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Over the past month, Iraq has been beset by protests as hundreds of thousands of protestors have taken to the streets to express their discontent with the country’s dysfunctional and corrupt political process. The unrest culminated in the storming and occupation of the Iraqi parliament at the end of April by the followers of the radical anti-West cleric Muqtada al-Sadr after he gave a rallying speech in which he advocated for a “major popular revolution to stop corruptors.”
Sadr has become the voice of Iraq’s Shia underclass and has continued the legacy of his father, Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr. The senior Sadr established a significant following and social base during the 1990s, when Iraq’s destitute Shia population suffered both from the repression of the Baath regime and from UN-imposed sanctions. As his father did against the pre-2003, Baath-controlled state, Muqtada has mobilized hundreds of thousands of his supporters, and indeed many other Iraqis, against the current Iraqi state. And, like his father, he has confronted and challenged the legitimacy of his ruling Shia rivals, whom the Sadrist movement has historically denounced for their elitism.
The firebrand cleric has certainly proved that he is still a commanding figure who can mobilize the masses and who could, potentially, accelerate the reform program that Iraq’s moderate but weak prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has attempted to implement amid fierce opposition from powerful rivals whose interests are vested in the status quo.
But Sadr is not Iraq’s savior. He is directly responsible for bloodshed, corruption, and dysfunction in governance, which Iraq has suffered from for more than a decade now. His mobilization efforts have more to do with reviving his own political significance, which had waned during the course of the war on Islamic State (ISIS) because of the rise of other Shia actors who have won widespread acclaim for their battlefield success against the jihadists. Sadr also contributes to Iraq’s problems by continuing to command his own militia, known as the Peace Brigades. The presence of these militia groups not only weaken the rule of law and democratic process that Sadr ostensibly wants to strengthen; they also enable an environment that is conducive to breeding autonomous armed groups and bandits that work against the interests of the Iraqi state and people. The Peace Brigades are also a rebranded version of the purportedly demobilized Mahdi Army, a militia that was formed by Sadr in response to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and which killed Westerners and Iraqis alike. In other words, Iraq cannot reform until militias like the Peace Brigades are disbanded or integrated into an institutionalized army.
The only man who can save Iraq is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Unlike the polarizing Sadr, Sistani is widely regarded in Iraq as a reconciler. At 87, the revered and leading clergyman of the Shia Islamic world has functioned as a crucial check on the power of Iraq’s corrupt ruling elite and weak institutions that are paralyzed by ethnic and sectarian divisions.
In Iraq, even as the power of elites, political movements, and ideologies have waxed and waned, grand ayatollahs have been a consistently formidable force. The Shia religious establishment in Iraq presides over an extensive web of local and national institutions that enables it to contest power and politics in unparalleled fashion. In 1960, for example, Grand Ayatollah Mohsin al-Hakim turned the tide against the Iraqi communists, a powerful force at the time, by issuing a fatwa (religious edict) that forbade membership to the Iraqi Communist Party. That was the beginning of the end for the communists, whose influence waned as a result of the increasingly assertive religious establishment and the repressive policies of the state.
Iraq’s religious establishment also mobilized vast numbers of Iraqis to protest and confront President Abdul Salam Arif in the mid-1960s, who was attacked for his sectarianism and marginalization of the Shia. These protests did not prompt a revolution (the Shia religious establishment had no appetite for this), but the religious class did establish itself as a powerful mobilizer of Iraq’s traditionally divided Shia community that could contest power and politics in the modern Iraqi state. In 1958, the Shia religious establishment even played a seminal and direct role in establishing the Islamic Dawa Party, Iraq’s first major Shia Islamist sociopolitical group, which today is Iraq’s ruling party. Hakim acted as a patron to the party, and his sons, along with members of the clerical class, were among its founding members.
During the same period, Hakim issued a fatwa that forbade the killing of Kurds. According to my own research, including interviews with Shia clerics and members of the Iraqi armed forces, Shia soldiers in the Iraqi army obeyed the fatwa by intentionally missing Kurdish targets, thereby undermining the Iraqi government, which had given orders to eliminate the Kurdish movement in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The religious establishment also challenged the Baath Party when it came to power in 1968. The Baath regime wanted to suppress the influence of the religious establishment but failed because of the religious establishment’s capacity to function autonomously from the state. It enjoys financial independence (senior clerics receive donations, known as khums, from their followers at home and abroad) and can generate hundreds of millions of dollars to fund their activities. The Shia religious establishment also presides over an array of religious, educational, and cultural institutions, which allow it to expand its social base and mobilize vast numbers of people for political purposes.
After collectively repressing the Shia community in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and despite dismantling Shia opposition networks, Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime was still confronted by the clerics and their followers as they led mass uprisings in 1977 and 1979, the latter triggered by the Iranian Revolution that year. During the war with Iran in the 1980s, the regime, as Baath Party records show, tried to intimidate Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei, who preceded Sistani, into issuing a fatwa that legitimized the war against Iran. But the attempt failed and, in the end it only hampered the regime’s efforts to mobilize Shia support for a war against their Persian co-religionists across the border.
Sistani’s early interventions after the 2003 war included pressuring the United States and Iraqi officials into ensuring that an elected assembly wrote the country’s new constitution, contrary to the wishes of the United States and others, who sought a closed-door process. Sistani also convened warring Shia factions in 2005 to ensure that they contested parliamentary elections as a unified bloc in 2005, lest infighting among various Shia groups and militias emboldened a resilient Sunni insurgency composed of Baathists and al Qaeda in Iraq. The Shia bloc won the elections and prevented a Baathist resurrection.
In 2006, Sistani helped contain, although he could not stop, a new wave of sectarian violence in Iraq that erupted after al Qaeda in Iraq bombed the al-Askari Shrine, a sacred Shia mosque in the Sunni-dominated city of Samarra. Sistani played an important role in curbing the level of bloodshed by calling for unity and moderation. He regularly pressured Iraqi and U.S. officials to end the conflict. This did not prevent Iraq from sliding into civil war, but Sistani’s interventions almost certainly helped to constrain state-backed Shia militias and prevented them from committing genocide against Iraq’s Sunni population. Things would have been much worse in his absence and without his efforts to end the conflict.
More recently, in June 2014, Sistani issued a fatwa calling on all “able-bodied men to defend their country” after Iraq’s army collapsed and ISIS seized Mosul along with other Iraqi towns and cities. A 100,000-strong force of Shia fighters (and a limited number of Sunnis) banded together to form what is now known as the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Force, or PMF), which helped stop ISIS from expanding further into Iraq.
Sistani has endorsed the popular demonstrations that have been taking place over the past year and had previously backed Abadi’s reform program. But he has ended his active engagement with the reform campaign out of frustration with the government. Sistani has also demonstrated his discontent with the government by halting his weekly political sermons. This does not bode well for Iraq’s future. In his absence, polarizing figures like al-Sadr and Iraq’s controversial and authoritarian former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, will fill the space, as will Shia militia groups like Asaib al-Haq and the Badr Brigade, who have exploited Sistani’s fatwa to establish a mandate for themselves in the messy war on ISIS.
But this does not mean that Sistani has given up. He could still reverse his decision and, as things stands, remains the only actor that is capable of saving the country. Sistani has the know-how and the capacity to save Iraq. He has presided over and sustained a centuries old institution that is currently considered Iraq’s most effective and influential civil society actor. Contrary to popular wisdom, civil society actors like Sistani and the religious establishment, which are well organized and equipped with sufficient resources and legitimacy, can help improve the behavior of armed nonstate actors and relegate them to the margins.
Sistani has vast social and religious networks that enable local governance, provide services, and support other public programs such as schools, hospitals, and libraries. Harnessed the right way, these networks can help lead the way toward establishing a stronger civil society across Iraq, in partnership with other civic organizations. Collectively, these can spur grassroots politics and good governance initiatives to sideline the militias, and those who fund them, and strengthen the moderates who have the visions and ideas for reforming Iraq.