Iraqi Shiite Factionalism and Iran’s Role in the Basra Fighting

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 14

One week after the upsurge of violence in Basra, questions about the motives and implications of the fighting still linger. The issue of Iran’s involvement remains especially obscure.

A recurrent explanation suggests that the operations were an attempt by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim to weaken the followers of fellow Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr ahead of October’s provincial elections, and perhaps to also further Hakim’s scheme of a single Shiite federal entity, which many Sadrists have resisted. On the surface this seems plausible. This has clearly been a political operation and not a purely security-guided one: Many militia forces in Basra unaffiliated with the Sadrists were left untouched. Also, the Maliki-Hakim axis is the sole remnant of the United Iraqi Alliance; to them it would be prudent to stick together and guard against encroachments on their local power bases. As for the United States, as long as its policy remains tied to Hakim’s ISCI it perhaps makes sense to give the green light to operations against the Sadrists, even if the timing and the scale of the latest attacks may not have been of its own choosing.

However, the theory of a stable Maliki-Hakim alliance overlooks disagreement between the two on key issues. Crucially, Maliki disagrees with the ISCI on federalism. In an interview in late 2007, Maliki said: “There are two schools on federalism, the first moving in the direction of making the central state extremely weak, no more than a mere instrument for delivering funds and distributing them. Another school moves in the direction of federalism with a strong state capable of controlling the situation. It is this kind of federalism that we in the Daawa [Party] support” (al-Hayat, November 20, 2007). Of course, that “first school,” which Maliki went on to criticize as potentially harmful to the unity of Iraq, corresponds perfectly with the ISCI’s official policy. The ISCI’s recent attempt at reducing Baghdad’s power as much as possible in the Non-federated Governorates Act is the exact antithesis to Maliki’s line.

Once the existence of this kind of friction is acknowledged, it becomes possible to identify additional weaknesses in the theory of a carefully synchronized Hakim-Maliki effort. Among them is the assumption that the Iraqi military and police have already been completely infiltrated by the ISCI and that every battle fought between government forces and Shiite discontents over the past year has been initiated at the behest of Hakim.

It is true that the ISCI has obtained significant fiefdoms in the security forces; the party, however, is not omnipotent. For example, the ISCI recently complained that the police in Nasiriya—which has an ISCI governor—were becoming “politicized” (, February 26). Similarly, the Interior Ministry long resisted attempts by the ISCI to sack a police commander in Hilla to whose staunch anti-militia policies ISCI leaders took exception (the commander was eventually assassinated in December 2007). And in early March, Maliki’s chief of security in Basra, General Mohan al-Firayji, faced angry demonstrators who demanded his resignation; these protestors were mostly ISCI supporters (al-Qabas, March 9).

The demonstrations against General Mohan can offer insights into Iran’s role. Alongside the ISCI, another key participant was Daghir al-Musawi, leader of the small Sayyid al-Shuhada movement. Musawi’s critics have long accused him of close ties to the leadership of the Iranian revolutionary guards. It is noteworthy that precisely in this context, Maliki’s man, General Mohan, complained about “Iranian influence” in Basra (al-Quds al-Arabi, March 11). Similarly, as part of the Basra operations, Iraqi forces targeted the pro-Iranian Tharallah militia and arrested its leader (Aswat al-Iraq, April 3). This less known casualty of the Basra fighting has been a loyal ally of the ISCI in its campaign to unseat the Basra governor, Muhammad al-Waili of the anti-Iranian Fadila party. In 2006, black-clad members of Tharallah paraded through Basra identifying themselves as the “Martyr Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim Squadron” (al-Manara, February 21, 2006).

In sum, it appears that Iran may have had input on both sides during the Basra showdown. The smaller pro-Iranian parties within the ISCI’s umbrella organization put pressure on Maliki and may have nudged him toward taking stronger action against the Sadrists than originally contemplated. But the conclusion of a ceasefire on Iranian soil shows that Tehran’s ability to influence the other end of the spectrum—the traditionally Iraqi nationalist Sadrist movement—may now be stronger than ever before, quite possibly the result of Moqtada’s relocation to Iran at the beginning of the surge, when he may have felt cornered by U.S. policy.

To the United States, the good news is that Maliki still seems to insist on a certain independence vis-à-vis the ISCI and Iran. A look at the composition of Maliki’s entourage during his previous mission to Basra when he imposed emergency rule in May 2006 suggests that his power base is evolving. At that time he arrived with the chief of the ISCI-linked Badr Organization, Hadi al-Amiri, as well as a former Sadrist minister from Basra, Salam al-Maliki (al-Manara, June 3, 2006). This time his aides consisted of independents, Interior Ministry staff and Shirwan al-Waili of the Tanzim al-Iraq branch of the Daawa Party. The constant in all of this seems to be Maliki’s desire to come across as a strong leader: In 2006, he promised an “iron fist”; this time he announced “the assault of the knights.” Through the process, he may well have rediscovered the usefulness of siding with the ISCI, but there is nothing to suggest that Maliki acted as he did for the sake of the nine-governorate Shiite federal entity.

The bad news is that Maliki’s current survival strategy does not appear to be compatible with the declared U.S. objective of achieving national reconciliation in Iraq. Maliki’s vision of national reconciliation seems largely theatrical and not focused on profound constitutional revision. So far, it has failed to appeal beyond the small ruling minority of the Sunni Tawafuq bloc, the Kurds, and the Shiite ISCI—of whom the latter two also disagree deeply with Maliki on federalism. Conversely, Maliki’s view of the Sadrists is altogether unrealistic. The Sadrists are far too deep-rooted in Iraqi society to be ignored; ideologically both they and the Fadila, which similarly criticized the Basra operations, are an important part of the center in Iraqi politics that Maliki is seeking.

Finally, there is Maliki’s continued reliance on the breakaway Hizb al-Daawa (Tanzim al-Iraq). Having been set afloat by Iran in 2002—rather than being a product of the Iraqi underground, as is sometimes claimed—this chameleon-like outfit may well have as its principal objective to create as much confusion in Shiite Iraqi politics as possible. The party was probably designed as a counterweight to the mainline Daawa movement which always maintained a certain distance from Iran; while it supported the ISCI’s ideas about a single Shiite federal region back in 2005, it has gradually reverted to an Iraqi nationalist rhetoric, raising yet more questions about its own loyalties and aims.

Current U.S. policy seems to be to unquestioningly go after whomever Maliki defines as a terrorist. The Iranians pursue a very different strategy, by patronizing as many Shiite factions as possible. A third policy alternative would be to support free and fair local elections in October, without giving in to very predictable schemes by Maliki and the ISCI to exclude or obstruct the Sadrists and other undesirable competitors.