Religious Allegiances among Pro-Iranian Special Groups in Iraq

Sep 26, 2011

Pro-Iranian “Special Groups” are once more the focus of attention in Iraq. As the United States prepares to withdraw its forces from Iraq at the end of 2011, the U.S. military has highlighted increasing paramilitary activity by the Special Groups, supported with weapons and explosives from Iran, as a potential threat to political stability in the years ahead. Yet it is not accurate to suggest that all Special Groups share the same relationship with the regime in Tehran.

This article explores the religious allegiances of pro-Iranian Special Groups in Iraq. The links between militant groups and religious authorities are investigated for four such groups: Kataib Hizb Allah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Promised Day Brigades and the Badr Organization. It is concluded that Kataib Hizb Allah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq are most closely integrated into the tradition of the Iranian revolution, but also that an exclusive focus on the Special Groups and their ties to the Iranian clergy involves missing the wood for the trees. With signs of increasingly close ties between the Da`wa Party of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the Iranian clergy, the study of the activities of the Special Groups in isolation from the broader Iranian strategy in Iraq is somewhat myopic.

Special Groups and Iranian Religious Leaderships
Much of the literature on Special Groups in Iraq only focuses on the following three organizations: Kataib Hizb Allah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Promised Day Brigades. This article, however, also examines a fourth Special Group: the Badr Organization, formerly known as the Badr militia.[1] This is necessary for two reasons. First, it has never been documented convincingly that the militant elements of the Badr Organization have been fully disarmed. Second, since the Badr Organization in many ways represents the Special Group par excellence—it was designed by Iran with the aim of maximizing its military influence within the Iraqi opposition in the 1980s—it must be included in an analysis of pro-Iranian paramilitary forces in Iraq.

Kataib Hizb Allah
Among these four groups, Kataib Hizb Allah may be the easiest to classify in terms of its religious allegiances. At least in the group’s publications and on its website, Kataib Hizb Allah indicates straightforward acknowledgment of the basic governing principle of the Iranian revolution—wilayat al-faqih—and also speaks of current Iranian leader Ali Khamenei as the “leader imam” (imam al-qa’id). Kataib Hizb Allah’s website uses a work by the Khomeinist scholar Muhammad Momen Qommi to explain its political theory and in particular why it follows the wilayat al-faqih principle, which historically has met with greater skepticism in Iraq than in Iran. The pro-Iranian line is also reflected in the website content more generally, with many articles focusing more on U.S.-Iranian relations—or even on the United States itself—than on the situation in Iraq.[2]

Asaib Ahl al-Haq
Asaib Ahl al-Haq was once part of the Sadrist movement, but the group now indicates that its spiritual leader is Kazim al-Haeri, a Khomeinist scholar of Iraqi origin who resides in Iran and is followed by some but not all mainline Sadrists. Several fatawa by al-Haeri are reproduced on the Asaib Ahl al-Haq website, with subjects ranging from rejection of a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq to the desirability of keeping the Shi`a unified in a single bloc during the government-formation process in August 2010. This suggests that the group is more closely aligned with Iran. In an interview, Muhammad al-Tabatabai, a cleric active in the Asaib Ahl al-Haq network, explained that he is currently finishing his top-level Shi`a studies as a student of al-Haeri. Unlike the Sadrists proper, Asaib Ahl al-Haq seems to have established a reasonably straightforward Khomeinist relationship between al-Haeri as a spiritual leader and their own members acting as subordinate lieutenants. For example, Qais al-Khazali[3] is quite consistently referred to as a lower-rank hujjatulislam, a field commander (qa’id al-mujahid) or simply as secretary-general of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq party. As such, he forms a closer parallel to Hassan Nasrallah in the case of Lebanese Hizb Allah than does the mainline Sadrist movement.[4]

Badr Organization
When it comes to the Badr Organization and the Promised Day Brigades, the picture of their religious allegiances is murkier and more complicated. With respect to Badr, it began as an outfit directly controlled by the leaders of the Iranian revolution in the 1980s. The main question surrounding it in the post-2003 period has been to what extent it has shed its revolutionary baggage upon returning to Iraq. Further complicating the analysis is the question of the relationship between Badr and its supposed political affiliate, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI)—which was symbiotic in the 1980s but grew more strained after 2003 as a result of succession problems in SCIRI after the death of Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim. In 2007, al-Hakim’s brother and successor, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, changed the name of SCIRI to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and started a media campaign to indicate that the movement was gravitating more toward the religious authorities of Najaf than to those of Iran. Al-Hakim’s moves in this respect, however, were never completely unequivocal, and with a renewed leadership struggle in ISCI after his death in 2009 and the emergence of his young and inexperienced son Ammar as ISCI’s new head, tensions between Badr and ISCI have once again become more pronounced. With these tensions, the question of allegiances to Iranian and Iraqi religious leaderships has been propelled to the forefront.

A look at the Badr Organization’s media can provide an indication of the problem. Most of the provincial Badr websites are now defunct—possibly an indication of the disarray in which the organization currently finds itself. Yet the Badr newspaper is still published, and seems to offer some subtle hints about differences with ISCI. In particular, the current ISCI leader, Ammar al-Hakim, does not seem to be offered as much space and attention as one would expect. Even in relation to the annual commemorations of the death of his father Abd al-Aziz and his uncle Muhammad Baqir, most comments by Ammar are reported in the Badr newspaper alongside those of other Iraqi politicians rather than as statements by a person with a special and privileged relationship to the Badr Organization. Only on a few occasions is Ammar himself highlighted. By way of contrast, in relation to the commemoration of the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the current Iranian leader Ali Khamenei is referred to as “Imam Ali Khamenei” in the Badr newspaper.[5] True, at times at least there are references in the Badr media to the Najaf religious leadership as well, for example when Ahmad al-Safi, a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is referred to as “representative of the highest religious authority.”[6] Yet the dualism and ambiguity regarding political leadership in Badr circles is certainly sufficiently strong to raise questions about where they will turn—to Iraq or Iran—if the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani dies and there is a change in the Najaf religious leadership.

Promised Day Brigades
The Promised Day Brigades is a successor organization to Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Determining its religious allegiances inevitably touches on the whole set of questions connected with the Sadrist leader himself. Despite al-Sadr’s assurances that he remains nothing more than a hawza student, the habit of his followers to refer to him with terms such as “leader sayyid” (al-sayyid al-qa’id)—and his own habit of issuing fatwa-like declarations, especially on political questions—create ambiguities in terms of describing religious alliances among his various followers. This is especially true because as a mere student, Moqtada al-Sadr does not possess the formal qualifications required to issue fatawa. Accordingly, when he does so, he is in fact implicitly challenging the hierarchical order of both traditional Shi’ism and the order of the Iranian revolution through methods that are perhaps best described as a form of neo-Akhbarism. Of course, the Iranian revolution has also established a habit of swiftly transforming aspiring clerics to the ranks of ayatollahs once they have proven their credentials as defenders of the interests of the Islamic republic, but despite many rumors about imminent ayatollah-hood, al-Sadr still remains somewhat young to perform this metamorphosis. For now, this means his followers must remain in a vacuum where they see him as their spiritual leader but where he enjoys no proper leadership status within traditional or indeed Khomeinist Shi’ism.

As far as the Promised Day Brigades themselves are concerned, their website features pictures of the two canonized Sadrs—Muhammad Baqir and Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq—as an indication of the origin of their allegiances. Many of the public statements of Moqtada al-Sadr are also reproduced, in particular when they refer to political issues such as the question of the legitimacy of armed resistance to the U.S. military presence in Iraq. Importantly, unlike both Kataib Hizb Allah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq—and typical of the original Sadrist movement—the Promised Day Brigades website does not contain references to any living ulterior religious authority in Iran other than Moqtada al-Sadr himself. This makes them more similar to the indigenous Sadrist movement of Iraq than to Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hizb Allah, whose links to Iran in terms of religious leaderships seem firmer.[7]

It should be added that cross-pollination among these groups does occur and makes the exercise of performing a neat classification of them more difficult. For example, the website of Kataib Hizb Allah contains links to both Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Promised Day Brigades. Recently, a public pronouncement by Moqtada al-Sadr dealt with a query from a Kataib Hizb Allah member who seemed to address him as a religious authority in a way that would be at variance of the image of the Kataib as an organization steeped in the tradition of the Iranian revolution with its emphasis on hierarchical rank in the Shi`a world of learning. For their part, many Badr members today probably oscillate between Khamenei and al-Sistani in a parallel to what many Hizb Allah members did in Lebanon in the mid-1990s, when Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah openly challenged Khamenei.

Relevant Recent Developments in the Najaf Marjaiyya
Ever since its emergence as a preeminent center of Shi`a learning in the early 20th century, Qom in Iran has been in a state of tension vis-à-vis Najaf in Iraq, its main competitor. These tensions have certainly persisted after the Iranian revolution, and it would be unwise to ignore them in any analysis of religious leaderships among pro-Iranian groups of Iraqi Shi`a.

After having fended off a challenge from Iran’s leader, Ali Khamenei, in the early 1990s, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf today remains the dominant global figure within Shi’ism. This has forced some players, such as SCIRI/ISCI, to tone down their ties to the Iranian establishment (which disagrees with al-Sistani on the key question of the extent to which the clergy should be actively integrated into state institutions). It has prompted others to try to criticize al-Sistani on a more paradigmatic basis, as seen in the case of the Sadrists (who have introduced a distinction between their own “articulate” clergy and al-Sistani as the supposedly “sleeping” or passive force of Najaf). No one among the Shi`a Islamist parties, however, can afford to ignore al-Sistani entirely.

Al-Sistani heads a group of altogether four clerics in Najaf—himself plus the grand ayatollahs Fayyad, Najafi and Muhammad Said al-Hakim—that is widely considered preeminent among the clergy of the city and indeed of Iraq. One should not, however, confine the discussion of possible successors to al-Sistani to these four. It should be observed that the three others in the group lag considerably behind al-Sistani in terms of popular followings. It is true that in the early 1990s, al-Sistani was himself not a very prominent figure immediately following the death of Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasem al-Khoei in August 1992, and other candidates for succeeding al-Khoei prevailed for some time. Nonetheless, it would be unwise to ignore the segment of somewhat younger, mostly Arab ulama in their 60s and 70s who have emerged in Najaf in the post-2003 period. This motley crew involves people such as Ala al-Din al-Ghurayfi, Qasem al-Taie, Saleh al-Taie, Muhammad Shubayr al-Khaqani, Hussein al-Sadr and Shamsudin al-Waezi, all of whom now call themselves grand ayatollah. Not all of these seem equally fitted to challenge the established elite of Najaf, but they are old enough to repeat what Muhammad al-Yaqubi (a spiritual source of inspiration for the Fadila Party) did with some success in 2003: use a diploma of ijtihad (the ability to interpret Islamic law and issue fatawa) signed by a relatively obscure cleric to obtain a popular following and climb to a position of a certain influence on the Iraqi scene. This in turn could produce a succession scenario after al-Sistani in which several clerics strive for prominence before someone emerges in a preeminent position.

All of this suggests that the succession struggle after al-Sistani may be a messy affair, with implications for the Special Groups. When al-Sistani dies, leaders such as Moqtada al-Sadr and Qais al-Khazali must once more consider their options. To some extent, this will be a choice between becoming Iraqi Nasrallahs or Fadlallahs: following the pattern of Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon and his Hizb Allah party, they could tone down their clerical aspirations and instead focus on politics and/or armed struggle based on complete loyalty to the Iranian leadership; conversely, if there is no obvious successor to al-Sistani and a more level playing field emerges, there may also be room for ulama with limited scholarly credentials (like Moqtada al-Sadr) to try to copy what Fadlallah did with some success in Lebanon—namely, to become a regional marja (Shi`a source of emulation) with some distance from Iran.

Conclusion
Prior to the death of Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah in Lebanon in 2010, many members of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Da`wa Party emulated him as their marja. To some extent, this was seen as a deliberate policy by the Da`wa since the 1980s aimed at signaling greater distance from Iran and the Iranian concept of wilayat al-faqih than their competitors in SCIRI/ISCI. The Da`wa Party often stressed the choice of marja as an individual and not a party-controlled act.

Since the death of Fadlallah, however, there has been an interesting growth in the number of news stories suggesting that Da`wa Party members could be gravitating toward Mahmud Hashemi Shahrudi—a member of the Iranian guardian council of Iraqi origin—as their new marja. To a certain extent, the media presenting these stories are of the kind that is in the habit of publishing slander about the Da`wa, and some of what has been said about the matter should probably be taken lightly. Nonetheless, it is interesting that several Shi`a sources of a more neutral category seem to corroborate these rumors.

Any move from Fadlallah to Shahrudi by the Da`wa would be a giant leap of enormous political significance. Whereas Fadlallah was a critic of the monolithism of the Iranian revolution and a defender of a more pluralistic vision of wilayat al-faqih, Shahrudi is a scholar of the Khomeinist tradition who is seen as close to the current Iranian leader, Ali Khamenei. Since Shahrudi takes a doctrinaire approach to wilayat al-faqih, the whole point of “individual choice” with respect to the marjaiyya for Da`wa members would fast become somewhat academic since loyalty to Shahrudi would automatically translate into loyalty to the Iranian revolution.

If this trend grows stronger, it would create an ideological superstructure to much of what the Da`wa Party has done in practical politics in Iraq since the disappointing parliamentary election result in March 2010. Returning to a sectarian definition of politics with open Iranian and tacit American support, using dirty tricks in an attempt to manipulate the election result, and holding on to power through ever more authoritarian means all seem more closely related to the kind of politics practiced by the current Iranian regime than what the Da`wa were trying to accomplish in Iraq in 2008-2010, when they clearly tried to play a role as Iraqi nationalists. In this kind of scenario, the religious allegiances of the Special Groups become a marginal question since Iran instead would use its influence within the mainstream Shi`a Islamist parties in Iraq, such as the Da`wa Party, as the primary tool to promote its own interests.

Dr. Reidar Visser is a Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs in Oslo and editor of the Iraq website www.historiae.org as well as of the Iraq blog gulfanalysis.wordpress.com. His writings on the subject of federalism and regionalism in southern Iraq and Iraqi nationalism among the Shi’ites include the monograph Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (Transaction Publishers, 2006), An Iraq of Its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy? (Edited with Gareth Stansfield, Columbia University Press, 2007), and A Responsible End? The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005–2010 (Just World Books, 2010).  Dr. Visser studied history and comparative politics at the University of Bergen and received a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Oxford.

[1] For prior literature on Special Groups in Iraq, see Michael Knights, “The Evolution of Iran’s Special Groups in Iraq,” CTC Sentinel 3:11-12 (2010).

[2] Kataib Hizb Allah’s website is accessible at www.kataibhizbollah.org.

[3] Al-Khazali was one of Moqtada al-Sadr’s rivals, and a protégé of al-Sadr’s father.

[4]  Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s website is accessible at www.iraq-moqawama.com.

[5] Badr, June 5, 2011.

[6] Badr, June 4, 2011.

[7] The Promised Day Brigades website is accessible at www.almaoaod.com.