The battle for Iraq’s soul — Najaf v Qom
Beirut - Iran is steadily expanding its influence, if not its control, over Iraq, its one-time mortal foe, as Baghdad struggles to contain an equally assertive Islamic State (ISIS). Iranian influence has been rising ever since then US President George W. Bush got rid of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and his successor Barack Obama withdrew US forces in December 2011.
These were both great gifts to the Islamic Republic. On the face of it, there should not be a problem. More than half of Iraq’s population of 35 million is Shia, as are most Iranians. They both loathe and fear ISIS and its Sunni jihadists, who have proclaimed an Islamic caliphate in northern Iraq, a Sunni entity invoking Islam’s conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries.
The religious rivalry between Iraqi and Iranian Shias, the “quietist” largely apolitical branch led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most revered cleric, and the radical beliefs of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his concept of clerical rule, velayat-e faqih, or government by the jurisprudent has intensified since the 1979 Iranian revolution.
This rivalry centres on Iraq’s holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, and Iran’s Qom, lying on the north-western fringe of the Dasht-e Kavir, the Great Salt Desert.
Najaf contains the tomb of Hussein, the Prophet Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law and the most revered of the Shia martyrs. He was seen as the prophet’s rightful successor after Mohammad’s death in 632 AD, but Hussein was killed by the Sunni Umayyads in the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD. For centuries Najaf was the holiest city in Shia Islam.
Najaf began losing its pre-eminence with the establishment of modern Iraq in 1921. Its influence waned further during Saddam Hussein’s harsh suppression of Shia Islam. When Khomeini took power in Iran, he promoted Qom as it gave legitimacy to his rule.
Najaf languished until Saddam was toppled in the US-led invasion of March 2003. With Iraq’s Shia taking the reins of power, Najaf has undergone a renaissance as the Vatican of the Shias, focusing more on theology than politics and playing a critical role in restoring stability to a country struggling with itself.
Call this the battle for Iraq’s soul.
The theological rivalry is key right now because Sistani, who holds the title of al-marjaa al-akbar — the greatest source of emulation — of the world’s 150 million Shias, has his seat in Najaf. He is almost 85 and is expected to step down soon.
The white-bearded Sistani, an Iranian by birth, is the acknowledged leader of Iraq’s Shias and widely revered. He has never been linked to the Iranian regime and is deeply opposed to Khomeini’s concept of clerical rule.
Tehran wants one of its own ayatollahs, Iraqi-born Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, 65, to replace Sistani, a move that would give Tehran an immensely powerful platform to influence Iraq’s Shia and possibly transplant the Islamic revolution.
Shahroudi is a diehard Khomeinist, a senior member of the hard-line clerical hierarchy that rules Iran and a former judiciary chief with a brutal record against opponents of the Tehran regime. He played a major role in crushing the reformist movement led by former president, Mohammad Khatami.
It is ironic then that Sistani helped promote the sharpest instrument in the Iranians’ efforts to gain dominion in Iraq: the Shia militias, trained, armed and funded by Tehran, which are the main bulwark against ISIS.
On June 13, 2014, Sistani, the most venerated cleric in the land, urged Iraqi Shias to join the militias to defend their homeland against the jihadists, and they did, by the thousands.
He saw them as part of the Iraqi military. But the militias are now tightly controlled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the political power of their leaders is growing rapidly.
It is hard to believe that Sistani so unwittingly aided those who seek his departure in a far-reaching Iranian effort, led by Iran’s powerful Shia clergy, to establish Iranian dominance.
Tehran is well aware it faces a problem with Iraqi Shias’ loyalty to Sistani and knows that deep-rooted historical and theological differences make Iranian control far from assured. These days, Baghdad and other Iraqi cities are plastered with portraits of Khomeini and current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, along with posters of Iranian commanders killed fighting ISIS, a reminder that Iranian blood is helping keep the jihadists at bay.
From Sistani to the man in the street, “there’s been a backlash in Iraq at the grass-roots and at the highest political and religious levels”, observed Iraqi analyst Hayder al-Khoei of London’s Chatham House think-tank.
The graffiti campaign is the work of the vast network of influence that Iran has built over the years in all sections of Iraqi society. Since June 2014, when ISIS captured the northern city of Mosul and proclaimed its Islamic caliphate, Iran has been doling out millions of dollars to Iraqi clerics as well as politicians and tribal leaders to establish their own Shia militias and expand Tehran’s influence. The feeling is increasingly that the Iranians, wary of a direct confrontation with Sistani, are simply waiting for him to die before claiming the religious guardianship of the Shia holy cities.
“Iran’s government is eagerly awaiting Sistani’s death,” said Ayad Jamaluddin, an Iraqi cleric and a member of Iraq’s post-Saddam parliament from 2005 to 2010.
“If Shahroudi assumes the mantle of leadership in Najaf, Khomeini’s work will be complete — the old Shia faith, with its institutions and its moderate outlook, will have been replaced by the new faith of Khomeinist political Shi’ism.”
Renad Mansour, an Iraqi scholar of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, said “Iran has gained immense influence in Iraq” since US military forces withdrew.
But, he said, “Iran is not happy. The trust that Iran used to have in Iraqi parties is no longer there. The number one consideration for Iran is security. It must have a friendly government in Baghdad. The religious element is very important…
“Sistani has the power to dismantle the Shia militias. Many of these fighters are pro-Sistani. His message is important and it will be interesting to see if he will, or can, follow through if he has to. Who comes after Sistani is extremely important.”