Religious Shiite parties and militias in Iraq have recently stepped into the gap resulting from the collapse of the Baath Party, especially in the sacred shrine cities. This development must have come as a shock to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who in early March preferred Iraqis as US allies to Saudis, saying that they are secular and “overwhelmingly Shia, which is different from the Wahhabis of the peninsula, and they don’t bring the sensitivity of having the holy cities of Islam being on their territory.” Wolfowitz and other pro-war policymakers were right that large numbers of Shiites, from the educated middle class to factory workers, are secular Iraqi nationalists. But they were dead wrong to discount the power of the religious forces, and seem ignorant of the centrality of the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala. The neo-conservative fantasy of Iraq is now meeting the real Iraq, on the ground, in the shrine cities as well as in the smaller, mostly Shiite towns in the south of the country. Western audiences are discovering that Iraqi Shiites, while perhaps unified in their hatred for the dissipated Baathist regime, are not unified in their vision for a post-war Iraq.

Najaf Rivalries

The leading cleric at Najaf—shrine city of holy figure Ali b. Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad&mash;is Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, age 73. Born in Mashhad, Iran, he came to Najaf (pop. 560,000) in 1952 and settled permanently. Like most of the Najaf establishment, he rejects Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theory of clerical rule or the “guardianship of the jurisprudent”—the doctrine by which Khomeini overturned centuries of quietism among Shiite clergy, helping to fuel the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Sistani and his circles have also been critical of human rights abuses in post-revolutionary Iran. Not long after US troops entered Najaf on April 8, 2003, he was reported to have made an oral proclamation urging Shiites not to interfere with the soldiers, a statement eagerly cited by Wolfowitz as the “first pro-American fatwa.” (The statement was not actually a fatwa.) The following week, however, Sistani insisted that Iraq must be ruled “by the best of its children.” His spokesman and eldest son, Muhammad Rida Sistani, probably distilled his father’s thoughts when he said, “The Americans are welcome, but I don’t think that it’s a good thing that they stay for long.”

When the US military apparently briefly arrested Sheikh Muhammad al-Fartusi and two other clerics who had been sent to Baghdad on April 21, it immediately provoked a protest of 5,000 angry Shiites across from the downtown Palestine Hotel. Al-Fartusi had been sent by the Najaf establishment to Baghdad to preach the Friday prayer sermon at the al-Hikma mosque to a congregation of 50,000. His sermon said in part that the US could not impose a formal “democracy” on Iraq that allowed freedom of individual speech but denied Iraqis the ability to shape their own government.

Sistani emerged as the most senior ayatollah in Najaf after the 1999 assassination of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, killed on the orders of Saddam Hussein’s elder son Uday for defying the deposed Iraqi dictator. Today Muqtada al-Sadr, the 30 year-old son of the martyred cleric, is among Sistani’s most important rivals in Najaf. In 1999, after his father was killed, Muqtada went underground. He organized the desperately poor Shiites of Najaf and nearby Kufa, and established authority, as well, in the Shiite slums of eastern Baghdad, home to 2 to 3 million people. The Sadr movement that he leads insists that only the rulings of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr may be followed, and is opposed to immigrant Iranian clerics like Sistani having authority in Iraq. These ideas are unorthodox in the mainstream Usuli Shiism which predominates in Iraq and Iran. According to these mainstream teachings, it is forbidden to follow the rulings of a deceased jurisprudent, and it is recognized that Shiites may follow any learned, upright jurisprudent they choose. Muqtada is young to gain such authority.

Saddam City Renamed

The Sadr movement appears to be intolerant and authoritarian, and to have a class base in the poverty-stricken neighborhoods brutalized by Baath Party goons. Eyewitness accounts of the mob killing on April 10 of an American-backed rival ayatollah, Abd al-Majid al-Khoei, flown into Najaf from a decade-long exile in London, implicate the Sadr movement. Members of this movement then surrounded the houses of Sistani and Ayatollah Said al-Hakim, nephew of Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), demanding that these two leave Najaf immediately. This attempt at a coup in the clerical leadership of the shrine city was forestalled when 1,500 Shiite tribesmen came in from the countryside to protect Sistani and al-Hakim.

Muqtada views Sistani as spineless for having refused to step out of his quietism and oppose Saddam Hussein. He views expatriate politicians and clerics now returning to Iraq in the same light, heaping abuse on Ahmad Chalabi and the secular-leaning Iraqi National Congress, for instance. The Sadr movement wants an Islamic republic in Iraq, even if not one exactly like the one Khomeini built in Iran. Press reports from the slums of Baghdad suggest that Muqtada is idolized there and that most of the armed militiamen now patrolling the neighborhoods of the renamed Sadr City (formerly Saddam City) are his followers. One report said that they had repelled an attempt to infiltrate the city by a rival Shiite militia, the Tehran-based Badr Brigade of SCIRI. Like most other Iraqi Shiite clerics, Muqtada wants the Americans out of Iraq on a short timetable.

To Karbala

SCIRI, headed by Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, is in essence an offshoot of the revolutionary al-Da`wa al-Islamiyya Party founded in the late 1950s. Al-Hakim was forced abroad to Tehran in 1982 by Saddam’s persecution of key al-Da`wa figures. SCIRI has a paramilitary wing of 10,000 to 15,000 armed fighters, likely trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and commanded by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim. The al-Hakims are said to be close to hardliners like Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor as Supreme Leader in Iran. SCIRI formed part of the Iraqi National Congress and was given 15 out of 65 seats on the provisional governing council formed at the Iraqi opposition meeting in London in December 2002. SCIRI figures attended State Department meetings about overthrowing Saddam, and spoke to the press about their negotiations with the office of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about a role for the Badr Brigade in fighting alongside US troops during an invasion. Since the Bush administration had labeled SCIRI’s backers in Iran part of the “axis of evil,” this initial willingness to cooperate with them was breathtaking in its cynicism.

From January of 2003, however, ideology asserted itself over pragmatism, and the Bush administration suddenly broke with SCIRI. Attempts were made by US National Security Adviser Zalmay Khalilzad, reportedly in coordination with the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, to dilute SCIRI influence within the INC. Then, at meetings with the opposition groups in Turkey in late January, Khalilzad made it known that the US intended to administer Iraq itself for some time after “regime change,” instead of working through an Iraqi provisional government. Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim immediately denounced this plan as equivalent to a US colonial occupation, and threatened that the Badr Brigade would attack US troops if they overstayed their welcome. He clearly felt betrayed by this dramatic turnabout in US policy.

The US warned Iran not to allow Badr Brigade forces into Iraq during the US invasion. Al-Hakim maintains that they slipped into the country even so. As of April 17, Badr Brigade gunmen controlled the town of Baquba (pop. 163,000) near the Iranian border, and a Badr Brigade force allowed SCIRI cleric Sayyid Abbas to occupy the mayor’s mansion in Kut (pop. 360,000). When Marines attempted to intervene, a crowd of 1,200 townspeople gathered, chanting slogans against INC leader Ahmad Chalabi, and the soldiers decided to back off. US officers marginalized Abbas at a town hall meeting on April 19, but afterward, the cleric held an afternoon rally that was reported to be “bigger than ever.” According to the Daily Telegraph’s correspondent, “Mr. Abbas voiced what are quickly becoming the standard demands: an Islamic, Shia-dominated state for Iraq, and an end to American occupation.”

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, deputy head of SCIRI, returned to Iraq on April 16, arriving at Kut to cheers, presumably preparing the way for his older brother to do the same. In a press interview, the younger al-Hakim pledged that SCIRI would work together with other parties in the new Iraq. In Kut on April 18, he gave an interview with Iranian television in which he said, “we will first opt for a national political system, but eventually the Iraqi people will seek an Islamic republic system.” He added that the will of Shiites for an Islamic system would prevail in democratic elections, since they are 60 percent of the population.

On April 18 Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, still in Tehran, called upon Shiites to converge on the shrine city of Karbala on April 22 “to oppose a US-led interim administration and defend Iraq’s independence.” SCIRI spokesman Abu Islam al-Saqir added, “To the Iraqi people, US domination is no better than the dictatorship of the ousted brutal regime of Saddam Hussein.” Tens of thousands of Iraqi Shiites are currently on their way to the city to commemorate the martyrdom of the prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein, who died in a battle on the Karbala plain in the seventh century. Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim’s appeal to the symbology of Karbala for political purposes is an attempt to depict the US military as equivalent to Yazid, the opponent of Hussein in the epochal battle who is viewed by Shiites as the martyred imam’s oppressor.

“No One Represents Us”

Despite having birthed SCIRI, the Al-Da`wa al-Islamiyya Party itself remains a separate organization, with a commitment to Islamic government. It has London, Tehran and Iraq-based factions, of which only the London representatives have been willing to talk to the Americans. Some reports say many in the Iraqi al-Da`wa are loyal to Lebanese Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah. Fadlallah was born and educated in Najaf, going to Lebanon only in 1965. Hizballah in Lebanon, with which Fadlallah is no longer directly affiliated, has threatened violence against US troops in Iraq. Other than its Tehran branch, al-Da`wa, like the Sadr movement, is oriented toward an indigenous Iraqi politics and rejects Khomeini’s “guardianship of the jurisprudent” in favor of the theories of Islamic government developed by Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, who was killed by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1980. (This figure is the uncle of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, eponymous founder of the al-Sadr movement, also murdered by the late regime.)

A somewhat more moderate al-Da`wa leader, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, refused to attend the US-sponsored leadership meeting near Nasiriyya on April 16, saying he objected to cooperating with a US military administration. His view seems to have predominated in the party. Al-Da`wa organized the demonstration held on April 15 at Nasiriyya (pop. 535,000) to protest the conference being presided over by retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, head of the Office of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction charged by Washington with administering post-war Iraq. Press reports said “thousands” demonstrated. They chanted, “No, no Saddam! No, no United States” and “Yes, yes for Freedom! Yes, Yes for Islam.” Their placards read: “No one represents us in the conference.” On April 19, al-Jaafari signed a letter to a meeting of countries neighboring Iraq, calling for the immediate establishment of a technocratic provisional government, suggesting that al-Da`wa remains less clerically oriented than other Shiite factions. Among the al-Da`wa leaders in Nasiriyya is the newly returned former exile, Muhammad Bakr al-Nasri, a prominent cleric. He is said to be the party’s “philosophical guide.” Al-Da`wa Party officials fear that they will be locked out of political competition by the superior paramilitary capabilities of SCIRI and the Sadr movement.

Vacuum Filled

Among the big surprises of the two weeks following the fall of the Baath Party in Iraq is the way in which Shiite religious leaders and parties moved immediately into the vacuum. This process was facilitated by the thinness on the ground of US troops, in accordance with the Rumsfeld military plan that rejected Pentagon requests for larger military forces. Eastern cities like Baqubah and Sadra are reportedly under Shiite control with apparent backing from Iran. Some Failis or Shiite Kurds who largely emigrated to Iran under Saddam Hussein’s regime are now coming back to Iraq with Iranian backing (a Faili militia from Iran is reported to have recently taken over the eastern city of Badra). SCIRI has also attempted to assert itself in Kut, and has stymied the Marines there because of popular support. Nasiriyya appears to be virtually ruled by the al-Da`wa Party. Sadr City is patrolled by militias of the Sadr movement, and it is powerful in Najaf and Kufa. The other sacred city, Karbala, has also established a council of clerics and tribal sheikhs for self-rule.

Among major Shiite population centers, only Basra appears to have resisted this trend, in part perhaps because of different policies pursued by the British commanders there, and in part because of the influence of the secular Shiite middle and working classes. Outside Basra, secular-leaning Shiites have been hampered in asserting themselves by their lack of organization and lack of any paramilitary force. It may be that many are also stunned by the humiliating defeat of an avowed champion of secular Arab nationalism by a Western power.

It remains to be seen if the US interim administration can disarm the Shiite religious militias and recover enough control of the Shiite urban areas to allow something like free multi-party politics to emerge. Certainly, the Sadr movement mobs in Najaf would not countenance such a thing if they can stop it. Nor is SCIRI probably interested in genuine popular politics. The Shiite religious political parties and movements tend to be hierarchical and authoritarian despite their popular appeal, in accordance with Usuli convictions about the need to give blind obedience to trained jurisprudents. Shiite religious demands for an Islamic state are foredoomed to created conflict with Sunni Arabs and Kurds, who will not tolerate rule by ayatollahs or imposition on everyone of strict Shiite law. The Kurds, of course, have their own militias. Historian Ervand Abrahamian has compared the ideology of Khomeini’s Iran to the corporatism that prevailed in the Argentina of Peron. At least initially, the neo-conservatives, who hoped that Shiite militias would fight Saddam Hussein’s armies alongside invading US soldiers, may have unleashed this sort of mass politics in the formerly rigidly controlled Iraq.

How to cite this article:

Juan Cole "Shiite Religious Parties Fill Vacuum in Southern Iraq," Middle East Report Online, April 22, 2003.

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