Sami Moubayed, a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar, author of “Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad”
The massive and peaceful demonstrations that broke out in Lebanon this month have totally eclipsed the not-so-peaceful ones that erupted in Baghdad earlier this October. Over 150 young people have been killed, and nearly 6,000 injured.
Two heavyweight Shi’a clerics, Ammar al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr, have already distanced themselves from the current premier, Adel Abdul Mehdi. Both they and Abdul Mehdi are long-time proteges of Iran who took over the reins of power after the 2003 downfall of Saddam Hussein. At one point in time during their careers, all three have called for an Iran-like theocracy in Baghdad. They are the sons of prominent Shi’a clerics who were schooled, indoctrinated, and funded by the Iranian regime, for three solid decades.
Their soft defection has raised hopes that others might start to gradually distance themselves from Iranian patronage, reducing the radicalization and militarization of Iraqi society, which has held people by the throats since 2003.
A closer look, however, suggests that this might be a mirage, willed into being by Iraq-watchers from the distant luxury of their offices in Europe and the United States. These figures, and their constituencies, are the backbone of the post-2003 political system in Iraq. If they collapse, then so would the system that they have bolstered for sixteen years, with Iranian arms and money.
For understandable reasons, prominent Sunnis are calling on their community to stay out of the conflict, describing it as an intra-Shi’i affair. Sunni participation would only give authorities the pretext they are seeking to claim that the demonstrators are working at the behest of the Islamic State (ISIS) and/or the Ba’athists of the old order, or that they are being bankrolled by Saudi Arabia. Many Iraqis are thrilled by the rift emerging within the Shi’i political class, hoping that it will sweep away Abdul Mehdi, Hakim, Sadr, and the rest. The view from the Sunni community recalls Henry Kissinger’s remark about the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, hoping that Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Saddam could both lose. But some Iraqi Sunnis still hold to the hope that this rift within the Shi’i leaders will start to gradually erode Iran’s paramount influence in post-Saddam Iraq.
This is wishful thinking, which greatly underestimates how far Iraqi Shi’is have come since 2003, and how far Iran is willing to go to maintain them in office, or to create a new Shi’a elite, as radicalized—if not more—than the one that emerged after Saddam. It was far easier to mobilize Shi’is under a common banner when the previous regime was in place because it gave Iraqi Shi’is a common enemy to unite them.
Iran has used its oil money to empower Shi’a parties across the Arab World, with the aim of spreading “Khomeinism” (wilayat al-faqih). The Shi’is of Lebanon and Iraq were depicted as an underclass—very correctly—receiving very little of government funds and attention. The Iranian-born Lebanese cleric Musa al-Sadr described them as “al-mahroumeen” or “the dispossessed”—though Musa’s opposition to Khomeini’s form of clerical government in the lead-up to the Iranian Revolution led to his murder in Libya in the summer of 1978.
In Lebanon, Iran founded Hezbollah out of the Amal Movement. In Iraq, it bankrolled the Dawa Party, funding its underground terrorist activities and playing host to its leaders until they were collectively able to return to Iraq after Saddam’s downfall in 2003. Western observers of Iraq erroneously claim that the Shi’a community at large has collectively benefited from the post-2003 order in Baghdad, after years of suppression under a Sunni-led military dictatorship. This is not true. Of the 64% of Iraq’s population of 38 million that is Shi’a, only a tiny fraction has made its fortunes and climbed the professional and political ladders since 2003, most of them playing on affiliations with Iran.
The rest of the Shi’a community live in haunting poverty and need, reduced to bodyguards, drivers, and errand-boys for the country’s ruling elite. They are the ones who took to the streets of Basra in 2018 and Baghdad in 2019, demanding a better life. By 2014, poverty had reached 22.5% across Iraq, according to the World Bank. Unemployment currently stands at 17% among young people aged below 25, who are 60% of the Iraqi population. Approximately 700,000 people enter the work force annually, and seek employment in the civil service, which is already overcrowded and devours 70% of the state budget. Because of that, the health and education sectors receive no more than 8% of the annual budget, while non-state militias get 2% and the security apparatus, a whopping 19%.
The community’s post-2003 grievances were temporarily muzzled, twice, first by the Sunni insurgency consisting of Saddamists and ISIS, which simultaneously attacked the Shi’a population, its places of worship, and its other symbols, as well as US forces, and then after 2014 the seizure of Mosul and other territories in Iraq. This threat united Iraqi Shi’is against a common, existential enemy that promised to put them to sword as heretics, and did so in infamous atrocities like that at Camp Speicher. More than 100,000 of them took up arms to fight ISIS through al-Hashd al-Sha’bi or the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), an Iran-backed super-militia. After the caliphate’s downfall, the Shi’is took to the streets of the oil-rich city of Basra last autumn, demonstrating against government corruption, nepotism, unemployment, and lack of basic services like clean running water and irregular electricity. On 7 September 2018, they torched the Iranian consulate in Basra, blaming Iran and its proxies for the corruption and mismanagement of its proxies. One year later, they took to the streets of Baghdad, demanding downfall of the Abdul Mehdi government and a complete rehaul of the political system.
“Most of the demonstrators are young university graduates who grew up in the post-2003 era” said Safaa Khalaf, a prominent Iraqi analyst. “They aged in the midst of collapsing government services, spread of corruption at juncture of state, and watched the rise of a new elite with extravagant wealth.” Speaking to EER, he outlined the numerous causes of their anger, which included “hegemony of the militias and Iranian tutelage that has been solidified by the Abdul Mehdi government.” Yet many of those very same militias whose malpractices triggered the demonstrations—first in Basra and now in Baghdad—are now trying to hijack the demonstrations, siding with them against the Prime Minister.
Yet, so many people have conspired in government corruption after 2003 that it is in their collective interest to maintain the status quo. Two of those conspirators are Ammar al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr, who have been re-positioning themselves at a distance from Iran, for nearly two years. Was it authentic, many were asking, or staged by the Iranians themselves to give them a facelift? It seemed perfectly logical for them to defect, given that Iranian funds were in decline, channeled to proxies in the Syrian conflict rather than Iraq. Iran saw that front as more dangerous, and far more in-need of immediate cash, than Iraq. Frustrated for financial reasons, Hakim and Sadr might have tried to distance themselves from Iran but have found no better patron. The Americans have not forgotten the Sadr-led insurgency of 2004, and still consider Sadr a thug and warlord with whom they have little common ground. They also have little trust in Hakim, who spent a lifetime living off Iranian checkbooks and is now in any case in decline politically. They both tried reaching out to Saudi Arabia, back in 2017, but apart from warm welcomes and photographs with the Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, Riyadh had very little to offer them, already cash-strapped in its ongoing war in Yemen.
As a result, both have reverted silently into the Iranian orbit, while still trying to appear as independents speaking for all Iraqis, rather than sectarians. If the Abdul Mehdi cabinet were to collapse, the only alternatives would be from within the Shi’i community, men nominated—or signed off—by both Hakim and Sadr.
Ammar Hakim’s Failed Defection
Born to a family of prominent clerics, Ammar al-Hakim (aged 48) hails from Najaf, the holiest city to Shiite Muslims. He was exiled to Iran along with his father, Abdul-Aziz, in 1980, after Saddam executed members of their family, where he studied at the Islamic Arab University in Qom, the city of Shiite scholarship. During the Iran-Iraq War, his father’s militia, the Badr Corps, fought alongside the Iranians against their native Iraqi Army. Their political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), was fully funded, trained, and directed by the mullahs of Tehran, was sheltered in Iran until 2003, and returned to Iraq calling for the establishment of an Iran-like theocracy in Baghdad. One of its ranking members is the current prime minister, Adel Abdul Mehdi.
The Hakims quickly rose to prominence in the New Iraq, though Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, Ammar’s brother, was killed early in the post-Saddam period by an ISIS suicide bomber in August 2003. The Badr Corps/SCIRI and their proxies secured the Ministry of Interior, which they used to take revenge against their enemies, Sunnis and Shi’is. They packed the Federal Police force with young unemployed people, who owed them, rather than the institution, unwavering loyalty.
Hakim assumed leadership of the party in 2009, putting on an Islamic uniform, although he was never a Shiite marja (source of emulation), nor an ayatollah, as his uncle and grandfather had been. Throughout the years 2009-2017, he systematically purged the party from old-timers, packing it with young men who owed their allegiance directly to him. Three veterans traveled to Tehran to complain to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamen’i. Weeks later, Hakim resigned from his hereditary post at SCIRI and founded a new party called the National Wisdom Movement.
He tried marketing it as a “soft defection” from Tehran, saying that it was not a Shi’a party but open to Sunnis and Christians as well. He even criticized the militarization of Iraqi society and the dominance of militias, in total disregard of his family history with the Badr Corps. The show didn’t last long. After one of his proteges, ex-Basra governor Majid al-Nasrawi, fled to Iran later that summer, evading corruption charges at home, saying that he doesn’t trust the Iraqi judiciary.
In March 2019, Hakim traveled to the UAE for talks with Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Zayed, cuddling up to Arab Sunni heavyweights who were critical of Iranian hegemony in the Arab World. Last June, Hakim’s followers staged demonstrations across the southern provinces of Iraq, threatening “civil disobedience” if Abdul Mehdi did not respond to popular demands. He now leads a parliamentary bloc of 19 MPs, which merged with other Shiite lawmakers to create an “opposition front” this October. Hakim is saying that the anti-government protestors are carrying “legitimate concerns.” If he walks out on the government, it would put Abdul Mehdi in very uncertain waters. But due to his parliamentary bloc, no cabinet can be formed without his consent—a full circle, then, from Iran to Iran.
Muqtada al-Sadr is Still the Shi’a Kingmaker
Like Hakim, Muqtada al-Sadr carries essentially hereditary religious credibility. Though a minor cleric, Sadr has no authority to issue decrees (fatwas). He built his entire career on the legacy of his family members, as both his father and uncle were ayatollahs, who were murdered by Saddam. Muqtada rose to fame after the US invasion of 2003, where at the age of 30, he set up his own militia, calling for an “Islamic democracy” in Iraq. Sadr had a rival Shi’a cleric, Imam al-Khoei, murdered later that year, and has clashed with the Hakim family, as is traditional for the Sadrs.
Sadr reigned in the slums of Baghdad, especially among poor petty criminals, offering them protection from the security services, in exchange for blind loyalty. In 2004, he led an uprising against the Americans, which magnified his standing in Iraq and then, moved into politics, supporting the Iran-backed premier, Nuri al-Malki, in 2006. That December, masked executioners chanting his name put the noose around Saddam’s neck, showing just how well-trenched the Sadrists were becoming within the new Iraqi state. Malki relied on Sadr’s thugs to control grassroot Shiites, turning a blind eye to the misconduct of his militias. He funded them through a wide range of illegal activities, which included kidnapping, theft, and arms sale. In 2014, he distanced himself from Malki, blaming him for the rise of ISIS and supported the rise of Haidar Abadi, another Iranian protégé.
Sadr contributed heavy manpower to the all-Shiite PMU that was created to fight ISIS, but walked out on Abadi as well, when it was clear that the Iranians were furious with him, for agreeing to abide by US sanctions on the Iranian banking sector. Like Hakim, he too tried to distance himself from Iran in 2017-2018, traveling to Riyadh to meet Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, and calling on Tehran’s ally in Damascus, President Bashar al-Assad, to step down. After lending his support to Abdul Mehdi, thanks to a powerful parliamentary bloc of 54 MPs, he is now calling on him to resign, also putting his weight behind the Baghdad protestors. In early September, Sadr made it clear whose side he was on, showing up in Tehran next to Ayatollah Khamenei.
Hakim and Sadr were somewhat overshadowed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest religious authority in Iraq and among Shi’is worldwide. Sistani, aged 89, is an Iran-born cleric who heads the seminary in Najaf. Sistani’s role in the Iraqi political system is not direct, but it has been powerful since 2003. Speaking at a Friday sermon on 4 October, Sistani divided blame equally between the government and the demonstrators, urging reforms and a return to calm. Neither Hakim nor Sadr match can match him in religious standing, and so, whatever their personal feelings toward the marja, they cannot be seen to contradict, let alone disrespect, him.
His words of support were a life-jacked for Prime Minister Abdul Mehdi, who took them as a go-ahead to stay at his office, at least for now, seeing that he had been okayed by the marja. Hakim and Sadr had called on Abdul Mehdi to step down shortly after the demonstrations started on 1 October, without waiting for Sistani to give his final word. Now they will be required to backtrack.
Sadr has already backtracked, says Fanar Haddad, a Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute. Speaking to EER, he explained: “This government is likely to survive with minor changes. Finding an alternative would entail months of wrangling that could bring unwelcome political instability at this sensitive time. Further, they may well fear that the prime minister’s resignation would set a precedent allowing popular protest to bring down governments.”
For now, the Prime Minister is promising a basket of reforms, which only repackage Iranian influence in Iraq, rather than dilute it. He is promising a cabinet reshuffle but is unable to choose anti-Iranian figures for any top positions. A cabinet of “technocrats” bring in all parts of the Iraqi parliament—but from among the very same parties that the street is fed up with. He is promising a cutback on wages of ministers and former prime ministers, but none of them rely on their government salary to make a living, thanks to years of Iranian patronage. And, finally, he is promising a court to combat corruption, something that has been in-the-works for years, but which has never got past the drawing board.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
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