Post-Saddam Iraq: The Shiite Factor

Amatzia Baram
Amatzia Baram Senior Fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace; Former Visiting Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings

April 30, 2003

On the eighth of April, while the fighting in Baghdad was still raging, Sheikh ‘Abd al-Majid al-Khoi was murdered in the holy city of Najaf, in one of the two holiest places revered by Shiah everywhere: the tomb of Imam ‘Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the first Shiite imam and the fourth Islamic caliph. Sheikh al-Khoi, the elder son of Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoi—who had been the most important theologian of the Shiite world when he died in 1992—had returned to Iraq after 12 years of exile in London. He was one of the most moderate senior Shiite clergy, and just before he was murdered he made public his support for the American liberation of Iraq.

Like all Iraqis, he wanted American forces out of Iraq as soon as possible, but he recognized the need to rebuild a new political system, and that to do so necessitated American help. He was a supporter of democracy, and he rejected Ayatollah Khomeini’s notion of theocratic rule. Khoi was also the head of his late father’s foundation, which has been engaged in social work and education in the Islamic world, as well as in the United States and Europe. His brutal murder denied democratic forces in Iraq an important supporter and exposed the vicious power struggle within the Shiite community in Iraq.


At present it is unclear who killed al-Khoi, but there are at least two possibilities. The first possible culprit is the radical fundamentalist Shiite organization, al-Dawa, based in Europe and in Iran. The second suspect is a young, very radical, and ambitious mullah, Muqtada al-Sadr. In fact, Muqtada’s uncle Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr had founded the Dawa in the late 1950s and was executed by Saddam in 1980. On the same day that al-Khoi was murdered, Sadr’s supporters besieged the home of Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali Sistani in Najaf and demanded that he leave town or be killed, buttressing the claims that Muqtada al-Sadr may also have been involved in al-Khoi’s murder. The young Sadr has many supporters among young radical fundamentalists. He is hostile to the United States and to any moderate clergy. It is not clear how close he is to Iran. He seems to believe that extremist rhetoric accompanied by violence will carry him to the leadership of the Shiite community, and eventually all of Iraq. Of course, it is also possible that Sadr and the Dawa collaborated on the attack.

These intra-Shiite rivalries between Sadr and Sistani predate Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 1999, shortly after the four days of American and British airstrikes during Operation Desert Fox, Sadr’s father, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, began to preach against the regime in his Friday mosque sermons. The elder Sadr was a senior Shiite clergyman who had previously avoided friction with the Baath regime, and so his sermons against Saddam immediately won him huge support with younger Shiah. Attendance at his sermons ballooned. Grand Ayatollah Sistani objected to Sadr’s preaching because he feared the regime would retaliate in devastating fashion against the entire Shiite community. Muhammad al-Sadr was soon assassinated, almost certainly by Saddam’s intelligence services, who feared he might spark a general Shiite revolt against the regime. The Sadr family, and the deceased ayatollah’s son in particular, never forgave Sistani for his objections; thus Sistani’s life is also in danger. Indeed, recent reports that Sistani may have led an anti-American protest in recent days probably speak more to Sistani’s fear of being perceived as too pro-American than to any actual change in his views.

It is likely that the Iranian leadership is also involved in this conflict. Sistani does not fully support Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iranian leader. In 1992, he competed with Khamenei for the position of Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Iranians fear that he may be quietly supporting a limited U.S. presence and, more importantly, a democratic Iraq rather than the theocracy they seek. However, to make matters even more complicated, Sadr and his supporters also oppose Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim and his Iranian-supported Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). In 1999, following the assassination of Sadr’s father, Sadr’s supporters in Iran attacked Hakim during a sermon because he too dared criticize Sadr.

In Shiite Islam, the clergy are traditionally far less dependent on the central governments for their livelihood and funds than among Sunnis. Every religious Shiite is obliged to follow a senior religious leader (muqallad), and to contribute a certain percentage of his or her income to this person. Competition between ayatollahs over followers, and thus also prestige and financial resources, has always been fierce. As a result, the return of Khoi—with his legendary family—to Najaf also threatened other senior clergy. Meanwhile, old feuds that remained dormant under the Baath erupted as well. Finally, different orientations regarding Iran, too, are creating animosities among the senior clergy. While Sistani is closer to the Iranian moderates (President Khatami and his circle), Hakim is closer to Khamenei, the Rahbar (Supreme Leader), and the Sadrs as well as the Dawa do not seem to support either.


After the fall of Baghdad, the Shiite masses enthusiastically embraced the American liberators. Massive Shiite demonstrations expressed elation that they could now carry out processions and ceremonies long forbidden by Saddam’s regime. However, only a week to 10 days later, Shiite clergy in Baghdad—mainly from Saddam City, a poor Shiite neighborhood of two million—were leading large demonstrations against the American presence and demanding an Islamic Republic to replace the Baath dictatorship. Similar demonstrations also took place in Najaf. What happened?

The demands in themselves should not have come as a surprise. There was always a hard core of radical Islamists among the Iraqi Shiah who could be expected to demand the establishment of an Islamic Republic and the immediate withdrawal of the Americans. The real surprise is that it came so soon after they were liberated by Coalition troops, and that it came from such a large number of demonstrators and with such ferocity. Part of the explanation can be attributed to the power vacuum created by the fall of Saddam’s regime before the coalition was in a position to establish a presence throughout the country. Into this breach many radical Shiite clerics have stepped, and because they now control important chunks of real estate, the people in those areas follow their lead. By late April, much of Najaf and Saddam City were under the influence of the Sadrs and the Dawa. Much of Karbala was under the influence of the Hakims and SCIRI.

Nevertheless, the radicals have not triumphed everywhere. For example, Basra and Hillah (some 70 km south of Baghdad) are mainly under the influence of moderates who are working well with Coalition forces. Moreover, as impressive as the anti-American and Islamist demonstrations have been, the limited data available suggests that the demonstrators represent a minority within the Shiite community, and an even a smaller minority within Iraq as a whole.

On Wednesday, April 23, the Shiah of Iraq commemorated al-Arba’in, the fortieth day after the martyrdom of their most important Imam, Husayn Ibn ‘Ali, who in 680 AD was killed by the Sunni Umayyad army where Karbala is today. Hundreds of thousands flocked to Karbala for the rites. Some people, true devotees, even walked for two or three days on foot from Baghdad and Najaf to be there on that important day. By itself it was a positive, even cathartic, event; over the last 35 years the Baath regime had mostly prevented such marches, and the Shiah were ecstatic to be free to worship in their traditional manner. Naturally, some radical mullahs did use the occasion for political agitation, but it appears that only a small percentage of the pilgrims participated in anti-American demonstrations.

At present, there are still a few moderate Shiite clergy in Iraq, some of them having never left the country. Likewise, many Shiah are wary of the prospect of an imposed Islamist regime. Still, the scales will gradually tip in favor of the radicals within the Shiite community if they are not countered effectively (as discussed below). Now that the Coalition forces have rid them of Saddam, there is also a very tangible danger that the radical clerics will resort to terrorism against U.S. troops to drive the Coalition out and establish their own reign by force and intimidation.


Although democracy in Iraq would, by definition, empower Iraq’s Shiite majority, the mullahs ruling in Tehran have good reason to fear a truly pluralist and open Iraq with meaningful Shiite participation. First, they fear that it could serve as an example for the younger generation in Iran who, after more than 20 years of an Islamic Republic, are fed up with the mullahs and want them out of power. Iran also is wary that a free and open religious seminary in Najaf—especially if it came mainly under the influence of the moderate Sistani—could eclipse the seminary at Qom in Iran. Because Najaf is arguably the heart of Shiism, it would be hard for Qom to compete with an unfettered seminary in Najaf. Moreover, some Iraqi Shiite clerics have mostly opposed Ayatollah Khomeini’s innovation of velayat-e faqih (rule of the jurisprudents) which justified Iranian theocracy. Thus an ascendant Najaf that opposed velayat-e faqih might undermine the legitimacy of the Iranian political system. Consequently, it seems highly likely that Iran’s rulers will make every effort to prevent a democracy from emerging in Iraq, as well as the development of a stronger and more liberal religious school in Najaf.

Indeed, the Iranians already appear to be acting in this manner. Days after the liberation of the first Shiite towns (such as Nasiriyah), thousands of people, mostly soldiers in SCIRI’s Badr Brigade but also Iranian Revolutionary Guards, infiltrated these towns at Tehran’s direction. In Karbala, Hakim’s younger brother began calling for an immediate U.S. withdrawal. Likewise, one reason why Hakim and his SCIRI refused to attend the meeting of Iraqi oppositionists convened by American authorities in Nasiriyah may have been orders from Iran not to go. It seems that Tehran opposes any democratic steps in Iraq—certainly if they are sponsored by the United States—and that it has alternative plans. Alternatively, it may have been that Hakim declined to attend because he was wary of being accused by Sadr and his followers of being an American agent.

Iranian interests are identical to those of the young generation of radical Shiite clergy in Iraq. At least since the 1940s, young Iraqi Shiite clergy have had great difficulty establishing themselves as sources of emulation and winning followers. The financial resources of the religious Circle of Learning (al-hawzah al-‘ilmiyyah) in Najaf and Karbala dwindled, while secular (even communist and atheistic) influences started to make important inroads into Shiite society. Thirty-five years of Baath rule made things only marginally better, mostly by fomenting greater Sunni-Shiite estrangement and in so doing, pushing many young Shiah back toward religion as a vehicle of protest and identity.

Even though the process was slow, ingenious young clerics could always eventually win followers, but less ingenious ones often opted for the alternative: radical politics. In this way they could easily win mass support—at the risk, of course, of being killed or imprisoned by Saddam’s regime. Following the Coalition victory, the deterrent effect of Saddam’s repression has vanished; consequently, the extremist approach has suddenly become much more attractive. The young clergy seem to see in religious fervor and anti-Americanism their best chance of reclaiming the centrality of religion in their community’s life, and their own centrality within the community. In this way they can also secure economic independence and sociopolitical prestige for themselves at practically no risk. By ridding Iraq of American and any other non-Islamic presence, they seem to hope they will also have the upper hand not only within the Shiite community but also in Iraq as a whole. Of course, this approach is also very risky, not least because they know better than most that they can only repair the tremendous damage to Iraq’s economy and infrastructure with the help of the Coalition.

They almost certainly recognize at some level that if the United States does abandon Iraq as they are demanding, there will be no one to prevent inter-communal bloodletting and possibly even the disintegration of the country. Radical though they may be, even they do not want to see Iraq disintegrate and the Shiite south—and possibly Baghdad—fall under Iranian control. They welcome Iranian support for their own bids for power, but Iranian occupation would be a different issue altogether. It seems that they are calculating that no matter how irresponsible their agitation, the United States will stay and help the country, while they themselves will win many new followers who will serve as a crucial power base in the new Iraq. It took the Iranian public some 20 years to realize that the rule of the clergy was a disaster. If the young and radical clergy of Iraq take over, it may also take their community a long time to realize that it has made a grave mistake and by that time, these young mullahs hope, it will be too late.


So far, no meaningful violence has been directed against the Coalition by the radical Shiah—in contrast to several ugly incidents involving Sunnis in recent days. This is very important and the United States needs to make sure that it does not change. Therefore, U.S. Central Command must make clear, using all available media, that violence will be met with violence, and those who attack Coalition forces will be hunted down. Second, the Coalition leadership must emphasize repeatedly that the United States has no intention to stay longer than is necessary to get Iraq back on its feet and constitute a new, democratic Iraqi government. Although the United States should retain overall guidance, a greater international presence will be very helpful in convincing Iraqis that the United States does not intend to colonize the country.

The best way for the Coalition to limit the radicals’ influence within the Shiite community is to provide better services than they can and to expose the hollow nature of their recalcitrant agitation. This means a major effort to provide Iraqis with all of the social services that radical Shiite clergy will try to provide themselves. The senior Shiite clergy derives much of its influence from its ability to build and support mosques, schools, libraries, and other public institutions, and to provide for the basic needs of students and poor families. The Coalition should help moderate Shi’ite clerics to provide such services as best it can. Iran may try to do the same for its supporters in Iraq, but their ability is likely to prove much more limited. Along the same lines, Coalition humanitarian and technical support for towns largely under the influence of moderate forces should receive precedence over towns under that of the radicals and the agents of Iran. Of course, all parts of Iraq must receive adequate humanitarian support, but since the arrival of such support is slow, and since the areas where it is safer for foreign aid workers to operate are those held by moderates, they should come first. After all, towns such as Najaf or Karbala, where the extremists are paramount, are dangerous places for outsiders. Moreover, to prevent fragmentation, all services and economic aid must come from a central authority in Baghdad, and must be understood by all as coming from there.

In addition, there is an urgent need to create a counterbalance to the radical Shiite clergy outside of the traditional-orthodox Shiite community. Except for the Iranian-inclined SCIRI and the more independent but also more radical Dawa party, almost all the movements opposed to the Baath are secular to varying degrees. They include Shiite and Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans, Christians, and others. True, there are some fundamentalist influences even within the Sunni Arab community in Iraq—there is a small Wahhabi group, a small group of the Muslim Brotherhood, and even a smaller Tahrir (Liberation) Party, but they are not major forces. During the past six or seven years there has been a limited shift within the Sunni Arab community toward greater religiosity. Recently there was even a fundamentalist Sunni demonstration after a Friday prayer at the large mosque of al-Imam al-A’zam in Baghdad, but this shift too was fairly limited. By and large, it would seem that the Sunni Arab community of Iraq is still fairly secular. It is crucial to win its support for a consociational democracy, in which each of the three main communities (Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shiite Arabs) will be represented in the government and will have their interests protected notwithstanding the fact that the Shiah may be a majority.

Sunni Arabs, Sunni Kurds, Turkomans, and the Christian and other small minorities of Iraq constitute around 40 percent of the population. Coupled with secular or modestly religious Shiah, they form a majority. Many Iraqi women—among the best educated and most empowered in the Arab world—will also likely reject a theocracy because it will reduce their stature and their freedoms. They ought to be encouraged to establish associations, clubs, parties, and other organizations and to issue publications. Provided they were not too closely identified with the Baath regime, tribal sheikhs in both Sunni and Shiite areas would also be suitable candidates for such a secular alliance. A strong police force, too, is urgently needed. It should consist of ex-police officers and Army officers and noncommissioned officers who were not senior members in the Baath party and who were not involved in any atrocities. All these groups and organizations, with solid U.S. and international support, have a good chance of serving as an effective buffer against fundamentalist tyranny.

At present, such a tyranny has a distressingly good chance of filling the vacuum left by the fall of Saddam. For the last 35 years, the mosque was the only institution that his regime allowed to operate with some freedom. While the Baath censored all of the Friday sermons and closely monitored the clergy, it did not dare to close down the mosques or to stifle the clergy altogether. The Sunni clergy usually accepted the regime’s interference with equanimity. The Shiite clergy, however, mostly avoided head-on clashes with the regime, but remained cautiously defiant. Now they are cashing in on it. The danger from the radical Islamist clergy is that they may be able to tap into Shiite public enthusiasm for their new freedom, and if they are swept to power on a wave of such enthusiasm they may be impossible to dislodge. The problem will be that the moderate clergy are nonpolitical and very cautious. On their own they are not likely to confront the radicals.

Once the electricity is back on line, Iraqis should be exposed through TV and radio broadcasts, including interviews with young Iranians, to the dismal performance of the Iranian mullahs and the frustration of the younger generation in Iran. Perhaps the best antidote to an Iranian-style theocracy (even if it is not actually controlled by Tehran) would be to give Iraqis a long, hard look at the damage that Khomeini’s system has brought to Iran’s economy and its society.

Finally, the United States and the international community may want to retain some leverage over the course of Iraq’s political development even beyond the period of immediate American occupation. One way to accomplish this might be to have the United Nations suspend all of the sanctions on Iraq, renewable every six months. In this way, the United States and the United Nations could make clear that a new Iraqi government that fell into bad old ways, or bad new ways, would be subject to the same constraints as Saddam Hussein’s regime. Given the unpleasant experiences of the last 12 years, few Iraqi leaders would want to repeat that period.