heard a word of Arabic spoken by Mukhtar’s soldiers, whom they viewed as unfit to confront the elite troops of the Umayyad army. According to the 9th-century historian al-Dinawari, Ibn al-Ashtar responded that his troops were “the sons of noble warriors and chiefs of the Persians”. Arab cavalry also formed a significant part of Ibn al-Ashtar’s forces and his lieutenant commanders were also Arabs.
In early August 686, the entire body of Ibn al-Ashtar’s forces marched north toward the Zab River to block the Umayyad army’s advance into Iraq. Without dividing his cavalry and infantry, Ibn al-Ashtar continued his northward march near the Umayyads’ camp and drew in the forces of Humayd ibn Hurayth al-Kalbi, one of Ubayd Allah’s commanders. Ibn al-Ashtar then dispatched his advance forces under Tufayl ibn Laqit to capture the village of Bar’ita, about 15 miles (24 km) east of Mosul, near the banks of the Khazir River, a tributary of the Zab. They encamped at Bar’ita while Ubayd Allah and his troops advanced and camped nearby. That night, the commander of Ubayd Allah’s left wing, Umayr ibn al-Hubab al-Sulami, secretly met and defected to Ibn al-Ashtar, promising the latter that he and his Qaysi-dominated contingent would abandon Ubayd Allah mid-battle once Ibn al-Ashtar’s forces attacked the Umayyad left wing. Umayr then returned to the Umayyad camp, while Ibn al-Ashtar put his guards on alert for the remainder of the night.
At dawn, on 06 August, Ibn al-Ashtar mobilised his men and formed his battalions. He placed Sufyan ibn Yazid al-Azdi in command of the right wing, Ali ibn Malik al-Jushami in command of the left wing, his half-brother Abd al-Rahman ibn Abd Allah in charge of the cavalry, and Tufayl ibn Laqit in command of the foot soldiers. Because the cavalry was so small, Ibn al-Ashtar kept them close to him in the right wing. When his forces marched on foot to a hill overlooking the Umayyad camp, Ibn al-Ashtar sent one of his horsemen, Abdallah ibn Zuhayr al-Saluli, to gather intelligence on Ubayd Allah’s troops. Al-Saluli exchanged words and insults with one of Ubayd Allah’s soldiers and returned to Ibn al-Ashtar with news that the Umayyads were in “a state of confusion and dismay”. Ibn al-Ashtar then reviewed his troops and rallied them to fight a jihad (holy war) against the “murderer of Husayn”, i.e. Ubayd Allah.
When Ibn al-Ashtar returned to his position, he dismounted and the Umayyads advanced. In command of the Umayyad right wing was Husayn ibn Numayr, in command of the left wing was Umayr ibn al-Hubab, while Shurahbil ibn Dhi’l Kala’ al-Himyari led the cavalry. Ubayd Allah marched along with his foot soldiers. As the battle lines became closer, Husayn ibn Numayr’s right wing assaulted al-Jushami’s left wing. Al-Jushami fell, followed by his son Qurrah and their guards. Consequently, Ibn al-Ashtar’s left wing was driven back, but under Abdallah ibn Warqa’ al-Saluli they collected themselves and joined Ibn al-Ashtar’s right wing. Afterward, Ibn al-Ashtar directed the right wing under al-Azdi to assault the Umayyads’ left wing in the hope that Umayr ibn al-Hubab would hold true to his promise and fall back as agreed. However, Umayr held his ground and fierce fighting ensued.
Once he saw that the Umayyads’ left wing held firm, Ibn al-Ashtar changed tack and ordered his troops to attack the Umayyads’ centre, believing if he could disperse the core of the Umayyad army, the latter’s right and left wings would likewise disperse. Ibn al-Ashtar took part in the assault and is said to have slain several Umayyad soldiers with his coterie of close companions. Amid the heavy clashes, numerous men on both sides were killed and the Umayyads were routed. Upon witnessing the rout, Umayr ibn al-Hubab communicated to Ibn al-Ashtar if he should defect to his camp; Ibn al-Ashtar told him to hold off because he feared his men would harm Umayr amid their anger.
Ubayd Allah was killed during the assault, and Ibn al-Ashtar is said to have slain him, “cut[ting] him in two, so that his feet had gone to the east and his arms to the west”, according to the report of a certain Dahhak ibn Abdallah al-Mishraqi. At the same time, a Kufan soldier named Sharik ibn Jadir al-Taghlibi had attacked and killed Husayn ibn Numayr, mistaking the latter for Ubayd Allah. Shurahbil ibn Dhi’l Kala’ was also killed, as was another of Ubayd Allah’s lieutenants, Rabi’a ibn al-Mukhariq al-Ghanawi. Ibn al-Ashtar’s troops seized the Umayyad camp and pursued their defeated army to the river. More Umayyad troops drowned in the Khazir River than were slain in battle.
Aftermath and Legacy
Mukhtar and his supporters viewed Ubayd Allah’s death as justice for his role in the killing of Husayn ibn Ali at Karbala in 680. As a result of the battle, Mukhtar gained control of Mosul and the surrounding region, and he appointed Ibn al-Ashtar governor of Mosul. The Umayyad rout posed a major setback to Abd al-Malik’s plans of establishing Umayyad authority over Iraq.
The Qaysi-Yamani feud intensified in the aftermath of Khazir. The Qays of the Jazira, led by Zufar, gained confidence from the defeat of the Umayyad army, which was dominated by their Kalbi and Kindi rivals. Their position was strengthened by the arrival of Umayr ibn al-Hubab and his Sulaymi tribesmen. The defection of Umayr and his men had contributed to the defeat of Ubayd Allah’s army. The Kalbi chieftain and an Umayyad survivor of Khazir, Humayd ibn Hurayth, went on to lead the Kalb in the devastating tit-for-tat raids and battles with Umayr and Zufar’s Qaysi tribesmen in the years following Khazir. Umayr’s encroachments on the previously neutral Taghlib tribe drove the latter to join the Kalb, Ghassan, Lakhm and the Kindi tribes of Sakun and Sakasik, as part of the Yamani faction; the opposing Qaysi tribes consisted of the Kilab, Uqayl, Bahila and Sulaym.
Mukhtar’s fortunes ended in early 687 when Mus’ab ibn al-Zubayr and the Kufan ashraf defeated Mukhtar’s loyalists at the battles of Madhar and Harura and besieged Kufa. Mukhtar and 6,000 of his partisans were killed when the pro-Zubayrid army finally stormed the city in April 687. Ibn al-Ashtar had remained in Mosul with his troops and after Mukhtar’s defeat defected to the Zubayrids. Although Ibn al-Zubayr had gained control of Iraq, he soon contended with Kharijite revolts in the province and elsewhere.
Abd al-Malik desisted from further attempts to conquer Iraq following the debacle at Khazir, and instead focused on winning over disaffected tribal chieftains throughout the province. It was not until 690-691 that Abd al-Malik launched a major invasion of Iraq, personally leading an army whose command was largely staffed by the caliph’s family, including Muhammad ibn Marwan and Yazid I’s sons Khalid and Abd Allah. By then, many of Iraq’s ashraf had accepted Umayyad sovereignty, and following the Umayyad victory at the Battle of Maskin, in which both Mus’ab and Ibn al-Ashtar were slain, Umayyad rule in Iraq was re-established.