Iraq Is Nearing The Brink Of A Shiite Civil War

Iraq is nearing the brink of a Shiite civil war. Iraq’s destiny will be decided by the escalating violence of Moqtada al-Sadr and Iran’s rivalry.

Iraq Is Nearing The Brink Of A Shiite Civil War

Moqtada al-Sadr of Iraq was capable of demonstrating the degree of his authority in a matter of 24 hours as the streets of Baghdad both bowed to and then experienced massive violence, both at his command. Sadr’s supporters turned the capital into a battle zone on August 29 until he declared a halt to hostilities the next morning. After an hour, the city’s pandemonium came to an end, taking at least 21 lives and leaving 250 people injured.

The events that preceded the unrest made clear the geopolitical conflict between Iran and Iraq’s attempts to establish a government in Baghdad. This violence was directly brought on by Iranian involvement in the country, in contrast to the grassroots protests of 2019, which were sparked by discontent over governmental corruption.

A religious leader’s speech, which was generally disregarded, set off the disastrous chain of events that culminated in portions of Baghdad becoming a combat zone. Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri, the spiritual head of the Shiite community in Iraq, suddenly declared his immediate retirement from his position of religious authority on August 28. Even more unexpectedly, Haeri then urged his supporters to support Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran instead. Even though Haeri is hardly known outside of Iraq and even by some Iraqis, his followers regard him as a powerful spiritual leader (marji).

The notion of marjiya, which states that every Shiite Muslim must have a chosen spiritual leader whose decrees and fatwas are absolutely followed, is a fundamental tenet of Shiite Islam. Prior to receiving the title of ayatollah, a religious cleric must undergo decades of religious study and gain the approval of senior clerics in order to become a marji. The most powerful figure in Iraq when it comes to spiritual pronouncements is Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who stays out of politics. In Iran, though, the marji is the nation’s supreme leader, Khamenei, who is deeply active in managing his own country and trying to influence its neighbor Iraq.

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Ayatollah Mohammed al-Sadr, the father of Moqtada, was qualified to serve as both a spiritual and political leader. However, with the 1999 assassination of the elder Sadr, his supporters began to diverge between political and religious allegiances. As the younger Sadr is not an authorized marji, his followers, who are required by Shiite Islam to obey another cleric in issues of faith, resorted to Haeri, who had won the approval of the elder Sadr, for religious instruction.

In the marjiya system, Haeri’s choice to withdraw from religious authority is unprecedented. Regardless of age or wellbeing, the role is one that is typically performed until death. For instance, Sistani, who is 92, still performs his duties. Despite numerous hospitalizations, Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah continued to serve as a marji until his passing in 2010. Furthermore, it is uncommon for an ayatollah to choose his successor while still alive, much less for an ayatollah from Iraq to acknowledge the theological authority of the Iranian city of Qom over the Iraqi city of Najaf. Haeri’s choice to endorse Khamenei as his successor and to ambiguously attribute it to health problems at the same age as Khamenei, 83, raises the possibility that Iran’s political power was at play in order to lessen Sadr’s authority.

Tehran’s attempt to influence Sadr’s supporters, however, was poorly planned. It overlooked the fact that his supporters are steadfastly devoted. One Sadrist was heard in a viral video saying that Sadr had his support even if he were to “sit with Muawiya [the enemy of Shiite Islam].” When Sadr announced his withdrawal from politics in response to Haeri’s unexpected resignation, his heavily armed supporters stormed the streets of Baghdad. Saraya al-Salam, Sadr’s militant wing, controlled the city for a full day. The following morning, in a video that uncannily mirrored then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s order for his followers to vacate the Capitol in Washington last year, Sadr gave his supporters 60 minutes to leave parliament and end all violence. As soon as he made a demand, his supporters complied, sending a signal to Tehran that, despite Tehran’s best efforts to sway Iraqi politics, Sadr remains in charge on the ground.

Watch the video below:

Since Iraq’s elections in October 2021 left the nation in a political deadlock, this conflict with Iran has been dragging on. No political party possessed the necessary majority to form a government in the absence of an undisputed winner at the polls, which plunged the nation into months of protracted political unrest. As a result of the interim government’s constitutionally mandated inability to approve a budget bill, the nation experienced rising poverty, increased child labor, and record-high unemployment rates.

Sadr’s party won the largest bloc in government, with 73 of 329 seats, vastly outnumbering the Fatah Alliance, an Iran-backed alliance of armed groups, and handing a massive blow to Tehran. (However, Sadr’s campaign claims to limit external influence in Iraq from both Iran and the US, as well as to combat internal corruption, were purely rhetorical, with no substantive policy measures to back them up.) With Iran unwilling to relinquish influence in Iraq and Sadr refusing to back down from his anti-Iran stance, the country’s two split political parties found themselves in a standoff that erupted into violence last week.

It is the greatest internal Shiite strife in Iraq in years. Until now, Iraq’s mainly Shiite community has stayed relatively united since Saddam Hussein’s demise. During the first electoral process in 2005, Sistani, who is also the spiritual leader of the majority of Shiite Muslims worldwide, supported the Unified Iraqi Alliance, which led to a landslide victory for the largely Shiite party coalition. This union, however, has disintegrated over time. Coupled with the Iraqi public’s suspicion of the political class, this has resulted in a more polarized Shiite landscape, with a wide rift between Sadr’s nationalistic party and the Popular Mobilization Forces, which are largely influenced by Iran.

For months, Sadr has taken repeated blows from Iran after vowing to exclude Iran-backed parties from establishing an Iraqi administration. In a final attempt to engage with Sadr, Iran sent Brig. Gen. Esmail Qaani to meet with him in February of this year. Sadr allegedly retorted, “What does Iraqi politics have to do with you?” in response to the attempted courting. Iran’s persistence ultimately forced Sadr to repudiate his triumph on June 12, resigning roughly a third of all Iraqi parliamentarians as he instead took the struggle to the streets of Iraq, declaring a million-man march. In another dig at Iran, he vowed to continue combating corruption, “especially Shiites.”

Sadr has been asking for early elections in Iraq due to the lack of a realistic path to the formation of a sustainable government. However, with Iraq’s continuous political turmoil, another election is unlikely to repair the country’s underlying fundamental damages. Last October, voter apathy and boycott resulted in only about 40% voter turnout, statistics that have been declining election after election.

Baghdad’s involvement in the 24 hours of mayhem that the Sadrists caused was a preview of what might occur if they continue to lack proper leadership. Given the heavily armed population, it was also a warning of how rapidly the nation could descend into all-out internal conflict.

Although Tehran may not have explicitly requested the violence on Baghdad’s streets, its ongoing attempts to sway the nation are having a negative impact on both Iran and Iraq and are raising tensions in the region. The shocking resignation of Haeri serves as an indication of how close total war is to breaking out in the nation.

With a severely divided Shiite populace, Iraq has once again descended into chaos. Although it may not lead to full-fledged civil war, it ensures ongoing political deadlock and popular contempt of governmental institutions. The only hope is for Iran to eventually withdraw from Iraqi affairs and allow the country to forge its own path.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. This is a welcome post. Outside players need to leave Iraq to its own devices. Just as the Anglo-American coup against Mosaddeq indirectly led to clerical government in Iran, so U.S. removal of Saddam Hussein led to both al-Sadr’s rise and the spread of Persian influence to the Med. The latter had not occurred for at least 1000 years.

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