Last week Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, declared that the extremist group known as the Islamic State had been defeated in Iraq. He also declared a national holiday and made a speech in which he was careful to also thank Iraqi religious leader, Ali al-Sistani.
Al-Sistani is Iraq's highest Shiite Muslim religious authority and is based in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf. This week there will be a lot of focus on al-Sistani - everyone is asking the same question: Will the religious leader decide to revoke the edict, or fatwa, he issued at the beginning of the security crisis, in which he asked locals to go out and defend against the extremists?
If he does revoke his fatwa, it is expected he might do this on Friday, the first day of the weekend and the traditional day for worship and protests in the Middle East.
Al-Sistani doesn’t like the idea of a military force that isn’t under the control of the state and he doesn’t want the fighters to participate in elections or take part in politics.
Over the past few days hundreds of Iraqis have visited al-Sistani’s base in Najaf to show their loyalty to the aging religious leader and to thank him for his role in the fight against the Islamic State, or IS, group. Al-Sistani himself belongs to the quietist tradition of clerics and does not believe that religion should interfere in national politics or that clerics should appear often in the media. Nonetheless there is no doubt that al-Sistani plays a role in Iraqi politics and has always been a presence in national crises over the past decade.
On June 10 in 2014, after the Islamic State group had managed to sweep toward the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, al-Sistani issued a fatwa, a religious edict, calling on Iraqis to volunteer, take up arms and prevent the extremist group from getting any further south. Within hours, thousands had responded to the appeal. But there’s no doubt that since then his call has taken the country in directions that even al-Sistani may not have predicted.
The fatwa led to the eventual formation of more than 40 different groups, comprised of about 100,000 fighters. In Iraq these new militia groups are called the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units. They fought alongside the Iraqi army and police and played an important role in defeating the extremists and pushing them out of the country. However, the militia groups also evolved organically, sorting themselves into different factions and even though they were made into an official part of the country’s defence forces in late 2016, they have never been one united corps.
For months now there has been debate in Iraq about what happens to this variegated force next. The Iraqi government is pressuring the different factions to obey them and to become even more of a formal part of the national defence. However some of the militias don’t like that idea at all. Indeed, some of them have gone so far as to say they won’t obey the Iraqi government’s orders.
And perhaps that is why everybody is waiting for al-Sistani to make a call on the fate of the formerly-volunteer militias that he first called into existence.
The idea to form a Shiite Muslim corps was first mooted back in 2003, shortly after the US-led invasion of Iraq. At the time al-Sistani did not succumb to pressure from Iranian clerics to issue a fatwa that urged ordinary people to fight against US troops.
Iran managed to create the group known as the Mahdi army, led by a young Shiite Muslim cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. At the time al-Sadr was vehemently opposed to US occupation of Iraq and his group is considered the forerunner of today’s militias. This is despite the fact that al-Sadr renounced Iranian support several years ago and now often protests any foreign interference in his country.
“Al-Sistani wanted the volunteer corps to come under the control of the government and the Iraqi army,” explains Jabr al-Mohammedawi, an independent Shiite Muslim cleric who teaches theology in Najaf. “But the chaotic state of the government after the collapse of the army [ in the wake of the IS group attack] allowed the formation of independent factions.”
It was always clear that al-Sistani’s call was defensive and that it was supposed to be temporary, ostensibly ending when the extremists had been defeated. “Al-Sistani doesn’t like the idea of a military force that isn’t under the control of the state and he doesn’t want the fighters to participate in elections or take part in politics,” al-Mohammedawi continued. “He was not really enthusiastic about the Iraqi parliament’s decision to turn the militias into an independent, official force either.”
The law about the militias that was passed in November 2016 only has three articles and none of them exactly define what the corps is for or what its role is. It says the people’s militias are now official security forces, but it doesn’t say whether they are like the army, and should fight in wars and crises, or whether they are more like the police and should maintain security where they are posted.
One of the main problems with the Shiite Muslim militias is the fact that they are split when it comes to their loyalties.
The more powerful and heavily armed factions are supported by Iran, in both logistical and financial terms. They often pledge allegiance to Iran in public and they are occasionally openly disrespectful of the Iraqi government. This group includes the Badr organization, the League of the Righteous, Hezbollah in Iraq and a number of others. They consider Iraq and Syria one battlefront and they have serious political ambitions, as some of their leaders prepare to compete in the upcoming national elections.
The popular factions are an official force under the control of the Iraqi state and they should not be dissolve. But they do need to be reorganized.
In front of the Iraqi media the leaders of these groups insist that they are loyal to the Iraqi government. In fact, just last week several senior members, including from the more hard-line League of the Righteous, said that they were ready to put their fighters at the government’s disposal. But in reality, and over the past three years, they have often opposed the government’s decisions and moved to nullify them.
Another group within the Shiite Muslim militias professes loyalty to al-Sistani. Their mission has been mostly to assist the established official security forces and to maintain security after the extremists are driven out of an area. This group is far smaller than the latter and they are not particularly well armed, they won’t participate in fighting in Syria, have no political ambitions and have already announced that they will quit after the IS group has been pushed out of the country.
And a further group of the militias tends to be allied with traditional Shiite Muslim political parties; this includes the militias currently affiliated with the Sadrist movement and the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
In fact, al-Sadr announced last Monday that his armed group, the Salam, or Peace, brigades would be handing their weapons back to the government, now that the IS group had been defeated. They would also close their offices around the company and be prepared to integrate with the existing Iraqi military. It seems clear that this is also a political ploy, meant to embarrass the other factions, more loyal to Iran, because they are not doing the same thing. Instead they appear to intend to keep their weapons and remain a powerful military force within Iraq. Some have likened the Iran-loyalist militias in Iraq to Iran’s own Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, formed after that country’s 1979 revolution as a union of several ideologically driven militias. The IRGC has evolved to play a major part in Iranian culture, politics and security and their critics worry that the Iraqi militias will do the same.
“The popular factions are an official force under the control of the Iraqi state and they should not be dissolved,” insists Abbas al-Bayati, a Turkmen MP and member of the parliamentary committee on foreign relations, who is close to the Iraqi prime minister, al-Abadi. “But they do need to be reorganized so that it can work as a security force alongside the police and the army and that it can take orders from the prime minister. That is something that works in many countries. For example, in the US there is the National Guard and Saudi Arabia also has a system like this.”
Dismantling the Iraqi militias will be difficult for another reason too. Given the estimated 100,000 fighters who now have steady jobs in a form of law enforcement during an economic crisis, it’s going to be a financial problem for the ordinary Iraqi men who form the corps to disband. They would in effect be resigning from possibly the only job they can get right now. This is part of the reason why the Iraqi government is also insisting that the militias remain part of the country’s fighting force, one way or another. Whether Ali al-Sistani agrees, remains to be seen.