The Shia Power Brokers of the New Iraq

Iraqi security forces backed by allied Shiite Popular Mobilization forces and Sunni tribal fighters prepare to attack Islamic State positions at Khalidiya Island in Anbar province, Iraq, Monday, Aug. 1, 2016. (RWA FAISAL/AP)



As the embattled country wages war on ISIS in the north, its future may be decided by clerics in the south.

KARBALA, Iraq—The inner sanctum of the Imam Hussein Shrine shines day and night, illuminated by jeweled chandeliers. Their light is reflected in the mirrored domes of the roof, and gleams across the gold-framed marble walls. At the center of the shrine, a stream of pilgrims presses against the gilded grating that surrounds the sarcophagus of Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad. In 680 AD, Imam Hussein was killed in the Battle of Karbala fighting the forces of the Umayyad caliph, his death cementing Sunni political dominance across the Islamic world. The battle was the point of no return in the schism between Sunni and Shia Islam, becoming the basis for the Shiites’ distinct rituals and identity, at the center of which is Hussein’s sacrifice.

Arbaeen, the pilgrimage to commemorate Imam Hussein’s death, sees devotees walk to Karbala from the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Basra, and even from Iran. It has more than doubled in size since 2008, growing to over 20 million people in 2015. “Imam Hussein fought against tyranny with his life,” Sheikh Maitham al-Zaidi, commander of the Abbas Division, a unit of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, explained to me on a visit to Iraq this fall. “As a symbol he inspires our men and they wish to give their souls to protect Iraq.” Owing to the ever-present threat of car bombs, only vehicles from the shrines or the police can enter the holy district in Karbala; so I traveled with officials from the shrine authorities.

With the growth of Arbaeen come donations and business opportunities that give the ayatollahs revenue to rival that of the provincial government. Half an hour’s drive from the Hussein Shrine, one of the three major Shia shrines in southern Iraq, is a camp housing around 7,500 internally displaced people (IDPs), who abandoned their homes ahead of ISIS’s devastating march through northwestern Iraq two years ago. For a time, the shrines and the government shared the cost of supporting the province’s 200,000 IDPs, as Nisayf Jasim al-Khattaby, the president of Karbala’s provincial council, explained. But the burden has shifted dramatically. Whereas in 2015 the government provided IDPs across the province with medical care, housing, and water sanitation, “this year we were dependent on the donations of wealthy families and businessmen to support the IDPs because of the fall in the oil price” and the costs of fighting ISIS, al-Khattaby said. “Their support [now] comes under the management of the shrines.”

Today, Iraqi Shiites dominate the country’s political, social, and economic spheres—an indirect result of the U.S. invasion in 2003, which unseated the Sunni dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Under Saddam, Shia clerics were suppressed, driven into exile, or imprisoned; in 1991, Saddam’s soldiers stormed and looted the Imam Hussein Shrine. As Shiites’ fortunes have risen, so, too, has the prominence of the three shrines.

Now, Shia clerics control the richest institutions in Iraq. Beyond supporting the region’s IDPs and running a vast network of charitable organizations, including schools, hospitals, and orphanages, the shrines have poured money into building infrastructure and investing in businesses. Shrine officials told me their printing presses produce the Iraqi Ministry of Education’s textbooks. A construction company, owned by the shrines, not only works on charitable projects, but paves roads and competes for contracts to build airports. In a concrete sense, the shrines have begun to assume the functions of the state.

Perhaps the clearest manifestation of the shrines’ ascendancy has been the formation of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a parallel army composed largely of Shia volunteers brought into the Iraqi military under a 2014 fatwa issued by 86-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the senior-most cleric in Shia Islam. Although Sistani does not directly control all of the approximately 40 units that constitute the PMF, each of the three shrines sponsors and manages its own unit. The Abbas Division, currently battling the Islamic State, is one such unit. Its commanders told me that it boasts over 5,000 infantrymen trained by Iraq’s special forces, and is supported by engineers, a logistical corps, armored units with over 80 tanks, and a reserve of approximately 44,000 trained personnel.

It is easy to see, then, why the shrines command such respect. Beyond their moral authority, they have proven to be effective. Mr. Hassan, who runs a mobile-phone shop in the bazaar near the Hussein Shrine, said that “we do not talk to the government. Government corruption raises prices throughout the economy. We talk to the shrines about our problems, and they listen.”

But Grand Ayatollah Sistani and his closest ally, Grand Ayatollah Sayid Mohammed Saeed al-Hakeem, say through spokesmen that they do not want to supplant the state. Instead, they want only to offer politicians private counsel on morality, as Sayid Riyadh al-Hakeem, Grand Ayatollah al-Hakeem’s son and spokesman, explained. “We suggest to military commanders that they prioritize their responsibility to protect civilians, but it is not for us to decide what weapons or tactics must be used on the battlefield,” al-Hakeem said. “Whatever decision is taken, it should be taken with the aim of protecting civilians.”

Not all of the clerical authorities share Sistani and al-Hakeem’s stated view that the ayatollahs should steer clear of politics. Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi advocates wilayat al-faqih, or “The Guardianship of the Jurist,” by which the cleric becomes the supreme legal authority. Iran’s clerics practice the most extreme form of wilayat al-faqih. There, the supreme religious authority, Ayatollah Khamenei, is also the head of state, with executive power. None of the Grand Ayatollahs in Najaf advocate such a system. But where Sistani, like his predecessor, sees the clerics’ pronouncements on legal matters as advisory, two of his potential successors believe the clerics should speak with legal authority. “Grand Ayatollah al-Najafi believes in this principle. Grand Ayatollah al-Fayadh is also sympathetic to the idea,” said Sheikh Ali al-Najafi, the son of, and spokesman for, Grand Ayatollah al-Najafi.

Which direction the clerics turn will be decided by Sistani’s successor, who will be chosen by the Shia community from among the other three Grand Ayatollahs in Najaf. The selection process is opaque and slow, but is aimed at establishing a consensus as to which Grand Ayatollah has the largest following and the recognition of his peers. Of Sistani’s potential successors, al-Hakeem is currently believed to have the greatest support. “Shia follow a living Ayatollah who can update our interpretation of the law and respond to modern challenges,” Sayid Saleh al-Hakeem, another son of Grand Ayatollah al-Hakeem, said.

With the defeat of ISIS on the horizon, it may be that Iraq’s future will be determined in theological debates in Najaf. Ironically, the institutions that have done the most to prop up the Iraqi state may, in an attempt to restore the moral integrity of the government, be its undoing.

Full article: The Shia Power Brokers of the New Iraq (Defense One)

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