Shia political alternatives in postwar Iraq.
As the fall of President Saddam Hussein's regime approached, furthermore, new Shia groups appeared. A group calling itself the Iraqi National Liberation Front declared its creation only four days before coalition forces helped tear down the Iraqi dictator's statue in Baghdad, denounced most other Shia leaders, and based its legitimacy on "the fatwas proclaimed by great [Shia] religious authorities ... led by Imam Ali Khamenei, Ayatollahs [Hussein Ali] Montazeri, [Mohammad Fazel Movahedi-] Lankarani...." (1) The Hizballah-Iraq organization claimed at the same time that it had launched the first military action by a Shia opposition group since Operation Iraqi Freedom began on March 20, 2003. (2)
Washington is aware of the Shia community's political importance. When the war started and Iraqi Shia failed to rise against their oppressors, the coalition floated reports that a senior cleric in Najaf, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, had issued a decree instructing people not to interfere with coalition operations. (3) The coalition dispatched another senior Shia figure, Abdal-Majid al-Khoi, to Najaf. Before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, however, Washington focused mainly on just one Iraqi Shia organization--SCIRI--in its dealings with Iraqi opposition groups.
The political importance of the Iraqi Shia relates to more than sheer numbers and their reasonable demand to play a part in their country's future. Their role in Iraqi politics will affect Iraq's future relations with its neighbors, particularly Iran, where Shia Islam is the state religion and is practiced by the majority of the population, and Lebanon, where the majority of the Muslim community is Shia. This article will examine the main Shia opposition groups, and in the conclusion it will argue that focusing just on SCIRI is unwise. Many Iraqis see SCIRI as an Iranian catspaw, and it has only localized support within Iraq. Those who would like to see a secular and democratic Iraq free of its neighbors' interference should look elsewhere.
ORIGINS OF THE DAAWAH PARTY
The oldest Iraqi Shia opposition group, Daawah was founded in the late 1950s or early 1960s in Najaf and then began a period of clandestine preparation. (4) It had links with the pro-U.S. Iranian monarchy, because the shah wanted to overthrow Iraq's Baathist regime. Its rise was not connected with Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, although the 1978-79 revolution increased the party's radicalization. The party drew much of its support from Baghdad's al-Thawrah township, which at the time contained some of the capital's worst slums.
The first act by Daawah against the Iraqi government occurred in 1974, when religious processions turned into political protests. Saddam Hussein executed Shia leaders in 1974 and 1977 and violently suppressed protests against the arrest of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr in 1979 (he was executed on April 9, 1980, along with his sister, Bint al-Huda). In 1980, Saddam expelled more than 15,000 Iranians whose families had been in Iraq for generations. After the war with Iran began, the executions of Shia accelerated.
Daawah, along with other Shia groups, came together in Tehran in 1982 to form SCIRI, which announced that it sees Iran as the foundation of global Islamic revolution. Within two years, Daawah began to distance itself from the SCIRI, rejecting the leader ship of Ayatollah Khomeini and questioning the concept of vilayat faqih (guardianship of the supreme Islamic jurist, the principle on which Iranian theocracy is based).
Since then, the relationship with Iran, as well as the relationship with SCIRI chairman Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, has led to splits within the Iraqi Shia opposition and within Daawah itself. In March 1999, Daawah organized demonstrations in the Iranian city of Qom at which people chanted slogans against al-Hakim, and the Iranian government subsequently arrested individuals associated with Daawah. (5) In January 2000, Daawah spokesman Muhammad Mahdi al-Asifi resigned because the party leadership rejected his call to appoint a representative of the Iranian Supreme Leader to its political bureau. (6) SCIRI's Al-Hakim, furthermore, accused Daawah of trying to undermine him. (7)
Further splits occurred two years later. Daawah representatives in Tehran boycotted the SCIRI conference and created an alternative called the Union of Iraqi Islamic Forces. (8) When asked if this meant that Daawah and other members were withdrawing from SCIRI, one member responded that their representatives had not attended SCIRI meetings for many years. Interestingly, a report that preceded the creation of this union stated that an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps officer (Nasr garrison's Brigadier-General Reza Seifullahi, who reportedly handles opposition accounts) was in charge of its creation as a replacement for al-Hakim. (9)
Simultaneous with the creation of the Union of Iraqi Islamic Forces in Tehran was the creation of an identically named group in London. (10) The Tehran-based Union denied any affiliation with them.
Then the UK branch of Daawah became part of a new anti-Saddam group--the Iraqi National Forces Coalition--that was launched on June 23, 2002. (11) This coalition declared its opposition to foreign interference in the overthrow of Saddam. A Daawah official who requested anonymity said that the participants in this coalition wanted to create a nucleus or umbrella within the United Kingdom that could expand, "But in fact it never expanded." The coalition was meant to include all the opposition, but the two main Kurdish parties and SCIRI declined to join because of pre-existing alliances.
Daawah political bureau leader Abu Bilal al-Adib said in August 2002 that the Iraqi opposition wanted to see democratic change in Iraq, whereas in his opinion the United States has other objectives. Therefore Daawah would not coordinate its activities with those of the United States, Al-Adib said, adding that he believed the United States would not allow a role for Islamists in a post-Saddam Iraq. (12) Al-Adib said that Daawah did not participate in the December 2002 Iraqi opposition conference in London because it would help replace Saddam Hussein's domination with that of foreigners. (13) A Daawah official who requested anonymity explained that al-Adib's comments do not represent the party line. They do, however, reflect the unhappiness of the Iraqi diaspora in Iran over what it sees as the betrayal that took place in 1991.
Nevertheless, Daawah representatives met unilaterally with U.S. officials at the December 2002 conference. Moreover, Daawah spokesman Ibrahim al-Jafari said that when Daawah officials visited the United States in early January 2003, they met with National Security Council officials twice and State Department officials once. (14)
DAAWAH AND TERRORISM
The U.S. Embassy in Kuwait was bombed on December 12, 1983, and Kuwaiti authorities subsequently arrested 14 Daawah members and three Lebanese connected with Hizballah, including Imad Mughniyah's brother-in-law, Mustafa Yusef Badredin. (15) Use of the Daawah name in this incident was a deception; Daawah's London office denied any connection with the incident, according to Laith Kubba of the National Endowment for Democracy. (16)
Heidar al-Abadi, the Daawah representative in the United Kingdom, said that the question of the 1983 bombing frequently arises, and he also denied that Al-Daawah al-Islamiyah was connected with it. (17) Abadi added that it would not have made sense for Daawah to do something like this in Kuwait, where the party had a lot of support and where many of its financial sources were based. Daawah's view of the incident was that it was an effort to undermine the party and reduce Kuwaiti support for it.
"As for who has committed it, we don't have a clue," al-Abadi said. He went on to say that some in the party suspected Baghdad was behind the bombing and others suspected Tehran was behind it.
We have heard a lot of rumors, ... about Iranian intelligence.... [W]e don't know, some say Iraqi groups, Iranian intelligence recruited some Iraqi groups, ... for the whole purpose of weakening the al-Daawah, because it was even in the interest of Iran to do that at the time. So probably the whole purpose was to weaken al-Daawah. Al-Daawah had a lot of problems in Iran at that time; it wasn't a comfortable relationship, possibly someone had decided to do that to weaken us. (18)
Al-Abadi added that Daawah never committed any bombing attacks like the one in December 1983. Daawah had decided in 1979 that such attacks against civilian targets, as well as hijackings, were politically counterproductive and also ethically wrong. Attacking Iraqi officials is acceptable, on the other hand, but only if these are "officials who are very much within the regime or if they are responsible for tragic torture and oppression against the people." (19)
Moreover, Daawah is not an uncommon word in the names of Islamist organizations. For example, a "Daawah and Jihad" group claimed that it was behind the attacks against Americans in Kuwait in 2003 and that it followed the instructions of Osama bin Laden. (20) The Kuwaiti deputy prime minister and defense minister, however, expressed disbelief that such a group really existed. (21)
The Kuwait bombing is not the only violent incident linked with the Daawah name. Daawah claimed to have wounded Uday Saddam Hussein in a December 1996 assassination attempt. (22)
Many observers see SCIRI as the main Shia representative in the Iraqi opposition. Indeed, President George W. Bush in a December 9, 2002, memorandum for the secretaries of state and of defense directed that up to $92 million in defense articles, services and training be made available to SCIRI and five non-Shia Iraqi opposition groups. (23) SCIRI also won the exclusive right to appoint the Shia representatives to the 65-member council created by the Iraqi opposition meeting in London in December 2002. Representatives from SCIRI and other opposition organizations met several times in Tehran and in northern Iraq in the first three months of 2003.
After its creation in 1982, SCIRI made inroads among Iraqi refugees and prisoners of war. The Iranian government promoted SCIRI as the Iraqi government-in-exile, and Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was behind SCIRI military activities during the 1980-88 war. (24) SCIRI continues to maintain an armed unit, known as the Badr Corps, which moved into northern Iraq in force shortly before Operation Iraqi Freedom began. (25)
SCIRI has the benefits of a recognized leadership, an administrative hierarchy and a military force, as well as a base on Iraq's border. Negative aspects of SCIRI, however, outweigh these benefits. Problems with SCIRI include its ties with Iran during the war. This has resulted in Iraqi perceptions of it as a mercenary force or proxy organization; questionable support outside its core constituency in Najaf, Karbala and the southern marshes; and unhappiness within the Shia opposition over SCIRI's leadership. (26)
The Iranian affiliation limits SCIRI's ability to play a major role in a post-Saddam Iraq. "In their heart of hearts, Iraq's Shia like things to grow from their own soil," a dedicated Shia once said. (27) The Iran-Iraq War sharpened the Arab-Iranian distinction among Iraqi Shia, who are aware of difficulties faced by Arabs in Iran. A London-based Iranian journalist described leading SCIRI figures as "Iranian government apparatchiks" and cited several former SCIRI officials--such as Iranian judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi--who now have important positions in the Iranian government. (28)
SCIRI's Iranian connection, furthermore, should cause some trepidation on the part of U.S. policy makers. But if that is not enough, SCIRI officials have been fairly outspoken in their skepticism about U.S. motives and in their hostility to the United States. When asked why southern Iraqi Shia had not risen up against the regime during Operation Iraqi Freedom, SCIRI leader Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim claimed, "Iraqis perceive the United States as an occupying rather than a liberating force." (29) When the war began, furthermore, he described it as an "act of hegemony and not an act of liberation." (30)
Moreover, SCIRI does not represent a cross-section of Iraqi society, and its main influence is clerical. Faleh Abdul Jabar, a lecturer on Middle Eastern politics and sociology at London Metropolitan University, author of Ayatollahs, Sufis, and Ideologies: State, Religion, and Social Movements in Iraq, and author of the forthcoming The Shia Movement in Iraq, argues that SCIRI's role is disproportionate to its social base:
They represent [approximately] 2 percent of the population and have [approximately] 20 percent of the representation. Representation of the Shia should not be confined to the SCIRI, should not be confined to Islamic groups, because there are Shia who are liberals, nationalists, independent Shia who represent other cities, like Basra or Nasiriyah. Spread the representation across the national board, rather than having it concentrated in one or two cities, ... or concentrated in the hands of one organization.... [T]hat's a terrible thing. (31)
Empowerment of SCIRI, Jabar argues, hinders secularism in Iraq. "It would be a very queer thing to deploy all these forces, spend billions on billions, to send Iraq into the oblivion of fundamentalism." (32) He also warns that SCIRI is an Iranian creature, saying that at the December 2003 opposition conference in London many of the SCIRI representatives were in fact Iranians who could barely speak Arabic. Similar reports came from a journalist who attended a Badr Corps parade in northern Iraq in March 2003--the master of ceremonies spoke broken Arabic with a Persian accent, and the band played Persian melodies. (33)
The Tehran-based Islamic Action Organization is linked with SCIRI and espouses similar views. Regarding Operation Iraqi Freedom, for example, the organization's secretary-general said, "The current battle is between Saddam and the Americans; it is not the battle of the Iraqi people. It is known that the United States does not want any change in Iraq achieved through the independent will of our people." (34)
THE AL-KHOI FOUNDATION
The Al-Khoi Foundation, which was created mainly as a religious body in Najaf in the 1970s and which participated in humanitarian activities after the 1991 Gulf War, gained increased political prominence in 2002, with Secretary-General Abd-al-Majid al-Khoi participating actively in the December opposition conference in London. At that time he
played a key role in urging Iraqis to unify for the purpose of aiding the Iraqi people, called for reconciliation and tolerance among Iraqis inside and outside Iraq, and helped with efforts by independent Iraqis to move Iraq towards democracy and the rule of law. (35)
During a subsequent visit to Qom, al-Khoi said that the Iraqi people should take advantage of Washington's shared interest in toppling the Baghdad regime. (36) Tehran in turn accused Khoi of being the American choice to lead southern Iraq, and although he dismissed such accusations, it is noteworthy that U.S. forces facilitated his early-April arrival in Najaf. (37)
The mysterious April 10, 2003, murder of al-Khoi at the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf is likely to reduce the organization's political potential a great deal. Family members vowed to continue al-Khoi's humanitarian work. (38)
Jockeying for leadership of Iraq's Shia community preceded Operation Iraqi Freedom, and it intensified as the war wound down and a vacuum replaced the Baathist regime's stifling presence. Shia in Basra associated with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani protested angrily when British forces selected a tribal figure as a local leader. (39) Ayatollah al-Sistani's house in Najaf was surrounded, and he was given 48 hours to leave the country by a little-known group known as the Sadriyun. (40) The Sadriyun are followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, the son of Ayatollah Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was murdered in early 1999 by the Baathist regime. One cleric said that this group wants to control the holy sites of Najaf; another said that Muqtada opposes Iranian ayatollahs and wants the marja-yi taqlid (top Shia source of emulation) to be an Iraqi. (41)
Other Shia straggles became evident in Baghdad. Thawrah, the predominantly Shia neighborhood of Baghdad from which Daawah drew much of its support and which until very recently was known as Saddam City, was renamed Sadr City. Local clerics began providing security, enforcing curfews and ensuring the availability of essential services, and a delegate representing Ayatollah Ali al Sistani from Najaf claimed authority over dozens of neighborhood mosques. (42) Daawah's 11-member council in Baghdad began the process of electing a leader. (43)
SCIRI's jihad bureau chief, Abd-al-Aziz al-Hakim, arrived in al-Kut in southeastern Iraq and made his way to Najaf, and SCIRI leader Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim promised to return to Najaf. (44) The SCIRI representative in al-Kut, a Shia cleric named Seyyed Abbas, declared himself the mayor. (45) SCIRI opened offices in Najaf, Kut, Jisan, Badr and Nasiriyah. (46)
The one area in which most of the Shia apparently are unified is in their opposition to the American presence in Iraq. A Tehran-based Daawah official said that his organization would not cooperate with "the occupation armies" if they remain in Iraq. (47) The Islamic Action Organization declared that it rejects "occupation in any form and by any party." (48) The Iraqi National Forces Coalition, which consists of 12 organizations (see endnote 11), issued a statement calling for an end to "foreign occupation and military rule." (49) SCIRI leader al-Hakim tried to capitalize on Iraqis' enthusiastic participation in the late-April Arbain commemorations in Karbala, which mark the fortieth day after the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein in a battle over Islamic leadership in 680 A.D., by saying, "I call on Iraqis to converge in Karbala to oppose any sort of foreign domination." (50)
SCIRI's boycott of the first postwar opposition meeting on Iraqi soil, which took place outside the southern town of Nasiriyah on April 15, underscores the difficulties the United States is facing. "We don't accept a U.S. umbrella," a SCIRI official said one day before the meeting. Another declared that SCIRI wants the framework decided on at the December 2002 opposition meeting in London to stay in place. (51) Under that arrangement, SCIRI would name the appointees to the 33 percent of the seats reserved for Shia Muslims on the 65-member council that would coordinate Iraqi opposition activities. Moreover, SCIRI's anti-American stand can be ascribed to its longstanding relationship with Tehran, which repeatedly declared its opposition to Operation Iraqi Freedom even as it benefited from it.
Trying to operate in the postwar power vacuum of Iraq will be very difficult without the cooperation of the Shia community. Washington and London clearly are aware of this fact--witness their dealings with the al-Khoi Foundation and their inclusion of SCIRI in the opposition conferences. The Foundation, however, probably has lost much of its potential with its leader's murder. The legitimacy of SCIRI in Iraqi eyes, furthermore, seems questionable in light of its 20-year relationship with Tehran, although the ability to provide security and essential services in deprived areas could have a mitigating effect. The remaining option, therefore, is Daawah. This is not a perfect choice, since the organization has, to some extent, a relationship with Tehran and because it is suspected of anti-American activities. Nevertheless, Daawah may be the most viable medium-term choice when considering the options in the effort to avoid anarchy in Iraq.
(1) See the Kitabat website (www.kitabat.com), April 7, 2003.
(2) Hizballah-Iraq is led by Abu-Hatim al-Muhammadawi, Kuwait's Al-Ray al-Arum, April 6, 2003.
(3) Central Command (CENTCOM) deputy director of operations Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, April 3, 2003 press briefing, State Department Office of International Information Programs (http://usinfo.state.gov).
(4) On the origins of Daawah, see Hanna Batatu, "Shii Organization in Iraq: Al-Dawah al-Islamiyah and al Mujahidin," Shiism and Social Protest, eds. Juan Cole and Nikki Keddie (New Haven, CT: 1986).
(5) Al-Watan al-Arabi, March 19, 1999.
(6) Al-Zaman, January 25, 2000.
(7) Al-Zaman, June 10, 2000.
(8) The five founders are Al-Daawah party's political bureau head Abu-Bilal Ali al-Adib; Sheikh Muhsin al-Husseini, spokesman for one of the Islamic Action Organization's two wings; Abu-Heidar al-Asadi who is an influential person in the Badr Faylaq; and former Al-Daawah party dissidents Hashim al-Musawi (a.k.a. Abu-Aqil) and Izz-al-Din Salim (a.k.a. Abu-Yasin). Al-Hayat, June 2, 2002.
(9) Al-Zaman, April 19, 2002.
(10) Al-Quds al-Arabi, June 10, 2002.
(11) Other members of the Iraqi National Forces Coalition are: Arab Socialist Baath party--Iraq Command, Arab Socialist Movement, Assyrian Ethnic Organization, Group of Mujahedin Ulama in Iraq, Iraqi Communist Party, Iraqi Democratic Grouping, Islamic Action party, Islamic Union for Iraq's Turkmen, Kurdistan Communist party, Socialist party in Iraq and Turkmen Democratic party.
(12) Al-Jazirah satellite television, August 14, 2002.
(13) Iran, January 30, 2003.
(14) Al-Hayat, January 15, 2003.
(15) The release of the "Kuwait 17" was one objective of the subsequent series of hostage-takings in Beirut. These individuals were freed when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, and Badredin made his way to Iran and then to Lebanon. See Don Oberdorfer, "Iran Paid For Release Of Hostages," The Washington Post, January 19, 1992.
(16) Interview with author, March 4, 2003.
(20) Interview with self-described Daawah and Jihad leader Abu-Osama al-Kuwaiti, Al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 29, 2003.
(21) Interview with Kuwaiti Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sheikh Jabir Mubarak al-Hamad Al Sabah, Al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 30, 2003.
(22) "A group of our heroic strugglers ... inflicted the verdict of God and the people unto the enemy of God and the people, Uday Saddam al-Tikriti, who has caused mischief and crime in the land, like his dictator father," Daawah claimed in a faxed statement; Reuters, December 13, 1996. Another account has it that an underground group of educated young Iraqis known as Al-Nahdah (The Awakening) was behind the attack; Andrew Cockburn and Patrick Cockburn, Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein (New York: Harper Collins, 1999), pp. 251-256.
(23) "Presidential Determination No. 2003-06" identifies these groups as the Iraqi National Accord, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the Kurdish Democratic party (KDP), the Movement for Constitutional Monarchy, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the SCIRI. "Presidential Determination No. 2003-05" designates the Assyrian Democratic Movement, the Iraqi Free Officers and Civilians Movement, the Iraqi National Front, the Iraqi National Movement, the Iraqi Turkmen Front and the Islamic Accord of Iraq as "democratic opposition organizations," thereby making them eligible for U.S. financial and material assistance.
(24) Ken Katzman, The Warriors of Islam (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993), p. 99.
(25) Financial Times, February 19, 2003; The New York Times, March 4, 2003.
(26) On SCIRI's strengths and weaknesses, see Phebe Mart, "Iraq 'The Day After,'" Naval War College Review, Vol. LVI, No. 1, Winter 2003.
(27) Hanna Batatu, "Iraq's Underground Shia Movements: Characteristics, Causes, and Prospects," Middle East Journal, Vol. 35, 1981, p. 593.
(28) Alireza Nurizadeh, The Daily Star, March 24, 2003.
(29) Al-Ahram Weekly Online, April 3-9, 2003.
(30) Al-Jazirah satellite television, March 22, 2003.
(31) Interview with author, February 18, 2003.
(33) Al-Hayat, March 16, 2003.
(34) Islamic Action Organization Secretary-General Jawad al-Attar, cited by Al-Majallah, July 21-27, 2002.
(35) Official answer to a question taken at the 10 April regular U.S. State Department briefing; answer provided by the Office of the Spokesman on April 11, 2003, (http://usinfo.state.gov).
(36) Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), January 9, 2003.
(37) For such accusations, see Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai's comments, Siyasat-i Ruz, March 11, 2003, as well as Jomhuri-yi Islami, April 5, 2003, and Kayhan, April 7, 2003. On al-Khoi's arrival in Najaf, see Al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 4, 2003; and Craig R. Smith, "Hidden Knives and Ambition Shroud Killing at Holy Shrine," The New York Times, April 13, 2003.
(38) Fareena Alam and Martin Bright, "Murdered Cleric's Family Vow to Continue His Work," The Observer, April 13, 2003.
(39) Al-Manar television, April 10, 2003; The Washington Post, April 11, 2003.
(40) Al-Arabiyah television, April 13, 2003; the deputy head of al-Sistani's office in Qom, Sheikh Kazem Javaheri, cited by the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), April 13, 2003.
(41) Kuwait-based Ayatollah Abulqasim Dibaji and Al-Khoi Foundation associate Abed al-Budairi, cited by Reuters, April 13, 2003.
(42) Anthony Shadid, "Shiite Clerics Move to Assume Control in Baghdad," The Washington Post, April 14, 2003.
(43) Financial Times, April 17, 2003.
(44) IRNA, April 16, 2003 and April 21, 2003; IRNA, April 6, 2003.
(45) Charlie Leduff, "A Cleric Assumes a Bully Pulpit," The New York Times, April 19, 2003.
(46) IRNA, April 19, 2003.
(47) Daawah political bureau chief Abu Bilal al-Adib, cited by Hizballah's Al-Manar television, April 11, 2003.
(48) Islamic Action Organization official Jawad al-Attar, cited by Hizballah's Al-Manar television, April 15, 2003.
(49) Al-Hayat, April 17, 2003.
(50) Associated Press, April 18, 2003.
(51) Abd-al-Aziz al-Hakim and Muhsin al-Hakim, cited by Reuters, April 14, 2003.
Dr. Samii is a regional analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.