Post-ISIS Iraq Series, Part II: Shi’ite Iraqis — Between Iran and Nationalism

Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr wave national flags and chant slogans during a demonstration in Tahrir Square, central Baghdad, Iraq, 04 August 2017. Thousands of Sadr supporters rallied in a new demonstration calling for a change in the new electoral commission law of the country, government reforms and the elimination of corruption. (Photo: ALI ABBAS/EPA/REX/Shutterstock)

As Iraqi forces are confidently advancing through Islamic Stateheld territories in the country, the future of post-ISIS Iraq is slowly unraveling, and although some details might now be clearer, there is a lot of uncertainty looming over the fate of the country, where more than half of the population has lived their lives knowing nothing but war, chaos and destruction.

Sunni Muslims in Iraq, once a ruling minority, nowadays face absolute political and representational annihilation. Flagged as eternal suspects for the country’s flourishing fundamentalism, which saw the ultimate rise of Islamic State, deeply divided along the ideological, tribal and class lines, at the moment, Sunnis are only able to look up to Shi’ite leaders as the channel for their reintegration and national reconciliation.

In that sense, the future of both Iraqi society and its position in the regional and international arena seems to hinge on the growing Shi’ite rift in the ruling Islamic Da’wa Party, where current and former Prime Ministers, Haider al-Abadi and Nouri al-Maliki, respectively, are competing for the mandate in the 2018 general elections.

Al-Abadi vs. Al-Maliki – A Rift in the Dawa Party

The situation seems to be rather simple al-Abadi is pro-Western, and by extension, pro-Sunni Arab states’ camp, eager to move away from Iranian influence, with good PR as the face of Iraqi unity against the all-encompassing evil of Islamic State.

His arch-rival, al-Maliki, is pro-Iranian, supported by Tehran, more conservative, more religious and more sectarian, eager for possible rapprochement with the increasingly present and powerful Russia and he plays well into the mood of a country destroyed by what comes down to a jihadi Salafism.

A handout photo made available by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) shows Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abbadi (L) sit for a meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 19 June 2017. (Photo: SAUDI PRESS AGENCY/HANDOUT/EPA/REX/Shutterstock)

Division is nothing new in the Dawa Party, which was founded in 1950s. During its tumultuous history, it has opposed different secularist and nationalist narratives, fought for different ends and ambivalently had both allies and foes in Iran and the United States, often splitting into various factions on that road. Yet these factions, especially after 2003, maintained a pragmatic approach towards Dawa’s unity and ideology of Islamic rule. 

However, the nuances of Iraqi Shi’ite domestic and regional affairs are much better reflected through the leanings of other prominent political players, including the Sadrist Movement and Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. After all, both al-Maliki and al-Abadi are typical representatives of alienated dissidents who spent decades outside of Iraq, while some other politicians were more successful at rallying the masses by successfully playing the card of their family’s legacy and street credibility.

The Call of Sadr(ists)

Hardline cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has always been nothing short of a star in Iraq — a true successor to his father, Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, one of the leaders of the Dawa Party in its early days, who was assassinated by Saddam Hussein’s regime in late 1990s and celebrated as a martyr by Iraqi Shi’ites.

“He is a very charismatic leader, possibly the only charismatic leader in the Iraqi political arena,” Dr. Ronen Zeidel from Center for Iraq Studies at the University of Haifa told Intelligencer Post. “He is infatuated with his power, his charisma, he is very much like Nasrallah (Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Shi’ite Lebanese group Hezbollah), almost like a stand-up comedian. He enjoys listening to his voice. He enjoys listening to his speeches and having people react to them.”

Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr leads the Friday prayers at the Kufa Mosque in Najaf, Iraq, 23 September 2016. (Photo: Khider Abbas/Epa/REX/Shutterstock)

Sadr swiftly emerged in the post-Saddam era as a fierce opponent of occupation, organizing a powerful Mahdi Army militia that effectively fought both foreign forces and Sadr’s rivals in Iraq. His social services network, built by his father during the 1990s regime’s crackdown on Shi’ites, further elevated his popularity among the Shi’ite lower classes. Some even argue that it was soft power, rather than militias – that embedded Sadr, and even Iranian influence, so deeply into Iraqi society.

“What Iraqi Shi’ite sectarian leaders and parties prioritized was the ability to dispense patronage, a core component of a strategy long employed by Lebanese Hezbollah and encouraged by their Iranian advisors,” resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute Michael Rubin wrote. “Firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr… placed his followers in the health ministry… By controlling hospitals and clinics, Sadr could either use services to expand his influence among ordinary people or simply employ his followers in a personnel-rich bureaucracy.”

However, none of Sadr’s allies should feel too comfortable. Despite owing much to Iran and even spending a few years in self-imposed exile in Tehran, Sadr proved himself to be a savvy political player who can easily switch narratives, allegiances and goals to keep himself afloat. He bears a lot of responsibility for fueling a devastating sectarian conflict in Iraq in the name of Shi’ism, and ironically, at the moment, he is the voice behind de-militarization and de-sectarianization efforts.

Al Mahdi Army was engaged in sectarian violence and insurgency. The photograph shows Iraqis inspecting destruction and damage done to their shops in a market where gunfights erupted between Mahdi Army fighters and Iraqi and US Forces in Baghdad’s impoverished Shi’ite district of Sadr City, Iraq, 26 March 2008. (Photo: Shehab Ahmed/EPA/REX/Shutterstock)

Since 2011, his Mahdi Army was refurnished into a social services organization, which maintained its ability to swiftly revert back to battle-ready militias, as seen after 2014, when Sadr’s units became a crucial part of Hashd al-Sha’abi, also known as Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which fought Islamic State.

As the offensive against ISIS jihadists gets closer to its end, so do Sadr’s calls for dismantling PMF become louder. Numerous militias spawned under the predominantly Shi’ite PMF umbrella, under command of Qasem Soleimani from Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds force, could be a source of support for a powerful domestic rival, and more importantly, Iranian influence, something Sadr has been wary of for a while.

“He gave up on military involvement because he is already very strong in Baghdad and in the South, and he does not need any militias, because there is no conflict there. But if he tells people to go and demonstrate, they go out and demonstrate. He can send word of mouth and have hundreds of thousands of people come to the streets, right to the Green Zone,” Ronen Zeidel says.

Thousands of the Shi’ite Sadrist al-Mahdi Army members marching the streets of Baghdad demanding the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, 26 May 2011. (Photo: Stringer/EPA/REX/Shutterstock)

“He wants to be involved in social, economic and political issues, and he gambles on his political influence to fight the problems within the existing political oligarchy. He gambles on demonstrations and civil protests.”

Having a knack for feeling the shifting currents in a society exhausted by almost two decades of perpetual conflict, Sadr also has a knack for picking the right allies, be it in Tehran or Riyadh. In July and August, he embarked on a tour in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which was unequivocally seen as a push to minimize Iran’s influence in Iraq and the region. The visits were rather fruitful. After Sadr’s meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Riyadh decided to donate $10 million to help displaced Iraqis and announced possible investments and the opening of a consulate in Iraq’s holy Shi’ite city of Najaf.

Supporters of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr take part in a demonstration and sit-in by the gate of Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, where the headquarter of the Iraqi government is located, demanding for reforms better services and an end to corruption, 18 march 2016. (Photo: Ali Abbas/Epa/REX/Shutterstock)

Thus, Sadr came full-circle, siding with some of his former enemies’ patrons and supporting a pro-Western candidate in al-Abadi. But is he a voice of reform?

“In the long run, Sadr and his organization are ill-equipped to engage in the business of governance; they lack the capacity to translate mobilization into public policy, and ultimately are part of the problems that plague Iraq,” a fellow at the Brookings Doha Center Ranj Alaaldin wrote. “Through the sheer pressure of mobilizing the masses, the Sadrist movement could, nevertheless, engineer the space that allows for a culture of accountability to emerge, which Iraq’s reformist actors could then capitalize on, with the necessary support from the region and the international community.”

However, one should not put too much stock into this optimistic view. After all, one could argue whether Sadr’s changes of heart and policies come from his pragmatic approach towards the greater good of Iraqi society or building his own power. At the moment, Sadr’s grand ego seems content right where he is, but who is to say that won’t change in a few years, when some other reformists’ grand ego starts to surpass his?

Iranian Influence as a Double-Edged Sword

Sadr successfully reinvented his public persona by distancing himself for Tehran, and some other influential politicians might follow his suite. This brings the conversation to the question one cannot escape when discussing Shi’ite politics — the matter of Iranian influence. Many easily fall into a trap of portraying Iraqi Shi’ism as some sort of extension of Iranian ideology and crown proof of Tehran’s overwhelming influence in the country. The truth is far from that sweeping generalization.

“There is a big difference between Iranian and Iraqi Shi’ism, to start from theoretical basis. Islamic Republic in Iran’s ideology is heavily embedded in the involvement of clergymen in politics and the judiciary system. The Iraqi clergy refrains from this and has generally rejected being involved in politics on this level,” Zeidel explains. “Ayatollah Sistani is the most powerful Shi’ite cleric, and he has never been a supporter of involvement in politics, let alone the idea that they bend to someone like Khamenei.”

This, however, does not mean that Iraqi Shi’ite leaders, often very pragmatic, have never worked with Iran, as seen from Sadr’s example. On the contrary, their past and present have often been closely intertwined with Tehran, and another major Iraqi Shi’ite party has spent much of its existence defined by Iran.

Former head and founder of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Shi’ite cleric Abdulaziz al-Hakim delivers his speech during the Eid el-Adha’s Prayer at the headquarter of SCIRI in Baghdad, 31 December 2006. (Photo: Ali Haider/EPA/REX/Shutterstock)

For the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), close connections with Tehran served both as a blessing and a curse. It was founded during the bloody war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s, sparked by Baghdad’s fear from greater Shi’ite insurgency in Iraq following the Iranian Islamic Revolution. SCIRI was based in Tehran and led by Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim. Following the usual pattern of Iranian patronage, SCIRI presided over Badr Corps, a militia trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and also controlled a charity organization called the Shahid al-Mihrab Foundation.

Despite enjoying solid popularity and influence after 2003, SCIRI has never been able to shake off the burden of being a “foreign influence” in Iraq, where certain level of the national narrative has always managed to survive.

“SCIRI claims, with justification, that it was established and inspired in response to the Iraqi regime’s tyranny and crimes, but perceptions forged during the hard years of the Iran-Iraq war, in which the party and its Badr militia fought alongside Iranian forces, have been slow to change,” the International Crisis Group report concluded back in 2007.

Members of Iraqi Shi’ite Badr Army militia, formerly presided by ISCI on their way to take part in a military operation near Tal Afar, 20 November 2016. (Photo: Ahmed Jalil/Epa/REX/Shutterstock)

SCIRI leadership was well aware of that, changing its name to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq in 2007 to exclude that pesky Iranian-sounding word “revolution.” But even after Abdulaziz’s son and successor, Ammar al-Hakim, further broke ties with Tehran after his father’s death, parting ways with its pro-Iranian Badr military wing and refashioning ISCI into a political option aimed at middle-class Shi’ite Iraqis, Iranian influence hindered.

“When the ISCI-led Muwatin parliamentary bloc was created in 2014, it included nearly 20 different groups, some with close links to Iran. One such group is the Movement for Jihad and Building… Hassan al-Sari, a parliamentarian who serves as the group’s secretary-general, formerly led the Hezbollah Movement in Iraq and was a member of SCIRI’s advisory council,” a researcher at the University of Maryland focused on Iran-backed Shi’ite proxy groups, Phillip Smith, wrote. “More recently, he has advocated an armed Iranian presence in Iraq and vociferously opposed U.S. operations against ISIS.”

Former leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, Shi’ite cleric Ammar al-Hakim speaks to his followers during the Muslim festival of Eid el-Adha in Baghdad, Iraq, 5 October 2014. (Photo: Ali Abbas/Epa/REX/Shutterstock)

But if ISCI could not shake off Iran, Ammar al-Hakim could shake off ISCI, and in July, he stepped down as the leader to form a new party, National Wisdom. It is not much of a stretch to suggest that al-Hakim, just like Sadr, accepted that he cannot court Sunni Iraqis with ISCI’s history, and that general mood towards Iran changed with a new U.S. administration. At the moment, a bet on new party, new faces and some distance from Tehran might be a lucky draw.

Following Hakim’s resignation, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei sent an envoy, Mahmoud Shahroudi, but Iraqi Ayatollah Al Sistani did not find the time to meet him, signaling which way the political currents in 2017 flow.

Iran is not going to accept the new reality — it is likely to engage it in the best way it can: through its well-organized and well-established soft power network.

Members of the Iraqi Parliament attend a parliamentary vote of confidence to approve a national unity government under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to face the threat of the Islamic State extremist group, Baghdad, 8 September 2014. (Photo: Ali Abbas/Epa/REX/Shutterstock)

“The extent of Iranian influence depends on the election’s outcome, but even if pro-Iranian al-Maliki wins, Iraq is not going to be Iran’s marionette, satellite state,” says Ronen Zeidel.

Ultimately, Shi’ite politicians decided to fix one mistake that plunged the country into prolonged internal conflict: they embraced the national narrative as a top priority. However, at this point, it is just that: a national narrative.

The road towards turning it into social reality is long and booby trapped with a legacy of rampant corruption, class differences and tribal affiliations. All of these simultaneously went off in the oil-rich southern city of Basra in recent weeks, where Shi’ite tribes are fighting over valuable land, while the governor and head of the regional council had to step down and flee, faced with corruption allegations. It sounds like a broken record of the past, but if Sadr and Hakim were ready to change their own song reserved for voters, friends and foes, one might hope they could also try and set this record straight.

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