The Surge, the Shiites and Nation Building in Iraq

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 17

Moqtada al-Sadr

For some time, analysts have been suggesting that the Bush administration’s “surge” strategy may have achieved a measure of success in certain parts of Iraq. Many highlight the tendency on the part of local tribes in the Sunni-dominated areas to stand up against al-Qaeda, in that way emphasizing their own “Iraqiness” as well as their unwillingness to join in an all-out war against Western civilization. The number of attacks against U.S. forces has declined in many of these areas, and there are signs that al-Qaeda has been forced to relocate to new areas and to choose new targets.

Perhaps the most convincing indicator of a degree of “surge” success is one that has gone largely unnoticed. Reports out of Baghdad suggest that the Sunni politicians who for the past two years or so have worked with the Americans through participating in government and parliament are now becoming increasingly nervous about internal Sunni competition from the newly emerged anti-jihadist tribal leaders of their “own” community, for example in places like the Anbar governorate [1]. In terms of Iraqi nation-building, this is a healthy sign. There was always a degree of doubt with regard to the true representativeness of the Sunni parties that emerged as “winners” in their fields in the heavily boycotted 2005 parliamentary elections. The fact that these parties are now worried about internal competition means that more Sunnis are interested in participating in the system, and that a group of politicians firmly attached to the vision of a unified Iraq but also enjoying solid popular backing in their core constituencies may be on the way up, assisted by the “surge.” At the same time, foreign-sponsored groups, such as al-Qaeda, and office seekers whose popular legitimacy is in doubt (for instance, some members of the Tawafuq bloc) are coming under pressure or are even being weeded out.

South of Baghdad, the logical corollary to this kind of “surge” policy would have been to build local alliances with those Shiite groups that have a historical record of firm opposition to Iran and are unequivocal in their condemnation of Iranian interference in Iraq. The principal aim would be to create a counter-balance to the most pro-Iranian factions inside the system, such as the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which is now known as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI, formerly the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, SCIRI) and their Badr Brigades—organizations that since 2003 have been successful in obtaining a disproportionate degree of formal political power in the Iraqi political system and are currently profiting from their role in the Nuri al-Maliki government to consolidate their position further [2]. In the south, there is a vast array of groupings with a long record of hostility to Iran, above all the various Sadrist factions like Fadhila and the “mainline” followers of Moqtada al-Sadr (some of whom have even served jail sentences in Iranian prisons in the past), but also independent Shiite tribal groups that are fiercely proud of their Arab heritage [3]. These groups also distinguish themselves from ISCI in that they maintain that any kind of clerical rule in Iraq under the principle of wilayat al-faqih (the rule of the jurisprudent) should have as its point of departure Iraqi clerics and not Iranian ones [4].

Actual U.S. policy south of Baghdad is the exact opposite of this. Pro-Iranian ISCI and its friends in the Badr Organization (now powerful in the Iraqi security forces) are being supported by the United States in their efforts to bulldoze all kinds of internal Shiite opposition, as seen for instance in the large-scale battle against an alleged cultist movement at Najaf in January 2007, as well as in the ongoing operations against the Sadrist Mahdi Army and its splinter factions. Indiscriminate mass arrests have often accompanied these incidents, with the al-Maliki government’s wholesale designation of its enemies as “terrorists” apparently being taken at face value by U.S. forces, and with the persistent complaints from those arrested about “Iranian intrigue” being ignored. Today, apart from isolated rural enclaves, the sole remaining bastions of solid Shiite resistance to ISCI outside Baghdad are Maysan and Basra (which happen to be located outside direct U.S. control, in the British zone in the far south), but here too change may be underway: ISCI has worked for more than one year to unseat the Fadhila governor of oil-rich Basra (he remained in office by early September 2007 despite an order by al-Maliki to have him replaced), and the Badr Brigades are reportedly influential within the security forces in Maysan. Ironically, long-standing enemies of Iran like the Fadhila party are now feeling so isolated that they see no other recourse than to upgrade contacts with their erstwhile foes in Tehran, if only tentatively [5]. The apparent U.S. rationale for letting all this happen is the idea that the Sadrist Mahdi Army somehow constitutes their worst opponent in Iraq, and that some Mahdi Army factions are even being supplied with arms from Tehran.

An alternative reading is that Iran could be deliberately feeding weaponry to marginal (or splinter) elements of the Sadrists precisely in order to weaken the Sadrist movement as a whole, and to make sure that Sadrist energy is combusted in clashes with U.S. forces. Right now, from Tehran’s point of view, the implementation of the “surge” south of Baghdad could not have been more perfect. Today, U.S. forces are working around the clock to weaken Tehran’s traditional arch-enemy in Iraq’s Shiite heartland—the Sadrists—while Iran’s preferred and privileged partner since the 1980s, SCIRI/ISCI, keeps strengthening its influence everywhere. Back in the United States, think tanks concentrate on the ties between Sadrists and Iran and consistently overlook those factions that have truly close and long-standing ties to Tehran, whereas the recently released National Intelligence Estimate was devoid of initiatives to bring the Shiites into a more reconciliatory mode—suggesting that few ideas exist in Washington about alternative Shiite policies. The U.S. mainstream media also make a contribution: after having first demonized Ibrahim al-Jaafari for alleged ties to Iran back in 2005, U.S. newspapers are now using big headlines every time there is the slightest hint about some kind of connection between Iran and Moqtada al-Sadr. On top of all this, the U.S. military itself is exposed to a significant irritant through its constant encounters with militia splinter groups and the low-level conflict that comes with them—no doubt another factor that works to Tehran’s advantage.

The great irony in this is that, from the historical perspective, the neo-conservative working assumption that Iraqi Shiites can be trusted to resist Iranian domination is generally sound—with the sole exception of the particular faction on which Washington has fixed its eyes as its special partner in the country. In the 1980s, SCIRI was designed by Iran to maximize Tehran’s control of the unruly Iraqi opposition. Throughout its history, it has stressed the importance of subservience to Iran’s leaders, first Khomeini and later Khamenei [6]. In the mid-1990s, its leader Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim became one of the first Shiite intellectuals to produce an elaborate plan for the political unification of the Shiites from Iran to Lebanon in a federal system under the leadership of Tehran, and as late as 1999 one of SCIRI’s key figures, Sadr al-Din al-Qubbanji, angrily attacked the Sadrists for daring to suggest that the Iraqi Shiite opposition could operate independently of Khamenei [7]. Close scrutiny of SCIRI’s highly publicized name change and supposed “ideological makeover” in May 2007 shows that none of this heritage has been annulled in a convincing manner: the new and much trumpeted “pledge” to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is in reality nothing more than a non-committal expression of general praise, and there is no renunciation of a decades-long policy of subordination to Khamenei [8]. It is suspicious that ISCI and Iran still hold virtually synchronized views on the sacrosanctity of the al-Maliki government and the 2005 constitution. Both tend to describe the idea of challenging al-Maliki as “subversive coup activity,” and they are unified in rejecting challenges to the constitution by what they describe as neo-Baathists [9].

The problem is that Washington’s “surge” is framed as a straightforward counter-insurgency operation in which the nation-building component is in the far background. “The enemy” is defined on the basis of a myopic interpretation of who is directly hostile to U.S. forces while the historical dimension of alliance patterns between Iran and Iraqi Shiite factions is overlooked. This prevents Washington from fully understanding who is friend and foe in Iraq. It is conceivable that ISCI may assist Washington in temporarily reducing the amount of noise out of Iraq, and this may well be what the Bush administration is looking for right now. Yet, even if its members are more genteel and well-behaved than the Sadrists, it is highly unclear what kind of “moderation” ISCI is really capable of delivering in Iraq, especially in terms of a political system based on true reconciliation between Shiites and Sunnis [10]. For that to be brought about, many Iraqis, regardless of sectarian affiliation, will require unequivocal answers from ISCI on certain key questions: Does its leadership still believe in the principle of the rule of the jurisprudent (wilayat al-faqih) and the idea of a supreme Shiite leader (wali amr al-muslimin), and if so, whom do they consider to be the current holder of this leadership role? Are they prepared to reject, squarely and explicitly, any possible role for Iran’s Khamenei in shaping their policies? Can they offer reassurances to the Iraqi people that the Iran-dominated pan-Shiite federation scheme laid out by Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim in ‘Aqidatuna in the 1990s is now null and void? After all, the futility of an approach based on vague ideas about “moderate, pro-U.S. personalities” and private assurances to U.S. officials (“Iraq will never become a carbon copy of Iran”) is particularly pronounced in the strictly hierarchical Shiite context. All orthodox Shiites who are not themselves qualified theologians (mujtahids) will have to defer to the higher clergy on important issues. None of the Shiite operators in Iraq with whom Washington has been dealing is a recognized mujtahid.

Clarification of these issues would help ISCI enormously and could assist the party in finding a much more constructive role as a key mainstream, truly “moderate” player in Iraqi politics. But until answers from ISCI are forthcoming in a very public way (rather than in hazy name changes and in private meetings with U.S. special envoys), many Iraqis will remain ambivalent about the organization’s ties to Iran. In that situation, the “surge” will be doomed to fail unless it can be redefined to include a credible nation-building component aimed at areas south of Baghdad: the Iraqi nationalist Shiites will remain on the margins, and the alliance of ISCI and the two Kurdish parties will feel that they can safely continue to ignore the Sunnis, secularists and independent Shiites and their calls for a more substantial constitutional revision (and true national reconciliation). Even the main Sadrist parties, which have invested considerable energy in presenting themselves as “made in Iraq” and ridiculing ISCI for its ties to Iran, could end up as ironic Iranian clients unless Washington starts dealing with them in a more constructive way.

Still, if the United States is willing to rethink some of its fundamental assumptions about Iraqi politics, several options for policy adjustments remain. Washington could, for instance, take a more open-minded approach to the ongoing efforts to create a more broadly based coalition in opposition to the al-Maliki government—such as, for instance, the latest efforts by Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Iyad Allawi to engineer cross-sectarian coalitions, and as seen in the recent decision by the legal committee of the Iraqi parliament to condemn al-Maliki’s decision to sack the Basra governor [11]. In theory, these kinds of alliances could be capable of compromises on issues where consensus has eluded the al-Maliki government (like the oil law and federalism), and whereas the United States should certainly refrain from backroom machinations (which would only taint any alternative government), it could focus on simply recalibrating its own policies—including its “surge”—so as to ensure that the newly improved participation of the Sunni community within the system is accompanied by parallel positive developments among the Iraqi Shiites. That, in itself, could be enough to help the Da’wa party move back to its Iraqi nationalist ideals, and thereby nudge the al-Maliki government into a more conciliatory mode. Conversely, if Washington continues to conceive of “the Iranian threat” in Iraq as exclusively a matter of security in the most palpable sense—meaning “Sadrist terrorists”—then Tehran and its ISCI allies seem set for easy sailing in Iraq.


1. Author interview with a member of the Iraqi national security council, June 2007.

2. According to a formal statement dated July 31, 2007, the party henceforth wishes to be referred to in English with the abbreviation ISCI; e-mail from Karim al-Musawi of the ISCI Washington office dated August 11, 2007. Separately, for a critical perspective on SCIRI’s level of popular support in the December 2005 elections, see Reidar Visser, “SCIRI, Daawa and Sadrists in the Certified Iraq Elections Results,” February 11, 2006,

3. An excellent source on the historical roots of the long-standing enmity between the Sadrists and Iran is Fa’iq al-Shaykh Ali, Ightiyal sha’b, London: Al-Rafid, 2000.

4. Recent examples of such attitudes include an article penned by Fadhila member Abu Taqi, “Muqarina bayna al-nizam al-dakhili li-hizb al-fadila al-islami wa-wilayat al-faqih,” January 7, 2007, with a note of approval by Muhammad al-Ya’qubi dated 20 Dhi al-Hijja 1427/January 10, 2007. The article clearly refers to a specifically Iraqi rather than an Iranian context. See also ‘Adil Ra’uf, Muhammad muhammad sadiq al-sadr: marja’iyyat al-maydan, Damascus: Al-Markaz al-‘Iraqi li-a-I’lam wa-al-Dirasat, 1999, pp. 53–57.

5. Fadhila’s move to open offices in Tehran has been particularly conspicuous; see press release from the Fadhila party dated October 22, 2006.

6. The cliché that Iran had no ambition about acting as overlord in Iraq in the 1980s lacks a sound empirical basis. SCIRI leaders like Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim and Sadr al-Din al-Qubbanji wrote frequently about the need for ultimate subordination to Khomeini even if a façade of Iraqi separateness might be retained; see for instance Liwa’ al-Sadr, April 28, 1982, p. 8, and Liwa’ al-Sadr, October 4, 1987.

7. Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, ‘Aqidatuna wa-ru’yatuna al-siysiyya, a pamphlet published at the Hakim website ( before 2003 but removed soon after the start of the Iraq war. Also, Al-Muballigh al-Risali, February 15, 1999.

8. SCIRI/ISCI, “Al-bayan al-khatami li-mu’tamar al-dawra al-tasi’a li-al-hay’a al-‘amma li-al-majlis al-a’la al-islami al-‘iraqi,” May 12, 2007.

9. See for instance comments by Hasan Ruhani quoted in E’temad, April 26, 2006.

10. Characteristically, supporters of the ISCI scheme to create a single federal Shiite entity have been among the most prominent critics of the (Shiite) Fadhila party’s dialogue with Sunni politicians; see open letter from Ahmad al-Shammari to Nadim al-Jabiri, January 2006,

11. See al-Hayat, August 7, 2007. Letter from the legal committee of the Iraqi parliament to Nuri al-Maliki dated July 30, 2007.