Who’s Who in Shia Iraq
by Anand Gopal
Friday, March 9th 2007. [redacted]
Tuesday, March 15th 2005. Students at the Basra University Engineering College gathered in Andalus Park to hold a picnic and get-together. Militia men from the Mahdi army, which is in control of a good part of the University, had repeatedly warned students not to hold such an assembly. The militiamen descended upon the gathering, grabbed a hold of one young female student and tore her clothes off. Two male students who attempted to intervene were shot, and the woman later committed suicide in shame. In the ensuing outrage, students organized demonstrations protesting the Mahdi Army’s actions and the growing influence of Islamist politics in general; the protests abated when the Mahdi Army threatened to bomb any public demonstrations. Throughout all of this, the Basra Police Force remained a silent observer, and the Islamic parties that comprised the provincial councils refused to bring any of the militiamen to justice.
Thursday, April 10th, 2003. A large, angry crowd assembled outside the Shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf. Majid al-Khoei, a prominent Shia cleric and potential challenger for political supremacy in Iraq, had recently arrived to the holy city from Kuwait (flown there by US forces), with $13 million in CIA-supplied funds. The cleric aimed, through a rite of pilgrimage to the Ali shrine, to establish himself as the chief Shia religious and political authority in the country. The angry crowds, under the influence of Sadrist forces, saw Khoei as both traitor and a usurper; they opened fire on Khoei and his party, eventually hacking the prominent cleric to death. With his murder, occupation forces lost a possible valuable ally and Moqtada al -Sadr’s movement rapidly filled the newly-formed power and influence vacuum. Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away in Sadr City, Baghdad, clerics were delivering fiery sermons decrying the fierce US occupation and posters ofMoqtada al-Sadr were beginning to appear on the city walls.
In the beginning, there was the Call
It wasn’t always like this. Sadr City, named after the late Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, father of Moqtada, is a sprawling, depressed, filthy neighborhood, where sewage runs in the open and the crackle of gunfire punctuates the nights. Before the fall of Baghdad, Sadr City was called Saddam City and was a hotbed ofShia discontent. After the US forces called upon the Shias to rise and overthrow Saddam’s dictatorship in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, Saddam City became one of the flashpoints of the failed revolution. But long before Saddam, before the Baath Party even came into power, Saddam City was known as Revolution City. The Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) commanded a great deal of influence among the Iraqi left and the working class. The party enjoyed considerable support in the poor, Shia-dominated working-class suburbs of Baghdad, and after the 1958 revolution that brought the military dictator Abd al-Karim Qasim to power, the new regime launched an urban-housing program that provided affordable housing to the city’s poor. The resulting suburb, christened Revolution City, was both an effort to appease the ICP’s growing base (which supported the 1958 takeover) and to facilitate the country’s industrialization. The Qassim regime eventually turned on the ICP when it became clear that the party’s power presented a threat, but before this the General enacted a series of reforms, including the modernization and secularization of some women’s roles (specifically with regard to inheritance) and a major land reform scheme that hurt tribal income and hence the amount of religious taxes collected by clerics.
The landlord class therefore provided the major social and political backing for the clerics, or Ulema, and Qassim’s attacks on this class via his modernization efforts, coupled with the ICP’s tremendous influence among the working class, gave the Ulema much cause to worry. In early 1958 a young cleric from Najaf (the traditional base of the Shia Ulema) gathered with other clerics, businessmen and engineers and put the call out for a new, revolutionary Islamic party. Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (Sadr I) was by all accounts a prodigy; he delivered his first lectures on theology and Islamic history at the age of ten, and by his twenties was fluent in both English and the language of the secular revolutionary left (he was, for example, well-versed in the Marxist and Enlightenment ideas of the day). The young Sadr I aimed to build an Islamic party that could provide an answer to theICP’s social program by placing the poor and dispossessed at the center of its politics but at the same time fight against a secularism that undermines the Ulema’s role and indeed even their raison d’être. Sadr I’s new party, the Islamic Dawa Party (or the Islamic Call Party), was immediately the subject of oppression by Qassim’s secular government.
While Qassim was busy suppressing Islamist sentiments, his dalliances with the Soviet Union and his on-again, off-again affair the ICP proved too much for the US. al-Dawa and Islamism were not yet a large enough or coherent enough force to use as a counterweight to the ICP and the Soviet Union, so the US turned to the secular nationalist Baath Party. The US quickly developed links with Baathists in and out of Iraq; it is alleged, for instance, that a certain young Iraqi expat studying law in Cairo named Saddam Hussein was on the CIA payroll. The CIA used Cairo as a base to help launch a coup in Baghdad, led byBaathists and specifically by Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, who later ruled Iraq until 1979, when he transferred the seat of power to his protégé Saddam. After the 1963 coup, the CIA turned over lists including the names of over 5000 suspected Communists, which the Baathists murdered one by one until the ICP and its sympathizers were decimated and drowned in blood. Between 1963 and 1968, when a second coup ensured that the Baathists officially consolidated power, the Dawa party saw a renaissance; Islamism was tolerated and at times even encouraged as a counterweight to communism. The party expanded via a network of charitable organizations and Islamic education centers. The party also turned towards the working-class residents of Revolution City and began to fill the void left by the weakened and ineffectual ICP.
The Baathists who came to power in 1968 sought to crush any opposition or potential rivals; the group targeted al-Dawa with almost the same ferocity and vigor as they did the communists. In the 1970s the government began suppressing the Shia press, closing religious institutions, and arresting leading members of al-Dawa. In 1975 the government outlawed the marad al-ras, the annual Shia pilgrimage from Najaf to Karbala. In 1977, Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, son of the Grand Ayatollah Mushin al-Hakim and an al-Dawa member, helped organize such a procession in open defiance of the ban. The resulting uprising and repression, known as the Safar Intifada, earned Hakim, Sadr I and al-Dawa the influence and respect of the Shia poor. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 further inspired al-Dawa and other Islamists, and Iraq’s first genuine Islamist militia, Shahid al-Sadr, was born. Saddam’s government proscribed membership in al-Dawa and executed scores of cadre. The party associates responded by attempting to assassinate key government figures, most notably minister Tariq Aziz. In response, the government merely increased the level of repression, culminating in Sadr I’s execution in 1980.
Sadr I’s death was a tremendous blow to al-Dawa and to the Shia opposition in general. Sadr I left behind, however, a tremendous body of work and a weighty political legacy that still marks Iraq’s landscape. He is responsible for one of the earliest cogent attempts at drafting a revolutionary Islam. His Our Economy (1961) rejected both capitalism’s inequality and ethos and communism’s atheism and lack of liberty and argued for a mixed economy with a strong state sector. Sadr’s “Islamic socialism” proved to have tremendous appeal with the Shia working class, and his ideas found their way to influential thinkers in Iran. Sadr also developed a unique theory of Shia rule that broke both with Khomeini’s wilayat al-faqih and the more secular “Shia nationalism” later put forth by groups such as Nabih Berri’s Amal movement in Lebanon. Wilayat al-faqih (guardianship of the jurisprudent, or direct clerical rule) itself was a radical break with Shia tradition; Khomeini’s theory, developed by 1970, went against years of Shia practice in which clerical rule was at least formally separated from monarchial rule by positing that clerics, and specifically a leading section of clerics, should rule society directly and maintain its affairs. Sadr, however, refused to accept Khomeini’s innovation and instead argued for a state that governed itself under Islamic parameters but where the Ulema retained a consultative and supervisory role. The two theories therefore agreed that the locus of political and economic power should be fixed on the Ulema, but differed as to whether the Ulema should be represented politically or rule directly.
These are rather fine differences and as a result al-Dawa members often held varying positions on the matter. After Sadr’s execution and Saddam’s repression of the party, some elements of the party fled to Iran, developed close links with the Iranian regime and gravitated towards a Khomeinist view. Other sections of the party relocated to London, where Sadr’s prescription of a lay leadership with clerical backing held influence, while still others remained behind and waged a resistance campaign to Saddam’s government and engineered attempts on the dictator’s life in 82 and 87. al-Dawa ‘s actions outside of Iraq’s borders, however, proved the most remarkable. The party carried out a suicide attack on the Iraqi embassy in Beirut in December of 1981, considered by many to be the first modern suicide bombing in the Middle East. Pro-Khomeinial al-Dawa members in Tehran, grouped in a faction called Islamic Jihad, bombed the US and French embassies (both supporters of Saddam in the Iran-Iraq war) in Kuwait in 1983. Members of Islamic Jihad also made their way to Lebanon, where it is alleged that in 1982 they supplied three of the nine founding members of the group that eventually became the Hizbullah . In 1983, Islamic Jihad members were involved in the simultaneous suicide bombings of the French and US marine barracks in Beirut, famously forcing the withdrawal of the two armies. Meanwhile, back in Kuwait City seventeen Islamic Jihad members were arrested and imprisoned under charges that they were involved in the 1983 embassy bombings; the prisoners, known as theDawa 17, became a crucial bargaining chip in Shia Islamist politics, and their incarceration sparked a series of high-profile kidnappings (including CIA station chief William Buckley, AP Bureau Chief Terry Anderson, and others) that lay at the heart of the Iran-Contra scandal. The fate of the Dawa 17 is unknown; the prisoners disappeared during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, although one of the seventeen, Jamal Jafaar Mohammed, later turned up as a member of the Iraqi parliament in Nuri al-Maliki’s government.
al-Dawa grew out of the Najaf clergy, and for years represented the interests of Iraq’s landlord class but relied on the support of working-class Shias. Saddam’s repression of al-Dawa, the industrialization of Iraq and the concomitant demise the landlord class, and the marginalization and weakening of the clergy all contributed to a profound shift in the party’s class basis. After 1980 and Sadr’s death a large portion of the party fled Iraq, and it was mostly the laity-dominated London section that returned on the heels of the US invasion in 2003. The party had in the intervening years transformed into one that represented big-business interests and is today a potential political representative of a section of the post-Saddam Iraq’s nascent ruling class. Indeed, al-Dawa has apparently been involved in numerous business deals, such as a questionable concession to the Egyptian telecom Orascom in late 2003.
While the London al-Dawa moved away from clerical rule, parts of the Iranian section, led by Baqir al-Hakim, moved in November 1982 to form a Khomeinist party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). With the Iranian government’s help, SCIRI also formed an armed wing, the Badr Brigades, which periodically raided targets in Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. Despite al-Dawa and SCIRI’s differences on the question of the wilayat al-faqih, the two organizations remained close throughout the exile period, and members often floated from one organization to another. After the 2003 US invasion, SCIRI reentered Iraq and the Badr Brigades eventually grew to over 25,000. Hakim, returning to his home country for the first time in over twenty years, was murdered by a massive al-Qaeda car bomb in August of 2003 in Najaf and political leadership shifted to his brother Abdel Aziz al-Hakim.
SCIRI is the largest, most well-organized party in Iraq, and it is the party with the deepest pockets. The group was even earmarked for US funding under the 1998 Iraqi Liberation Act, which they nonetheless declined. They developed very strong ties to Tehran, however, and the party adheres to the wilayat al-faqih model, with the ruling clergy based in Iran but with a separate legislature for Iraq. After the invasion, SCIRI quickly aligned itself with the US and British occupation (under the guise of neutrality); they worked closely with British forces in Basra and aligned themselves with the US against the various Sadrist uprisings. The Badr Brigades entered the newly formed Iraqi army, and SCIRI forged connections with the large sections of the Shia clergy. While SCIRI has now distanced itself a good deal from the occupation forces, the leadership still routinely condemn attacks on US and British troops. With al-Dawa being more and more heavily represented by non-clerical forces, SCIRI secured a base in the moderate Islamic clergy and the traditional hawza(Islamic seminaries). At the same time, they like al-Dawa ascended to represent a section of the newly-forming Iraqi ruling class; mostly through Iranian-provided funds, SCIRI acquired controlling shares in numerous newly-privatized factories, farms, flour mills, utility companies, and industries in the oil sector. The Iranian ties suggest that SCIRI represents a section of the ruling class that is more closely aligned with Tehran, whereas al-Dawa stands a bit further removed from the Iranian orbit but also a bit closer to possible future collaboration with the US. Groups with secular Shia leaders, like Iyad Alawi’s Iraqi National Accord, fall directly under Washington’s sphere and have received direct support and funding from the US, Britain, Saudi Arabia and others.
Meanwhile, back in Sadr City…
Sometimes you just can’t kill a man. Saddam and his revolutionary guards learned this the hard way – no sooner had they put Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr (Sadr II) and his eldest two sons to death in 1999 than the poor and working-class Shias exploded in the largest uprising since the aborted 1991 revolution. Remarkably, thousands of Shia broke with custom and declared their allegiance to the martyred Sadr II, despite the traditional practice of following a living cleric. Moreover, Sadr II demanded absolute fealty from his followers, despite the standard Shia custom which regards the decision as a deeply personal one (Shias are usually free to choose or change their so-called Object of Emulation, or their personal marja)
What was it about this firebrand cleric from Najaf that demanded such devotion? Sadr II studied Islamic law in his cousin Baqir al-Sadr’s hawza, and graduated at a very young age. A fellow student with Khomeini, he mastered many languages, including English, and like his cousin was well-versed in the notions and themes of the secular revolutionary left. Like other Iraqi Shia Islamists at the time, he was associated with al Dawa, although he leaned towards Khomeini’s wilayat al-faqih conceptions. Sadr II became one of the few public figures to speak openly against Saddam’s regime; his fiery and deeply political sermons won him the admiration and praise of the Shia masses. The majority of the Shia religious establishment, however, remained silent during Baath rule. Sadr II developed a theory of the “silent jurisprudent,” who carries a quietist attitude and refuses rail against the political repression and economic misery that was rampant in Iraq. He hurled the label at such figures as the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, which caused deep fissures in the Iraqi Shia world; Sadr’s followers (and the subject of his sermons) tended to be the poorest and most oppressed sections of society, and Sistani was left with a middle- and upper-class base.
Upon Sadr II’s execution, his young son Moqtada al-Sadr went underground to escape persecution. The young Sadr was quite different from the other Shia religious authorities in Iraq. He did not have an advanced degree in Islamic studies and could not claim the right to be a bona fide Object of Emulation, as Sadr II, Sadr I, Hakim and Sistani were or are. Nor was he the appointed successor to Sadr II – this role fell upon Ayatollah Qassim Hussein Hairi, based in Iran. Sadr however quickly began to develop an extensive underground network of supporters. After Saddam’s fall, Sadr’s movement quickly ascended, renaming Saddam City as Sadr City after Sadr II, and established a militia, the Mahdi Army. Commentators often speak of the Sadrist movement in superlatives: Sadr’s movement has by far the largest and deepest base amongst the poor and working-class Shias, and the leadership regularly preaches against the dispossession and exploitation of the poor. The movement is the most militantly nationalistic – Sadr has regularly railed against the US occupation and has harbored a distrust of Iran, not to mention that they have been one of the few Shia groups to repeatedly and directly engage the US in battle. They have been the most prone of the large parties to involvement in the sectarian civil war; many clerics have issued fatwas against revenge killings of Sunnis, but Sadr remained silent on the issue, which in effect became an endorsement of sectarian fighting. And they tend to be the most extreme in their interpretation ofShia Islam; Mahdi men have often taken the lead in establishing sharia courts, attacking cinema theatres, razing liquor stores, barber shops and internet cafes, and destroying gypsy villages. The other Shia Islamic parties often have puritanical or sectarian moments as well, of course, but the Mahdi Army’s size and organization tend to place them at the front of such actions.
The Mahdi Army was at the center of numerous uprisings and battles against the American occupation. In the Spring of 2004, for instance, Sadr’s forces led a bloody uprising after authorities shut down their newspaper, al-Hawza. Sadr often does not have a firm grip on his militiamen; Mahdi men often act independently of the leadership, a phenomenon that has resulted in tremendous tensions in the Sadrist movement. Nonetheless, Sadr has used a rather extensive social-welfare network (some of it funded by Iran, some of it through the Education and Health Ministries, which Sadrists control) and fierce anti-American rhetoric to win the loyalty of the Shia poor. However, rhetoric aside, Sadr himself has engaged in a delicate dance between the US, Iran and other Shia Islamic groups in Iraq; he has struck numerous deals with Washington, often at the risk of alienating his base, and cannot be characterized as “anti-Imperialist” in any real sense. The possibility of forging such an anti-Imperialist movement, however, lies within the ranks of Sadr’s supporters, with the Shia poor and working class that respond most favorably to Sadr’s anti-American speeches. Given the dynamics of Sadrism and Sadr’s aspirations of carving out a space within the nascent Iraqi ruling class, even at the cost of cooperating with the US, it is more likely that any viable anti-imperialist movement that does arise will break from Sadr and form either independent groups or groups more closely allied with Iran.
The balance sheet
And such is the state of Shia Iraq today, a political landscape that is controlled by three main Islamic groups. There are splits and complications, of course. al-Fadhila (the Islamic Virtue), for example, is a split from the Sadr movement that also enjoys support from the Shia poor (with a strong base in and around Basra) and has ties to oil companies. al-fadhila has at times worked more closely with occupation forces, and its leader Mohammed Yaqubi is seen as Sadr’s rival (there are reports that Ayatollah Hairi is beginning to consider al-Fadhila as the genuine heir to Sadr II, perhaps so that he can outmaneuver Moqtada al-Sadr for leadership and influence in Iraq) . And Thar Allah (Allah’s Revenge), a grouping associated with SCIRI and with ties to the tribal communities in Basra, has attacked Sunnis and occupation forces regularly. Others, such as the marsh Arabs of south central Iraq, have organized in groups such as the Iraqi Hizbullah. But the Sadrst movement, al-Dawa, and SCIRI have the lion’s share of support and influence in Shia Iraq. Specifically, al-Dawa commands the most influence in Nasiriyya, SCIRI in Baquba and Kut, and the Sadrists in East Baghdad, Kufa and parts of Samarra and Najaf. But more generally, Shia Iraq, yesterday of the Communists, today belongs to the Islamists. Iraq is littered with tragedies, but the transcendent tragedy is that secular alternatives have been lost beneath the detritus of dictatorship, occupation and civil war. Like Iran, generations will most likely have to live and die under theocracy and oppression before a secular alternative, reinvigorated and re-imagined, is alive in Iraq once more.
List of Important Shia Parties in Iraq
al-Dawa: Oldest Islamic party; rejects the wilayat al-faqih; strong base in middle class and has many ties to big businesses; second or third largest party in Iraq
SCIRI: Close ties to Iran; split from al-Dawa in early 80s, accepts the wilayat al-faqih, with the supreme faqihbased in Iran; strong base in middle class; owns many big businesses and has ties to foreign business interests; the largest and richest party in Iraq; military wing is theBadr Brigades
Sadrist parties: Most militant parties in Shia Iraq, generally under the leadership of Moqtada al-Sadr; accept the wilayat al-faqih, but hold that Iraq and Iran have a separate ruling faqih; strong base in the working class and poor informal sectors.
al-Fadhila: Split from the Sadrists; possibly closer to Iran; generally less militantly anti-American than the Sadrists; accepts the wilayat al-faqih but the question of whether they support a separate faqih for Iraq and Iran or one for all Shias, based in Tehran is not clear; similar social base as the Sadrists, but developing ties to big business
Thar Allah: associated with SCIRI; involved in many revenge killings of Sunnis and of former Baath party members; social base are the tribal communities, especially near Basra.
Iraqi Islamic Forces Union: Split from SCIRI before the invasion on the grounds that they refused to support the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein, which SCIRI supported.
Jund al-Imam: associated with SCIRI; a split from al-Dawa in 1969 over the nature of the future Islamic state – members called for an explicitly Shia state that by definition excluded Sunnis;
Islamic Task Organization: a wing of al-Dawa that over the years became a distinct organization; engineered an assassination attempt on Tariq Aziz in the early 80s; opposes attacks on US forces
Iraqi Hizbullah: organization of Marsh Arabs; active against Saddam Hussein’s regime; led by Abu Hatim