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The Shia Rise Up
by Rami El-Amine
May 18, 2004
First Published in Left Turn

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"What is striking is how much has changed in a week ­ a week. No one can talk about the Sunni Triangle anymore. No one can seriously talk about Sunni-Shia fragmentation or civil war. The occupation cannot talk about small bands of resistance. Now it is a popular rebellion and it has spread."

-- Wamid Nadhmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University

It’s still too early to assess the impact of the April Iraqi uprising against the US occupation but one thing is for sure, things will never be the same again in Babylon. The tenacious resistance that the mostly Sunni fighters put up in Fallujah — more than 600 Iraqis (mostly women and children) and around 60 US soldiers were killed in the first week alone — rightly became the rallying cry of the rebellion. But Fallujah has been bearing the brunt of the occupation from day one.

What was different about this uprising was that large numbers of Shia rose up against the occupation forces. Suddenly the US and its allies were no longer just facing small pockets of armed resistance, concentrated mostly in the "Sunni triangle" northwest of Baghdad, but a major rebellion that killed more than 83 US soldiers in the first two weeks and took control of a number of major cities. US-trained Iraqi police units not only refused to put down the rebellion but in some places joined it. A battalion of Iraqi Civil Defense Forces refused to go to Fallujah "to fight Iraqis."

Sectarian tensions between the Shia and Sunnis quickly turned into solidarity and mutual aid. They exchanged messages of support and Shia joined Sunnis in donating blood and organizing a relief convoy to Fallujah. Joint prayers were organized. "Sunnis and Shia are united against the American occupation" was painted on walls in Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad. And members of the Mahdi Army — the militia formed by the fiery young Shia cleric, Moqtada Al-Sadr — went to Fallujah to fight alongside Sunnis.

The entire occupation apparatus—from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to the military—was caught off guard by the rebellion even though it was a crisis of their own making. Part of the reason for this is that they’ve consistently overestimated the level of support for the occupation among Iraqis, particularly among the Shia, who have forced the CPA to revise most of its major plans: creating a Governing Council, disbanding the military, holding elections, and drafting a constitution.

The decision to go after Al-Sadr and his followers, while ill-timed, was a sign that the occupation authority was beginning to realize that a growing segment of the Shia posed a threat to the occupation and that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and the other Shia leaders they’ve been dealing with couldn’t and possibly wouldn’t do anything to keep them in check.

Propaganda war

In addition to military action, the US and Britain cranked up the propaganda war. With the Sunni insurgents already discredited as a handful of Baath loyalists and foreign Islamists, they turned their attention to the Shia. In addition to calling them thugs and criminals (standard smear against those resisting the occupation), Al-Sadr and his followers are, we are told, Iranian agents who want to establish an Islamic state in Iraq.

Neoconservatives like Michael Ledeen and Michael Rubin have been at the forefront of spreading these lies. Such claims support their campaign for regime change in Iran and the portrayal of Islam as a violent, undemocratic, misogynist, and generally intolerant religion. Rubin, who was working for the CPA until recently, claims that Iranians have been supporting all the Shia parties — not just Al-Sadr but Da’wa and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) — with money and arms.

This propaganda is clearly intended for consumption by citizens of the member countries of the occupation coalition (Americans, Brits, Italians, etc.) and not Iraqis. Unfortunately, it has had an effect on the anti-war movement, particularly in the US. Many of those who opposed the war are hesitant about pushing for immediate withdrawal of occupation forces because they say "there will be a civil war and/or the Islamists will take over the country."

This is partly due to the widespread approach, even among the left, of 1) viewing Islamists as a homogenous group that is reactionary and even fascist in nature; and 2) understanding Middle Eastern societies in terms of Islam and, in essence, Iraq and Iraqis in terms of religion and ethnicity. This rigid and one-dimensional approach does not take socio-political factors like class, colonialism, oppression and resistance into consideration and, therefore, fails to give an accurate understanding of groups like the Shia and how they could rise up so quickly and explosively.

Divide and conquer

One of the main concerns being raised about the occupation is that the sectarian and ethnic divisions in Iraq are going to lead to a civil war once the US and its allies withdraw.

The unity that Sunnis and Shia demonstrated during and since the April uprising shows just how superficial the differences between them really are. The fact is that sectarian and ethnic tensions in Iraq are not a product of deep-seated cultural differences. They are the product of a history of imperialism and colonialism in the region and domestic Iraqi politics. This applies as much to the Arab-Kurd tension as it does to the Sunni-Shias.

The CPA has continued a long colonial tradition of using ethnic and sectarian divisions to divide and conquer. The Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) that Viceroy L. Paul Bremer and the CPA set up is a good example of this tactic. Alkadiri and Toensing point out that "By insisting that IGC membership rigidly adhere to Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic demographics, Bremer and the occupation authority have explicitly made these issues the fundamental organizing principle of government for the first time in Iraq’s history." By politicizing the divisions, the IGC is not just reinforcing the divisions but actually deepening them and making them more susceptible to exploitation by opportunist elements among the various religious and ethnic groups.

The occupation forces are then able to use the resulting tensions and conflicts to portray themselves as the only force capable of preventing a civil war. Some Arab commentators have noted how Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi — the Al-Qaeda link to Iraq who is supposedly encouraging Sunni insurgents to provoke a war with the Shia — has been useful to the US and its allies in justifying their presence and continued occupation.

Class not religion

The reality is that Iraq’s modern history is characterized by a strong secular tradition and a history of intermarriage between the Sunnis and Shia. Rigid religious and ethnic allegiances are a fairly recent development, particularly among the Shia, who tended to join or sympathize with the Communist Party, whose membership included all Iraqis, including Jews.

Despite a long history of persecution by Sunnis — initially under the Ottoman Empire, then under the British installed King Faisal, and eventually under Saddam Hussein — it has always been clear to the Shia that a Sunni elite was responsible for their oppression. This class rather than sectarian division was reinforced by struggles and revolts that brought Sunnis and Shia together against their common enemies.

The best example of this and one that has a lot of important lessons for the situation today is the revolt in 1920. The main cause of this revolt was the British occupation of (Mandate) Iraq following the allied defeat of the Ottomans during World War I. Nationalist Shia tribal leaders and clerics were joined by Sunni clerics and peasants in a massive uprising against the British. At its height some 100,000 Iraqis were involved. The British, who used their air superiority to bomb the Iraqis into submission, ruthlessly put it down, killing some 9,000 Iraqis in the process.

While the revolt didn’t end British rule, it did force them to replace direct colonial rule with the puppet goverment of King Faisal. Unfortunately this did nothing for the Shias who now found themselves under the thumb of another Sunni ruler who used sectarian divisions (as well as British might) to divide and conquer.

Resistance grows

Resistance by the Shia didn’t emerge again until the late 70s when they were faced with a wave of repression by Saddam Hussein. They became useful scapegoats in his campaign to consolidate power in the Baath Party. Between 1974­1980, he killed more than 500 Shia activists, mainly from the dominant Shia party of the time, the Da’wa Party.

Emboldened by the Iranian revolution in 1979, Da’wa organized a series of demonstrations and, later, armed revolts that were met with further repression. In 1980, the Da’wa party’s spiritual leader and founder, Mohammed Baqr Al-Sadr (great uncle of Moqtada Al-Sadr), was hanged along with his sister. Saddam’s regime then proceeded to expel 30,000 Shia to Iran.

Despite this brutality, the Shias remained loyal to Iraq and fought alongside their Sunni compatriots against Iran’s Shia theocracy in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). This may seem odd, particularly to those who’ve bought into the lies about Iraqi Shias’ allegiance to Iran, but the fact is that the majority of Iraq’s Shia consider themselves Iraqis first and are critical of Iran’s Islamic republic, particularly the idea of wilayat-al-faqih, clerical rule, which Ayatollah Khomeini developed. That’s why even the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Shia party with the strongest ties to Iran, has played down its relationship with Iran since coming back to Iraq from years of exile.

Sectarianism on the rise

It wasn’t until after the 1991 Shia and Kurdish uprisings against Saddam’s regime in the aftermath of the Gulf War that the rift between Sunnis and Shias turned into real sectarian hostility. But again, this didn’t emerge because of religious or cultural differences. The regime, isolated and weakened by war and sanctions, turned to exploiting sectarian and ethnic divisions to shore up its support with it’s Sunni base and suppressing the Shias.

The Sunnis, particularly the tribes in and around Tikrit, were rewarded with jobs and repairs to their roads, schools, and hospitals. The Shia, on the other hand, were collectively punished for the uprising: the regime killed tens of thousands of Shia and destroyed much of the infrastructure in the South, including the Shia holy sites. They were of course deprived of any reconstruction funds and the limited rights they had gained in the past were taken away. But this was not enough for a megalomaniac like Saddam Hussein. To inflict long term, permanent damage on the Shia, he constructed a canal that siphoned off the water from the marshes in the South where many Shia lived.

The combination of catering to its Sunni tribal base while intensifying its persecution of the Shia deepened the Shia sense of a common identity and accelerated a turn to Islamism. But, as Cole explains, the appeal of Islamism doesn’t come out of nowhere but a specific set of circumstances which Iraq’s Shia found themselves in after the first Gulf War: "Shut out of the circle of patronage, non-Sunni Iraqis had to find bases on which to mobilize. They could not form secular parties that might try to appeal across ethnic cleavages on economic issues. The regime’s relentless surveillance forced them tot turn inward, to family, clan and the mosque. As a result, Shia movements were able to organize clandestinely in ghettos and among settled tribes in the late Saddam period to make preparations for an Islamic State."

This explains the ascendancy and leadership of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr (Moqtada Al-Sadr’s father), the highest-ranking non-Persian Shia Ayatollah, in the 90s. Initially resistant to clerical involvement in political matters, "he came to embody the Shias’ frustration and to express their demands as he increasingly adopted courageous publicly critical positions."

His assassination by the regime in 1999 led to huge protests and riots throughout the South and in the eastern slums of Baghdad where over two million Shia live. Since the fall of Baghdad this ghetto has come to be known as Sadr City and is a stronghold of the younger Al-Sadr. The protests were eventually quelled, but in killing Al-Sadr the regime only strengthened his legacy of an activist current among the Shia clergy.

Filling the vacuum

The fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime had a huge impact on Iraq’s Shia. A wide range of Shia parties, organizations, and individuals moved quickly to fill the vacuum that the sudden fall of the regime had created. The following Shia Islamic parties have emerged as the most influential parties and, therefore, key to determining the future of post-Saddam Iraq.

Da’wa Party (aka Al Da’wa al Islamiya): Probably the oldest of the Shia parties, the Da’wa party was started in the late 1950s in Najaf. It was inspired by the ideas of the cleric, Sayyid Mohamed Baqr Al-Sadr (Moqtada Al-Sadr’s great uncle), who had developed an Islamic political and economic philosophy. While clearly an Islamist party, its Arab and Iraqi identity have at times played a bigger role in determining its direction and policies.

For example, when most of its members and leaders were expelled to Iran in early 80s they joined the umbrella group SCIRI. But as SCIRI became more dependent on and controlled by Iran, many in the Da’wa party began to call for cutting ties with it. The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) brought the disagreements to a breaking point and the Iraqi nationalist wing left SCIRI.

Over the years it developed close ties with Lebanon’s Shia community and one of its leading clerics, Sayed Mohamed Hassan Fadlallah. Through this relationship it came to reject Iran’s wilayat al faqih, or rule of the clerics, as the model for an Islamic republic.

The Da’wa party opposed US military intervention, saying that Iraqis themselves needed to oust Saddam. But like so many others, it agreed to join the IGC once the war was over. It’s views about shari’a law (strict Islamic law) seem to have changed over the past year. It seems to recognize the multi-ethnic and religious character of Iraq. The leader of the more liberal and dominant wing of the party, Ibrahim Al Jaafari, says that an Islamic state should be voted in through a democratic election.

The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI): Although it started as an umbrella group for exiled Iraqi Shia in 1982 under the leadership of Mohamed Baqr Al-Hakim, Iran pushed for it to become its own separate organization that would be the sole representative of Iraqi Shia abroad. While it could never become the latter, SCIRI did evolve into a highly regimented party with its own militia, the Badr Brigade, of between 8,000-15,000 fighters capable of launching attacks against the regime in Iraq.

Al-Hakim and other SCIRI leaders have been unquestioning supporters of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, and the other hardline proponents of wilayat al faqih. In return they’ve received financial and logistical support as well as arms and military training for their militia.

These benefits have come at the cost of losing support from the Shia still living in Iraq. This could be seen in their failure to gain mass support during the 1991 uprising. Iraq’s Shia tend to be very nationalistic and look upon strong ties with a non-Arab country like Iran with skepticism.

Nevertheless SCIRI and particularly Al-Hakim still has a large following in Iraq and can exert considerable pressure on the US and its allies. In the first days of the occupation, the Badr Brigades took over several cities and hundreds of thousands responded to Al-Hakim’s call to converge on Karbala "to oppose the US-led interim administration and defend Iraq’s independence." This muscle flexing worked, for both SCIRI and Iran, in that it earned them a place on the IGC which Mohamed Baqr’s brother and deputy, Abd Al-Aziz Al-Hakim has filled.

Like the Da’wa party, SCIRI also moderated its views since joining the IGC. With Iran’s approval and possibly even urging, SCIRI has played down its ties to Iran and said that it would even tolerate a Sunni military interim government. Unlike the Da’wa party, however, SCIRI tends to say different things in public and in private so it’s not clear where they now stand on establishing an Islamic state in Iraq.

Abd Al-Aziz took over as leader of SCIRI when Mohamed Baqr was killed in a car bombing last August as he was leaving a mosque in Najaf.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and the Hawza: Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is the Pope of the Shia in Iraq, even though he himself isn’t Iraqi. He was born in Iran and came to Najaf in 1952. He assumed his position as the leading cleric or jurisprudent after the assassination of Mohamed Sadiq Al-Sadr (Moqtada’s father) in 1999. Even though he succeeded Mohamed Sadiq, they come from very different schools of thought. Sistani is from the more traditional "quietist" hawza, or religious school, which says that senior clerics should avoid getting involved in politics.

Before becoming the Grand Ayatollah, he was the religious patron for the Al-Khoei Foundation. He inherited this position from the founder of the foundation who was also his teacher and mentor: Grand Ayatollah Sayed Abolqasem Al-Khoei. Al-Khoei’s world view and philosophy was the basis for the foundation. He epitomized the quietist hawza; he abhorred politics and was a firm believer in non-violence.

Sistani has not only been critical of Iran’s wilayat al faqih but of the Islamic Republic’s human rights abuses since the 1979 revolution. This has put him at odds with the hardliners in Iran. However, his position in the Shia religious hierarchy gives him considerable clout.

Moqtada Al-Sadr and the Sadriyun: Moqtada Al-Sadr the fiery 30-something cleric is the antithesis of Sistani. Despite Sistani’s seniority and religious stature, Moqtada is very open about his disdain for quietists like Sistani and Al-Khoei. That’s why many have implicated his followers, called Sadriyun, in the murder of Abd Al-Majid Al-Khoei, son of Sayed Abolqasem and, at the time, President of Al-Khoei foundation. After killing Abd Al-Majid, Sadr partisans surrounded Sistani’s office and the office of a cleric from SCIRI and demanded that they leave Najaf. They were saved by 1500 Shia tribesman who came in from around Najaf to defend them.

Moqtada has gone from virtual obscurity to being the center of Shia resistance to the occupation in less than a year in part by drawing on his father’s legacy of being both a respected religious and political leader. He’s been able to build a significant, dedicated following, including a militia called the Mahdi Army, by tapping into the anger and despair of most poor, young, urban Shias.

He speaks out on issues of concern to them in an uncompromising manner (some say that part of the reason the US chose to go after him in April is his public pronouncements in solidarity with Hamas and Hizbullah following Israel’s assassination of Hamas’s founder, Sheikh Yassin) and uses religious tithes and resources to provide them with services the state isn’t delivering: jobs, food, healthcare, schools, etc.

It’s important to understand that those Shia who joined the uprising are not all Sadriyun. However, Moqtada and his organization were the best positioned to lead it among the Shias. To them, he’s not only been a vocal opponent of the occupation (other Shia parties have as well) but he’s backed it up with action by not serving on the IGC (although he initially wanted to) and actively organizing against the occupation.

The effort to portray him as an Iranian agent is unfounded. His nationalism borders on chauvinism. He criticizes Sistani’s Iranian background and SCIRI’s strong ties to Iran. Support for wilayat al faqih does not make him an Iranian agent. It can just as easily be applied to an Iraqi Islamic republic as an Iranian one. The Iranians have dismissed him as a rabble rouser. They prefer the much more disciplined and predictable SCIRI to the volatile Sadriyun.

Behind the barricades

As one report on Iraq concludes, "contrary to widespread belief, Iraqi Shiism is not monolithic, under the control of a centralized leadership, prone to adhere to more rigid, radical notions of Islamic thought and governance or subservient to a foreign power—namely, Iran." (International Crisis Group Backgrounder on Iraq, October 2002). Two other generalizations can be made about Iraq’s Shia: 1) they have suffered an entire history of oppression under a rich and powerful elite; and 2) they have always fought back even in the darkest times.

Maybe it was the realization that the US was in Iraq to stay that pushed so many Shia into the streets and behind the barricades in the April uprising. Or the realization that, as Cole puts it, "the real danger facing working-class Iraqis, the vast majority of the country, is not that they will be forced to coexist with those who pray differently or speak different first languages. The most pressing threat is that the Bush Administration’s economic shock therapy and other policies will create a new, small clique of robber barons who monopolize most of the country’s resources."

Whatever the reason may be, their uprising and solidarity with the Sunni resistance has transformed the situation in Iraq dramatically. US officials are finally admitting that the problems in Fallujah and in the Sadr-controlled areas are having a "profound" effect on the occupation in Iraq. The resistance can no longer be dismissed as the work of "insurgents." The Washington Post recently reported on how Iraqis have stopped showing up for jobs with the occupation forces and their contractors. Others have joined the resistance. As a result, "reconstruction" work by Halliburton and Bechtel has been virtually shut down.

The US’s last excuse, that their presence is necessary to prevent civil war between the Sunnis and the Shias and to prevent an Iranian backed Islamic republic from emerging, has no basis in reality. Lets hope that this unity gets stronger but does not turn into a brutal solidarity against the ethnic Kurds who have supported the occupation.

Rami Elamine, a Shiite from Lebanon, has been active around issues related to US imperialism, particularly in the Middle East, for the past 12 years in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. He is a regular contributor to Left Turn magazine and helps edit, where this article first appeared