The Future of Shiite Militias in Iraq

Thursday, May 17, 2007
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM


Dr. Babak Rahimi, Assistant Professor, Iranian and Islamic Studies, University of California, San Diego


On May 17, The Jamestown Foundation hosted a lecture by Dr. Babak Rahimi. Dr. Rahimi is currently an assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego. He was recently a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Dr. Rahimi has also published numerous articles on Shiite militias in The Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor and Terrorism Focus publications. In the summer of 2005, Dr. Rahimi visited Iraq where he was able to interview Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and his son, Muhammad Reza al-Sistani, in Najaf. He also frequently visits Iran, traveling to cities such as Tehran, Qom, Bushehr, Mehran and Khorasmshahr.

In his lecture, Dr. Rahimi discussed the inner dynamics of Iraqi Shiite political parties, militias and religious factions, and reached four main conclusions:

– With Saddam’s regime gone and the present Iraqi regime fragilely maintaining power, the political environment of Iraq is in constant flux and can only truly be understood with on-the-ground reporting, such as field work.
– Small Shiite militias have grown in numbers and political power in the past few years and are now becoming serious threats to Iraq’s stability, specifically in such southern Iraqi "hot-spots" as the cities of Basra, Najaf and Diwaniyah.
– With three formable and armed Shiite political groups vying for power in Basra–SCIRI and their military wing, the Badr Organization; the "Sadrists" with the Mahdi Army; and the al-Fadhila Party (or Islamic Virtue Party)–this oil-rich southern city will likely become the "epicenter" of the approaching internal Shiite showdown.
– The United States must carefully craft a corresponding policy to address the ever-changing Shiite political situation that neither picks favorites nor alienates parties–rather the policy should strengthen the power and legitimacy of the present Iraqi government, letting Iraqis manage their intra-sectarian disputes.


Beginning the lecture with a personal anecdote, Dr. Rahimi recalled how he had entered Iraq in 2005 from Iran in order to interview Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf. His immediate impression when on the ground in Iraq was that the Shiite political situation was much more complex, convoluted and disunited than commonly portrayed in the Western media. The Shiite militias/political parties, namely Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and their militia, the Badr Organization, and various other factions that have splintered from the mainstream groups have grown in number and strength due in part to their ties to Iran and in part due to the current fragile and ineffective Iraq regime. In particular, Dr. Rahimi was struck by Moqtada al-Sadr’s rapid ascent to political power and cult-like following among certain Shiite populations.

Although Dr. Rahimi was uncertain how al-Sadr’s efforts to establish a political alliance between several Sunni and Shiite groups would eventually increase his power, he would not deny the fact that al-Sadr is a critical player in the overall Iraqi political landscape and one who the United States should not dismiss. Al-Sadr is increasingly facing the problem of splintering within his own organization–a phenomenon that other Shiite political groups are facing as well. Some of al-Sadr’s followers (Sadrists) felt that al-Sadr’s participation in the national government made him a puppet of the United States (despite the fact that six cabinet members from his party withdrew from the Iraq’s national unity government in April). The disaffected, therefore, broke off from the main al-Sadr grouping, starting their own splinter organizations with respective militias. There are two distinct breakaway groups of note: the gang-like followers of Abu Maha and Ismael al-Zerjawi, and millenarian-cultic type of splinter groups, such the shadowy cult of Dhia Abdul Zahra and his Soldiers of Heaven.

Dr. Rahimi highlighted the current trend of shifting political alliances, realigning of support and building new alliances, by offering the example of SCIRI’s recent name change. In a statement released May 11, SCIRI announced that is was changing its name to the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC). Many analysts viewed the name change as evidence of the "Iraqization" of the party–SCIRI is trying to broaden its appeal to Iraqis who continue to see it as an Iranian puppet, and to counter Moqtada al-Sadr’s recent moves to reach out to both Shiite Iraqis and non-Shiite Iraqis.

Dr. Rahimi expanded upon the causes of the recent (2005-present) intra-Shiite political instability, citing not only the lack of a Shiite consensus in approving the Iraqi constitution in 2005, but also the unresolved issues that came out of the constitution itself. The three main points of contention are: 1) federalism, and in turn the Kirkuk referendum, 2) oil distribution and 3) de-Baathification. According to Dr. Rahimi, we are now seeing the consequences of the "crisis of constitution building" in the splintering of the main Shiite political parties.

Considering the dynamic nature of current Shiite politics, Dr. Rahimi would not make any predictions, but rather gave "educated guesses" and tentative propositions as to how the present instability may unfold. In the Shiite religious center of Najaf, where SCIRI holds sway, Dr. Rahimi forecasted increased instability when Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (who is now in his late 70s) passes away. The Sadrists are already vying for power in Najaf, trying to discredit al-Sistani and SCIRI by emphasizing their Iranian ties. If al-Sistani were to pass away in the near future, the United States will potentially face the additional challenge of Basra rapidly deteriorating into an all-out battle between Sadr’s Mahdi Army and SCIRI’s Badr Organization. Up until now, al-Sistani has been a mediator in Basra, walking a fine line between the warring Shiite groups and urging them to talks.

Dr. Rahimi related al-Sistani’s present role in Shiite politics to that of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s "hard-line" Iranian politics, where the ayatollah constantly has to balance the needs of the pragmatic hard-liners with the demands of the "super hard-liners." Dr. Rahimi warned against the oversimplified image of Iraqi Shiite politics that one finds in the Western media. Just as Iran’s current motives and meddling in Iraqi Shiite parties cannot be summed up by the assertion that Iran is "moving the militias," neither can intra-Shiite fighting be boiled down to "SCIRI vs. the Sadrists," especially in the south of Iraq in Basra where a third Shiite party is vying for control, the al-Fadhila Party.

In terms of crafting a U.S. policy to address the fluctuating political situation, Dr. Rahimi cautioned against any involvement in intra-Iraqi sectarian politics. He feels the Shiite militias will either deteriorate into increased violence and all-out battles or join the political process in one form or another. If the United States openly picks sides, Dr. Rahimi warned that anti-occupation sentiments will only increase among the general Iraqi public. Although Dr. Rahimi strongly believes that the Shiite groups can and must deal with their own problems, if the United States decides to play a role in Iraqi politics, it must be "behind closed doors" and must recognize the need for Iraqis to take care of Iraq. At present, the United States must face the dual-problem that many Iraqis view the present Iraqi government as a U.S. puppet and U.S. forces as occupiers.


The Jamestown Foundation
1111 16th St. NW
7th Floor Conference Room
Washington, DC 20036