Sciri: An American Ally In Iraq?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 5


The United States faces three adversaries in its attempts to stabilize and democratize Iraq. These are indigenous Arab Nationalists (Baathist or otherwise), foreign Sunni Islamists and Shia extremists. The Sunni Islamists are the least formidable of the three. Iraq lacks the Sunni Islamist political culture of other Arab countries and non-Iraqi Sunnis who have made their way to Iraq to challenge the United States will find the local environment unreceptive.

The Arab Nationalists and the Shia extremists pose a far more serious challenge. The former are already executing the bulk of attacks in the “Baathist Triangle.” While the latter, grouped principally around the charismatic leadership of the young Muqtada al-Sadr, are likely to present a more robust challenge to the U.S. presence in the future. There has already been one serious attack on U.S. forces in Karbala attributed to loyalists of Muqtada al-Sadr.

For the United States and for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) under its control, defeating the insurgency and securing the transition to some form of representative government in Iraq are largely dependent on the successful transfer of power to Iraqi political forces.

One of the more controversial of these forces is the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Considerable suspicion and misunderstanding of SCIRI abounds in the United States.


The emergence of SCIRI is attributable to three factors: The charismatic personality of the slain Baqir al-Hakim, internal turmoil in the al-Daawa al-Islamiyah Party, and Iranian patronage.

Baqir al-Hakim joined the al-Daawa party from its inception in 1958. Although SCIRI officials now claim that he broke from al-Daawa in 1960, it is likely that Hakim maintained contact with the fringes of the party throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

The al-Daawa party was experiencing turmoil in the 1970s, as the gap between its progressive spiritual leadership and secretive activist network widened. Moreover, the victory of the Islamic revolution in Iran divided the party ideologically. The mainstream of al-Daawa, led by the slain Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, expressed qualified support for the Islamic revolution. This prompted defections from the pro-Khomeini wing of the party.

By the middle of 1980 these renegade al-Daawa elements had fled to Iran and rallied around Baqir al-Hakim. The old al-Daawa cadres initially operated under the banner of Mojahedin fil Iraq. The Islamic Republic’s strategic objective of overthrowing the Baathist regime informed its decision to sponsor Hakim and his followers. Iranian patronage strengthened Hakim, whose organization briefly operated as the Office for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq before metamorphosing into SCIRI in November of 1982.

SCIRI purports to be a coalition of Islamic forces. In reality it is dominated by old Najaf seminarians and loyalists of the Hakim family. SCIRI claims that the al-Daawa party has been a part of the SCIRI umbrella from the beginning. [1] But it must be borne in mind that al-Daawa is composed of at least three autonomous factions. The Daawa faction loyal to SCIRI is the pro-Iranian wing of the party led by Mohammad Ali Taskhiri, Mohammad Asefi and Kazem Haeri. The SCIRI coalition also includes three small Islamic groups: Al-Jund al-Iman (Army of Faith), Monazemat al-amal al-Islamiya (Order of Islamic Activism) and a breakaway faction of the al-Daawa party.

SCIRI’s greatest achievement was the development of a military capability in the form of the Al-Badr Corps. SCIRI’s military arm claimed to be the largest paramilitary force in the Middle East. [2] The Badr Corps were set up in cooperation with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and before the overthrow of the Baathist regime were organizationally indistinguishable from the IRGC. The Badr Corps’ main training center was a large facility owned by the IRGC, situated just west of the Vahdati air force base in Dezful. Moreover, the Fajr and Naderi hotels in Ahvaz (the capital of Iran’s south-western Khuzistan province) were used as reception centers by the Badr Corps. Both hotels are owned and operated by the IRGC’s Intelligence Directorate.

The Badr Corps, however, were no match for Saddam Hussein’s armies. Their ineffectiveness was highlighted during the uprising that erupted in the south and north of the country after the Persian Gulf War of 1991. Badr forces were overwhelmed by the Republican Guards. In fact, the Badr did most of their fighting with the Mojahedin-e-Khalq in the eastern areas of the Diyala province.

Ideologically, SCIRI is caught between Sadr and Khomeini. The old guard of SCIRI, composed of veteran Najaf seminarians and former Daawa cadres, is committed to Khomeini’s enduring legacy-namely the Velayat-e-Faqih (guardianship of the jurisconsult) doctrine. But those in the modern core of SCIRI champion quintessentially Sadrist values that effectively subordinate the corpus of Islam to its spirit.

SCIRI in the post-Saddam world

SCIRI heeded U.S. warnings not to interfere in the war against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Immediately after the fall of Baghdad, however, Badr forces infiltrated the province of Diyala and fought pitched battles with remnants of the ousted regime, including Baath party diehards, Diyala tribesmen loyal to Saddam Hussein and the Mojahedin-e-Khalq.

The Badr Corps complied with U.S. demands to disarm in June. They are now officially called the Badr Organization for Development & Reconstruction. But some elements remain armed with U.S. acquiescence, as they provide security for SCIRI facilities and leaders.

SCIRI at first resisted joining the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), but U.S. flexibility in accommodating some of SCIRI’s sensibilities, combined with the mediating roles of Ahmad Chalabi and the slain Sergio Vieira de Mello, facilitated the Supreme Council’s entry into the IGC.

The leader of the Iraqi National Council (INC), Ahmad Chalabi, has historically played a central role in maintaining links between the United States and SCIRI. When SCIRI broke off contact with the Clinton administration over the latter’s adoption of the dual containment policy towards Iran and Iraq, it was Chalabi who re-started surreptitious contact between the two sides. If serious friction develops between SCIRI and the CPA in the future, Chalabi is likely to spearhead efforts to narrow the gap between the two.


The assassination on August 29 of its founder and leader, Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, has not seriously weakened SCIRI. The Supreme Council remains the largest and most capable of the former Iraqi opposition groups. [3] It is also the most pro-Iranian. SCIRI is likely to enjoy strong relations with Iran for some time; ideological affinity, ethnic kinship and a network of personal relationships assure this.

However, SCIRI’s Iranian ties must be set in their proper context. SCIRI is a pragmatic entity and will likely identify local coalition building and cooperation with other groups, rather than transnational ties, as the key to success in post-occupation Iraq.

The United States would have cause to be wary of SCIRI, and its ideology, if the organization were truly representative of Iraqi Shiaism. Although SCIRI’s support base in the Shia heartlands of Iraq is not insignificant, it still cannot claim to represent the majority of the Shia community. Iraqi Shias tend to be secular and subscribe to Iraqi (as opposed to Arab) nationalism. SCIRI is therefore unlikely to dominate the post-Baathist political order. In fact, the organization’s technocratic cadres readily admit that Iraq is unlikely to turn into an Islamic regime. [4]

The upshot is that SCIRI is neither an ally nor foe of the United States. It is a prickly and awkward tool that the United States can use to gain some leverage over the Shia political community and to prevent the radicalization of Iraqi Shias in the decisive months ahead.

1. Author’s interview with SCIRI’s European representative, Dr. Hamid al-Bayati, on October 13, 2003.

2. Report on the Iranian Baztab website, September 4, 2003.

3. The two Kurdish factions in the north are an exception, but unlike SCIRI, they promote a local agenda.

4. Hamid Bayati’s interview in the May edition of the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin (MEIB).