American Foreign Policy and the Shia of Iraq after the Invasion of 2003


by Alex J. Kennedy, Contributor
Brooks Foreign Policy Review Middle East Affairs

The current phase of intersection between American foreign policy and Iraq’s Shia began on the night of April 6th, 2003. Overnight, Saddam Hussein’s regime melted away, confronting the Shia with a new reality: they would now have to exercise political control.
The American invasion in 2003 liberated the Shia clerical classes of Shia Islam’s holiest city of Najaf, “the Vatican-Oxford of Shia Islam” and Karbala, where Imam Husayn’s martyrdom engendered the “ethos of Shiism” in 680 A.D. This indicates two ramifications which will forever impact the region: One, for the first time a major Shia Arab population is governing a Sunni Arab people, making political decisions and turning on its head the “mainstream Arab opinion – that mixture of Sunni culture and Pan-Arabism”. A thousand years of Shia political quietism overturned, the Shiites of Iraq will now affect Arab domestic political discourse in neighboring Arab countries. This will be especially true in countries with large Shia populations in the Islamic world such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Sunni Arab states must own up to the political and social neglect inflicted upon their Shia minorities. The Islamic world, especially the Arab societies, should engage all citizens in a dialogue of how to be more inclusive of minorities. The second ramification is the new freedom of the Iraqi Holy Cities of Najaf, Karbala and Kazimain. The liberation of Shia Islam’s holiest cities will no doubt feed into the overall religious revival within Shiism, with geopolitical implications for Iran.
After 1979, the dominance of Iraqi Arab Shia religious instruction was in decline. In Iran, the Shiite shrine cities of Qom, Tehran and Mashadad grew in importance. With the combination of Saddam’s repression at the time of the Iranian Revolution, many of the Iraqi Shia had to go to Iran to receive religious study. Ayatollah Khomeini’s religious revolution of 1979 meant a split for the Islamist Shia groups in Iraq: patriotic and Islamist Shia groups could stay and suffer under the repressive rule of Saddam to aid their fellow Shia, or flee to the protection of the mullahs in Iran. For many this was a tough choice. It has also turned out to be a strategic decision affecting how these Shia groups are viewed domestically in Iraq today. The invasion of 2003 revealed how crucial this split had become to the identity of Iraqi Islamist Shia political groups and other Shia parties in Iraq. This split in Shia Iraqi Islamists groups is very important for understanding the current situation of the Shia in Iraq. This is also illustrated in the change in name of the Shia political party the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), developed by Shia Iraqi exiles financed in Iran, to the more Iraqi-sounding Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC).
At present, relations between Iran and Iraq are evolving. Shortly after the invasion Shia, groups made their way back to Iraq from Iran. Many groups have returned from exile in Iran to find a fluid situation on the ground in Iraq. With the Iraqi Shia liberation in 2003, a shift back to the proper order is occurring. One result has been an intensification of the Arab-Iranian distinction. Groups, such as SCIRI (now SIIC), are Islamist Shia parties which were formed in Iran because of the cover given them by the Iranian regime following the 1979 Revolution. Some Shia, such as the undisputed religious leader of Iraq’s Shia, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, were born in Iran but came to Iraq for religious instruction, another factor which complicates the Arab-Iranian distinction. Shia Iraqi groups formed in exile in Iran have come to find that the domestic Iraqi Arab Shia leaders have greater appeal because they are perceived as having stayed with their flock during the Hussein regime’s persecution.
Moqtada al-Sadr has emerged as one of these Iraqi Shia leaders who suffered the same terrors of his Shia followers. His father was assassinated by the regime of Saddam in 1999. Not long before the invasion in 2003, Shia leaders were already jockeying for control over the various Shia groupings, whether they be in southern Iraqi cities, like Nasiriya, or in Baghdad. After the invasion, many of Baghdad’s poor Shia looked to the young Sadr as a new leader. Despite confrontations between American forces and Sadr loyalists early in the war, it is now believed that Sadr has consolidated a domestic support base among the Iraqi Shia. His constituency is poor and Islamist Shia, especially those in and around Baghdad. Some believe that the aim of Sadr is ultimately to control the holy city of Najaf. Others say “Muqtada opposed Iranian ayatollahs and wants the marja-yi taqlid (top Shia source of emulation) to be an Iraqi” .
Da’wa, another powerful Shia grouping under the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA is a religious-Shia political coalition within Iraq’s parliamentary system) emerged in Iraq in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. It was an indigenous conservative Iraqi Shia reactionary movement against secularism and communism. The group waged an armed struggle against the Iraqi government in the 1970’s. The group is suspected of links to terrorist activity, such as the 1985 assassination attempt on the Emir of Kuwait, but Da’wa (‘Islamic Call’) in 1979 renounced targeting civilians and hijackings as counterproductive. Despite the group’s murky past, Da’wa developed in Iraq by Shia Iraqis, so it will continue to have broad appeal to many, especially conservative Shia Muslims. It is now the favored choice of American policymakers and will likely remain so until other Iraqi parties can gain footing and attract significant constituencies among Iraqis. The current Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki was number two after the Da’wa party leader, Ibrahim al-Jafari, who served as the transitional Prime Minister from April 2005-April 2006.
The Shiites of Iraq will not soon forget our support of Saddam in the 1980’s and the failed uprising in 1991 when considering any future interaction with the U.S. One thing that all of the parties of Iraq would likely agree upon is that they want American forces to leave their country. Beyond this, some Shia leaders fear what will happen when we do leave. There will be bloodshed whether we stay or leave. We have come to crossroads in terms of our policies with the Shia of Iraq. The American led invasion did in fact liberate the Shia of Iraq from the repression of Saddam’s regime, but if we leave before the job is done, the situation may be reversed and our policies would enable repression of Iraq’s Sunni people. We must support all legitimate Iraqi groups, especially the moderates. Our policy should be to continue to support the Shia-led government and democratically elected parties, while at the same time using our leverage with the ruling Shia parties to include Iraq’s other groups such as the Sunnis, Turkomans, Assyrians, Yazidis and Chaldeans in a truly pluralistic government representative of all Iraqis regardless of clan, sect or ethnicity.


As Hans Blix wrote, “The invasion of Iraq was about weapons of mass destruction” he continues “[but] the Iraq war cannot be undone…We must also ask if there are important lessons to be drawn”. Before September 11, 2001 the American public had relatively little interest in the Middle East region as a whole, and Iraq in particular. The first Gulf War left hardened views on both sides and exposed shortsightedness on the part of our policies in the Middle East. Too often the American public knows little of the impact of our policies abroad. We must study our past policies toward Iraq and the region to understand what made things the way they are today. Mistakes have certainly been made, but a new government in Baghdad has enabled the Iraqis to carry out domestic elections on their own. This serves as a powerful symbol to the autocratic regimes of Iraq’s neighbors.
Relations with the Islamic world are deeply influenced by our policies in Iraq. American policies should recognize that the Shia in Iraq, and even in Iran, do not view theocracy as the answer to their political problems. There is hope yet for the relationship of the U.S. and Iraq’s Shia. We must encourage more secular and moderate Shia candidates and parties in democratic elections. Shia Iraqis will not simply turn over the rule of their country to the Iranians. A man with deep knowledge of Iraq, Hanna Batatu puts it best: “In their heart of hearts, Iraq’s Shia like things to grow from their own soil”.


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