Iraq’s Shi’ites Are Fighting Among Themselves

Bogged down in their internecine strife, the two major Iraqi trends of political Shiism are dragging the country back to its old demons. While for the moment, the religious leaders have managed to calm the belligerents’ ardour, everyone wonders how long this will last. Our investigation was carried out in Baghdad, Sadr City and Najaf.

Friday prayer in Sadr City, 21 October 2022
Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP

After a year’s deadlock, the election of a President of the Republic by the Iraqi parliament and especially the appointment f a new Prime Minister ought in theory to have restored the country’s tranquillity. They did no such thing. Understandably: those events, which constituted the epilogue of a twelve months’ tug of war between the country’s two main political Shi’ite forces did not in any way put an end to the crisis. A truth which the October 2021 parliamentary election – held early on account of the October 2019 street protests1 – made crystal clear: torn between the turbulent Muqtada Al-Sadr, self-proclaimed champion of Iraqi sovereignty, and The Coordination Framework, a coalition of parties and militias most of which belong to the Iranian orbit, Iraqi political Shi’ism appears irreducibly divided.

These two rival forces, both very powerful politically and militarily, have brought the life of the country to a standstill for months. This summer the tension rose another notch, with occupations and street protests in the capital’s Green Zone – that ultra-secure district of Baghdad, seat of the country’s main institutions. What then seemed unavoidable occurred in the night of 29 August: a clash between the militias of the two factions resulting in dozens of casualties.

Fortunately, after a few hours, calm was restored. While it is hard to understand Sadr’s about-face, threatening to disavow his supporters if they did not leave the Green Zone – after he had sent them in there in the first place – it seems likely that the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani had a key role in putting an end to the fighting. It is hard to confirm this explanation, however, as the 92-year-old cleric and his closest collaborators have made no public statement.

Still, this newfitna – or schism – appears far from being settled: Muqtada al-Sadr’s announcement of his withdrawal from politics at the peak of the crisis, followed by his decision to engineer the resignation of his 73 MPs, provided a golden opportunity for his opponents in the Coordination Framework. Some of the Sadrist leader’s supporters quickly joined the other side, which among other things enabled the two major Kurdish parties to agree on the designation of the President of the Republic. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of the Barzani clan, one of Sadr’s allies, finally agreed to elect Abdel Latif Rachid, a member of The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), belonging to the Talabani clan. With the presidential stalemate out of the way, the rest followed quite naturally. Indeed, the Iraqi system stipulates that once Parliament has elected a new president, he must, within a fortnight, appoint a Prime Minister chosen among the parliamentary majority, in this case the Coordination Framework. Their choice was a slap in the face for Muqtada Sadr, since it fell on former minister and former governor of Maysan province, Mohamed Shia’ Al-Sudani. Now, in July 2022, the Sadrist leader had categorically rejected that same Al-Sudani’s appointment (outside of normal procedures) and sent his supporters to attack Parliament. No sooner had this provocative appointment become known than the Green Zone was hit by nine Katyucha rockets.

The new Prime Minister set about forming his cabinet. Without Muqtada Al-Sadr who immediately declared that no one from his movement would be part of it.

Sadr City prepares for the worst

Just a few kilometres to the North-East of Baghdad, Sadr City is swept by torrid winds. In this huge metropolis with its rectilinear avenues and earthen backstreets, two million souls eke out a living, surrounded by garbage piles, gunshots, and mud puddles.

For Sadr City is heir to a long tradition of marginality: in consequence of which we encounter poverty and a sense of abandonment at every street corner. And yet the city is far from keeping out of politics: it is no accident that it was named after Muqtada Sadr’s father, a Shiite cleric murdered by the Saddam Hussein regime. And though all the currents are represented here, the city remains a stronghold of Sadrism.

To put it mildly, the area has been under stress since the skirmishes in the Green Zone at the end of August. For many people, the enemy has a name: Al-Hashd al-Shaabi; the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), This coalition of nearly eighty militias, most of them close to the pro-Iranian current, was put together and then incorporated into the official armed forces to fight the Islamic State Group (ISIS). Since then, it has become as powerful politically as it is militarily. Faced with such an imposing strike force, the Sadrist camp has had to get its act together. Thus, several city dwellers told us that for several weeks they heard explosions in the suburbs, thought to be the Sadrist milicians of Saraya al-Islam (“The Peace Brigades”) training with heavy artillery, away from prying eyes. “That stopped when the new Prime Minister was appointed, but people are still just as angry. The Sadr supporters are bitterly disappointed and are only waiting for their leader’s instructions,” was the prediction of a young man involved in the 2019 protests. He had proof, he said, that groups have been formed via WhatsApp. Sadr’s supporters “keep in touch and are getting ready, just in case”.

“Sadr’s followers are ordinary people. They can be anybody, a shopkeeper, or a taxi driver, one of the unemployed… Unlike the members of al-Hashd al-Shaabi, they are not paid. But when Muqtada al-Sadr needs them, they will answer the call,” a resident explains.

Sajad, 25, is a teacher in Sadr City. In his view, Muqtada is undeniably the country’s only hope: “He fought the Americans when they occupied Iraq, now it’s Iran and their militia’s. He’s the only politician with Iraqi blood in his veins, even our adversaries have to admit that. Iran is a neighbouring country and should stay that way. Their interference with our country, the militias and political parties which that country controls, are destroying us.”

Malik, 30, unemployed, stresses the resentment the locals feel towards the central government. “We have always been side-lined and still are. There are no jobs, life is tough for everybody here. The schools are no good, there is no public service, the facilities are in a wretched state. And yet Sadr City has given Iraq so much, with its writers and universities. And then there are all those martyrs, fighting Daesh, the Americans. Most of them were from here… Iraq gave us nothing in return.”

Najaf, neutral but divided

Next stop, Najaf, 180 km to the South of Baghdad. Split between the two belligerent forces, the holy city – often regarded as the “capital of Shi’ism” – retains nonetheless a truly religious serenity, sustained by an economic prosperity due to the money from the pilgrimages.

In the Wadi al-Salam sanctuary, world’s largest cemetery with at least five million graves – dozens of visitors file past the mausoleum of the former leader of the Hashd al-Shaabi, Abdul al-Mahdi al-Muhandis, killed by a US strike which also took the life, in January 2020, of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani.

Before an audience moved to tears, a militiaman swears that that death, “as yet unavenged, will be one day.” Here the Shi’ite militias are very popular, but the present conflict does not seem to have reached the cemetery yet. “The Sadrists come here, we go together to the Sadr mausoleum [where Mohammad Sadr, Muqtada’s father, is buried], there are no problems between us,” a militiaman assures us.

Inside the mausoleum, housing several hundred graves of militiamen belonging to Asaeb Ahl al-Haq, a powerful component of PMF, a family is mourning fighters killed in the struggle against ISIS. While they admit they worry about the future of their country, the loss of their dear ones seems to have a direct influence on their political options: “They died a martyr’s death to save Iraq. Before that, they fought against al-Qaida, then aganst the Americans. In Febrary 2014, Daech was at the gates of Baghdad, and no one could defend the capital. They did iit and gave their lives for everybody here. Without all the martyrs of Asaeb Ahl al-Haq, of Kataeb Hezbollah or the Bdre organisation, Iraq would no longer exist. We must fight for them today, for a stable country” a parent in mourning argues.

A few hundred metres further on, in the cemetery’s Sadrist plot, the atmosphere is quite different. The visitors wear medallions and photos of their leader. “We shall defend him to the death. He is more important than Iraq, even more than my parents,” Haider, 22, proclaims. Next to him, a man in his thirties, chimes in. “Yesterday, the Americans stripped us of everything we had. Today the Iranians are eating us out of house and home, even if they claim they are being good to us.”

Inside Imam Ali’s mausoleum, the visitors, streaming in from all over Southern Iraq, are reluctant to discuss the political situation. Jabar Ahmud, 43, has come from Basra with his family for a religious visit. A trip involving a huge expense for this father of ten, who like many inhabitants of that deprived city in Southern Iraq, is unemployed. Basra, which supplies 70% of Iraq’s oil, is devastated by poverty as never before, and the procrastination of the political class over the past twelve months has only made things worse. As a result, the militia organisations of Hashd al-Shaabi have become practically the region’s number one employer, in particular by offering its recruits a salary and social recognition.

These last few weeks, armed clashes between the PMF and the Sadrists have grown increasingly frequent in Basra and people fear the worst. “At the beginning of October, we were terrified by firefights between armed groups based in two different districts. That is where the danger lies. But I think the Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani and the religious authorities can save us and restore order,” Jabar believes.

How powerful are the religious authorities?

If it is indeed likely that the supreme religious authorities played a role on last 29 and 30 August in the alleviation of the tensions, will the marjaiyya really be able to rein in the passions of the two enemy camps? The clerical institution has adopted a neutral stance, deliberately “above the fray”, refusing to intervene in politics, a position which enables it to preserve its image, but which is also a source of weakness according to Robin Beaumont, a specialist in Iraqi Islamic political science: “Their injunctions are obeyed only when it suits the Shi’ite political blocks in Baghdad. But if the marjaiyya calls into question the rules governing the political system as it has functioned since 2003, with for example appeals to put an end to the corruption, to the ethnic and confessional quotas, it is never obeyed.” And he adds, “This supra-partisan position has enabled the hierarchy to maintain the illusion that it is a binding force between the Shi’ite political blocks when actually what we have been witnessing since 2003 is the circumvention of the religious authorities by the politicians.”

And yet this specialist does not think the situation is likely to degenerate for the time being. “Al-Sistani, by the simple fact of his presence, has a regulatory effect. In the event of a clash, he will disavow publicly all the belligerents, and nobody wants that to happen.”

Just now, Muqtada Al-Sadr appears more vulnerable than ever. The unexpected retirement of his religious mentor, Ayatollah Kazem Al-Haeri, announced from Iran, took the Iraqi Shi’ite leader by surprise: on the one hand because he has lost his religious guarantor, but also because Al-Haeri called upon those who support him to side with the Iranian Supreme Guide, Ali Khamenei. In the minds of Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers, there is no doubt about it: this step back taken by the Ayatollah was dictated by Iran to short-circuit him. This can only further fuel the anger in the Sadrist camp where it is already felt that its victory in the last election has been stolen by its rivals. Although his situation is awkward, Muqtada al-Sadr still retains a considerable power of nuisance, since his grass-roots activists seem ready to do anything he asks of them. A devotion exacerbated by the feeling of dispossession that is eating away at his camp.

In a literary café in the Kerada district of Baghdad, young activists involved in that huge wave of protest that shook the country from October 2019 are grieving. They demanded the fall of the regime and the end of the confessional system but saw their movement crushed by merciless repression - 600 dead, 30,000 injured – mainly carried out by units of the Hachd al Chaabi, but also by the Sadrist forces.

The two camps seem perpetually on the verge of a major clash. The young people of that Iraqi hirak have been aware for several months now of discrete solicitations from the Sadrist camp. But they are not taken in: “Both camps are part of the system,” Ali, 31, complains. “The only difference between them is that Sdar makes his own decisions, they are not dictated by a foreign power. But we are not going to turn to them,” says Safaa, 25.

1Starting in October 2019, the capital and a large share of southern Iraq were shaken by a broad protest movement, Tishreen (“October”), also known as Hirak (’The Movement").. Demanding, among other things, the end of the confessional system, the corruption and the foreign interventions, the uprising was bloodily suppressed.