Shia Militias, Sectarianism & Sovereignty in Iraq

In recent months there has been an important shift in American strategic thinking about Iraq, with key government officials and analysts arguing that Shiite militias are displacing the Islamic State as the most serious threat to Iraqi stability.

In January 2015, Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers that increased Iranian influence could be a “positive thing” for Iraq. Two months later, he made a volte-face. Now, he worried, Shiite militias may help coalition forces defeat IS, and then proceed to “turn against” Sunni and Kurdish Iraqis, complicating efforts to build a peaceful post-conflict Iraq. Shortly afterwards, David Petraeus–former director of the CIA, and commander of the Multinational force in Iraq during the 2007-2008 surge–took this concern even further. He claimed that “the foremost threat” to Iraq’s long-term stability and the broader regional equilibrium is not the Islamic State, but rather, Shiite militias.

Three claims underlie dominant assessments of the threat posed the militias: that they are (I) monolithic, (II) unacceptably sectarian, and (III) beholden to Iran. However, these claims are overstated–reflecting a reductive understanding of Shiite militias in Iraq, and the characteristics of Shiism in Iraq more generally.

Neither Shiite militias nor Shiism in Iraq represent a monolithic force. The largest militias have come out publicly against sectarianism, and the Iraqi government has approved (but not implemented) well-considered measures to mitigate the forces of sectarianism in the fight against ISIS. Claims that they are running rampant through Iraq engaging leaving a trail of sectarian inspired destruction are overstated. Many of them disagree on critical matters, but one thing they, and the general Shiite public share is fierce nationalism, and an instinctive distrust of Iranian meddling in Iraq.

The refusal to acknowledge this complex set of ideologies, incentives, and situational realities structuring militia interactions with Iraqis and Iraqi institutions has led policymakers to overstate the threat they pose to Iraqi–and Western–interests. And if this trend continues, it could lead to costly and counterproductive policies which further inflame sectarian tensions in Iraq.

Marja al-taqlid, Najaf and Nationalism

Since the 1979 Revolution, the Iranians have consistently emphasized a Pan-Islamism in pursuit of Muslim sovereignty, and take great pride in their alliances with Sunni groups—most prominently in Palestine and, until recently, Turkey. Within the domain of Shiism, there is also a strong emphasis on pluralism. The primary source of spiritual–and oftentimes political–authority for a Shiite is her marja-al-taqlid, or source of emulation. Marja are respected ayatollahs, usually grand ayatollahs, who are “qualified and accepted by the public to make decisions with the framework of Islamic rules and traditions.”

One must go through a tremendous amount of study at a Shiite seminary to become an Ayatollah. While the Iranian city of Qom is often touted as the primary training ground for Ayatollahs, it so happens that Iraqis produce their own Ayatollahs from Najaf–a renowned center of Shiite scholarship. Most Iraqi Shiite accept clerics trained in Najaf as their marja.  These clerics overwhelmingly “resist Iranian interference and take pride in Najaf as a far more prominent center of Shiite theology than the Iranian holy city of Qom”. They also reject the interpretation of velayat-e-faqih propounded by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, which called for clerical rule over political institutions. Thus, Iran’s spiritual authority in Iraq is intrinsically limited.  Moreover, while Ayatollah Khomeini was distrustful of nationalism–viewing it as an obstacle to the unity of the umma–Iraqis are intensely nationalistic.

This is critical. Many Iraq analysts have lamented the construction of billboards depicting the Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khameini in Baghdad as a sign of the rising influence of Iranian spiritual authority, and by extension Iran in Iraq. However, the construction of a few billboards, or even positive feelings towards Iranian clerics, does not necessarily entail a sudden acceptance of their authority or opinions; a commanding majority Iraqis accept Grand Ayatollah Sistani as their marja, a man who has consistently taken positions compatible with American interests in Iraq (like encouraging Shiite to refrain from sectarianism, to depose al-Malaki, and to follow the Islamic laws of war in their fight against ISIS).

Beyond nationalistic tensions, there is a profound cultural divide between Iraq and Iran: Iraqis are Arabic speaking Arabs, whereas Iranians are Farsi speaking Persians—with importantly different historical forces shaping these often-incompatible identities. And then there are territorial disagreements; the two countries have disputed over their shared border, particularly the Shatt-al-Arab, a strategic Iraqi waterway. Merely 25 years ago the two countries ended a nine year long war in which Iraq lost at least 250,000 soldiers (notably, most of those fighting Iran at the time were also Shiites). Relations between the two countries have improved measurably since then–more markedly lately, with many Iraqis (both Shiite and Sunni) expressing their appreciation for critical Iranian aid in the war against ISIS. However, most Iraqis still distrust Iran, including Iraq’s Shiites:

According to a 2010 survey commissioned by the Princeton-based Pechter Middle East polls, 43% of Shiites held negative views about “Iran’s ties with Iraqi political leaders” while only 18% held a positive view. This mistrust stems from provocative Iranian actions, like the 2009 seizure of an oil well in the Maysan province by Iranian soldiers and oil technicians, the shelling of Kurdish villages in the pretense of targeting Iranian Kurdish insurgents, and the redirection of water flow into the Karun River in southern Iraq, which has led to water shortages.

Iraqi anger over Iranian meddling after the war, especially through militia proxies is widely blamed for the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s (ISCI) precipitous decline in the 2009 elections, where it lost 150 council seats because of “perceived close ties to Iran”.  So, while the American invasion provided Iran an opening to increase their influence in Iraq, there are clear political and religious barriers to increasing their influence further.

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