Iraq was pushed to the brink of civil war in August 2022 following clashes between fighters and supporters loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr––the head of Iraq’s most powerful socio-political movement and one of the country’s most notorious militia groups––and a coalition of Iran-aligned parties and militias known as the Shiite Coordination Framework, which includes the Iran-aligned Popular Mobilization Force (PMF).1 Tensions reached their apex ten months after parliamentary elections were held, and clashes unfolded after supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr stormed the Iraqi parliament, which resulted in at least 24 deaths, with many more injured.2 One of the more fascinating backdrops against which the August clashes unfolded was the decision by Iran’s Qom-based Grand Ayatollah Kazem Husseini al-Haeri to announce his resignation as a marjaa (source of emulation) on August 29, 2022. Ayatollah al-Haeri used that announcement to call on his followers to switch their allegiance to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This was a direct attack on Sadr’s standing: Haeri was previously a marjaa for the Sadrist movement, and even took Sadr under his wing when the cleric went into self-imposed exile in 2008.
Ayatollah Haeri’s move, arguably a tectonic one within the Shiite community in the region at-large, was designed to discredit Sadr at a perilous time for Iran and its allies in Iraq. In response, Muqtada mobilized his supporters into the Green Zone and effectively gave them the green-light to engage in armed combat against their rivals. With this in mind, there are clearly deep-seated historic animosities and dynamics, both political and religious, that will continue to play out and that have set the stage for future intra-Shiite rivalries that could produce untold suffering. This paper examines the implications of the intra-Shiite political and religious implosion that is currently unfolding by analyzing the post-election political climate and the historical context in which decades-old intra-Shiite rivalries are playing out.
The Decline of the PMF?
Iraq’s October, 2021 elections have had long-term reverberations for the future of the country. While past elections were characterized by ethno-sectarian blocs that mobilized and amalgamated to contest the elections on the basis of sect and ethnicity, the October elections illuminated the fragmented political climate and, with that, the fragmentation of a political order that has traditionally been underscored by ethno-sectarian power-sharing and political contestations. Each of the predominant Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish parties have seen their votes split, which has produced increased volatility. Such volatility resulted in violent clashes in August as rival actors within the ruling Shiite political class came to blows after months of tit-for-tat heated exchanges, targeted assassinations and the wrangling for control of Iraq’s institutions.
The political landscape has become highly fragmented, and with that the prospect of a new civil-war has increased.3 The winner of the elections, Muqtada al-Sadr, achieved 74 seats out of 329, while his closest rival, the PMF, won just 17 seats, a decline from the 57 seats the umbrella militia organization dominated by Iran-aligned groups won in 2018.4 The bloc representing the protesters, Imtidad, secured 10 seats out of 329, while Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s former prime minister and leader of the Islamic Dawa Party whose disastrous rule was marred by sectarian and the emergence of ISIS, won 34 seats.5 The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Kurdistan region’s most dominant party, secured 32 seats and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) won 17 seats.6 The Taqadum Party, led by the prominent Arab Sunni official and speaker of the parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi, won 37 seats.7
The intra-community fractures exemplified by these results portray the extent to which the rivalries between, and amongst, Iraq’s most prominent movements and blocs have intensified.8 It is Iraq’s Shiite factions and their deep-seated animosities that has raised the spectre of a war: this includes several different paramilitary groups and their battle-hardened leaders, including Muqtada al-Sadr, Hadi al-Ameri (head of the Badr Brigade militia) and Qais al-Khazali Haidar (head of Asab ahl al-Haq), and former premier Nouri al-Maliki, who controls and presides over his own private militia.9
It is Sadr’s chequered history with the Iran-aligned Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) and Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party that will shape the contours of the political and conflict landscape in the coming period. Since the October elections last year, Sadr has since looked to form a majority government that excludes the PMF and Maliki, with backing from the Kurds and Mohammed al-Halbousi, the Arab Sunni speaker of the parliament.10 Tensions reached their apex before the August clashes after leaked audio recordings indicated that Maliki had instructed his tribal militias to prepare for battle.11 Moreover, the Sadrists and Asaib ahl al-Haq have been engaged in a spate of tit-for-tat assassinations over the past year, which has seen both sides lose their most senior militia commanders. This prompted Sadr to send a delegation to the southern city of Maysan in February 2022 to calm tensions amid fears of a major outbreak of conflict.12
The PMF once enjoyed almost unparalleled power, widespread domestic legitimacy, and an aura of untouchability, but it is now on a downward trajectory. The PMF is still resilient and retains considerable formal and informal coercive and economic power. However, it faces growing challenges to its legitimacy, structure, and influence. These stem from widespread public resentment at the PMF’s repression, its internal weakening and splintering, and a growing rivalry with Muqtada al-Sadr. Between 2014—when the PMF was first established in response to the Islamic State group’s (IS) offensive across Iraq and the collapse of the Iraqi army—and 2019, the PMF achieved a marked ascension. The umbrella organization, overseeing a patchwork of militia groups13 with varying ties to the Iraqi state, politicians, and Iran, constitutes a politically effective and formidable force, with combat experience, robust military capabilities, wide-ranging geographic presence, and access to local resources across Iraq as well as multifaceted support from Iran. The precise number of PMF fighters is unknown; at its peak, the organization claimed to command 160,000.14 Those numbers included a) fighters from pre-existing, mostly pro-Iran, militias like the Badr Brigade, Kataib Hezbollah, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq; b) so-called “shrine militias,” i.e., Shia volunteers who responded to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s fatwa to defend Iraq from IS; and c) various Sunni, Yazidi, Christian, and other minority self-defense groups. The PMF’s heterogeneity and (sometimes coerced) inclusion of Sunni and other ethnic groups allowed its Iran-aligned leadership to portray the force as transcending narrow ideological ties to Iran rather than doing the bidding of a foreign government. The PMF leadership at various times claimed and rejected the affiliation of Saraya al-Salam, the large and powerful militia loyal to Sadr, which has influence in Basra and other parts of Iraq’s south as well as a strong presence in Baghdad. But the tenuous association between the PMF and Saraya al-Salam, which never included an operational integration of the Sadrists into the PMF, was often confrontational with competition over legal and illegal economic rents and vote banks.
Both the PMF and Saraya al-Salam entrenched themselves in and took over Iraq’s many formal and illegal economies, from the construction contracts that followed the devastation of war; the service sector; and the scrap metal trade to generalized extortion; customs evasion; and oil, drug, and other contraband trafficking. Diverted customs revenues alone generate vast income for PMF militias, while Iraq loses some $10 billion annually.15 As with Saraya al-Salam, the PMF’s monopolization of economic markets and job opportunities endows the organization with political capital. Even while local populations resent the PMF’s human rights abuses and sectarian discrimination against the Sunnis, such as in Ninevah province, they often need to act as supplicants to the PMF to obtain jobs and business opportunities and avoid violent retaliation, such as the burning down of their businesses, kidnapping, and assassination. Crucially, unlike many militias around the world, the PMF managed to acquire a formal status in Iraq’s official security forces as a state-sanctioned auxiliary force with an annual budget of over $2 billion. Its political sponsors and partners in Iraq’s parliament and ministries—including the prime minister’s office when Haidar al-Abadi led the government—further shielded the PMF from accountability or efforts to reduce its power. Thus, the PMF has seen the state not as an entity to topple, but a structure critical to its survival and ascension.
The January 2020 U.S. killing of the PMF’s powerful and charismatic leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and its Iranian patron, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps General Qassem Soleimani, intensified the PMF’s internal fissures and the organization suffered a leadership crisis. In this sense, the Shiite militia network’s strengths have also become its weaknesses. Rather than being governed institutionally, the network has functioned more flexibly in accordance with highly personalized internal politics and the leadership of key personnel like Soleimani and Muhandis. A series of marked splits have emerged since their deaths. The succession process within Ketaib Hezbollah has been particularly dismal and counterproductive. Abdul Aziz al-Mohammedawi was announced as Muhandis’ successor, to serve as both head of Ketaib Hezbollah and head of the PMF. That decision has not received unanimous support within the organization. Some groups are in disagreement with him and with other prominent figures over the allocation of resources, disputing whether they should go toward political or military activities. Meanwhile, Ketaib Hebzollah and the Badr organization are now in direct competition to fill the vacuum left by Muhandis. They are seeking to position themselves with sufficient influence to shape the post-Muhandis and post-Soleimani militia landscape. This comes in the midst of a political crisis precipitated by Iraq’s protests and a steep decline in oil prices, which have plunged Iraq into its worst crisis since ISIS seized Mosul in 2014 and constrained the resources these groups would otherwise exploit.
The PMF’s ideological and material ties to Iran and Tehran’s strategic interests in Iraq and the region pose problems for the group. They allow the PMF’s rivals and the Iraqi public to disparage the PMF’s lack of patriotism and commitment to Iraq’s prosperity. Iran’s sponsorship thus both delivers resources to the PMF and hampers its ability to transition to a self-sustaining political actor not saddled with the baggage of being part of Iran’s “axis of resistance.” At the same time, the friction is beginning to develop between the PMF and its Iranian sponsors: Asaib ahl al-Haq and Ketaib Hezbollah have both rejected Iran’s demands to de-escalate tensions in the post-election landscape, with Iran concerned that the escalation between its proxies and Sadr could have far-reaching implications for its proxy infrastructure and long-term strategic interests as it grapples with conflicts elsewhere, its own domestic instability and U.S. imposed economic sanctions. This was notably portrayed by the PMF rebuttal of calls by Iraj Masjedi, a senior Qods Force officer and the Iranian Ambassador, for the PMF to accept the election results, which highlighted that Iran’s Iraq proxies are starting to question Tehran’s commitment to their domestic political standing.16
Through legal challenges and violent intimidation, the PMF has sought to overturn the election results. In a brazen escalation, it likely sponsored or undertook a drone assassination attempt on Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in November, 2021.17 With U.S. urging, Kadhimi has sought and struggled to limit the PMF’s power and curtail attacks by pro-Iran militias against U.S. personnel in Iraq. After his electoral victory, Sadr called on the PMF to disband. The PMF refused. For years, the PMF has rejected and sabotaged national-level efforts at disarmament of its fighters, despite calls from Ayatollah Sistani to do so. Reluctantly, the PMF only acceded to minor steps, such as re-labelling its offices and moving its arms depots out of cities, though mostly refusing to remove its fighters and bases from urban areas. Sadr also announced he would disband his Saraya al-Salam militias and closed several offices to burnish his movement’s newfound credentials as a law-abiding entity operating within the parameters of the state.
Much is at stake for the PMF. Its ability to extract resources from the state has been tied to its political pre-eminence, and that is tied to Iran’s ability to influence Iraq’s political environment. The PMF’s ability to justify its state subsidies has now been diminished by its poor electoral performance, declining popular legitimacy, and relatively low-level, IS terrorist activity. But the PMF also has resilience. The PMF’s street muscle remains large. It is willing to violently attack its rivals and it still controls or influences an array of economic sectors. Moreover, the PMF can exploit Iraq’s fractious political environment, capitalizing on the country’s many political divisions. It can reaffirm its partnership with former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa Party, which won 33 seats. It is moreover unlikely that Iraq’s fractious political class, which still retains many deep connections to the PMF, would unify to marginalize the organization. That said, this may be the first time in years that Iraqi technocrats, moderate politicians, and civil society actors—long unable to match the coercive capabilities of the PMF—can exploit the PMF’s internal disarray, Sadr’s determination to prevent the PMF from bouncing back, and the widespread antipathy toward the PMF to reduce the organization’s stranglehold over Iraq’s state and society.
Following Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s fatwa in June 2014 calling for jihad against Islamic State, three categories of militias amalgamated under the banner of the PMF: The Iranian-aligned militias, the state-aligned Ashura militias, and the “rebellious” militias led by Sadr. Iraqis call the Sadrist movement’s Peace Brigades “rebellious” because of their refusal to submit to the federal government and religious establishment as well as their refusal to submit to Iran.18 The state-aligned Ashura militias were only established after Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s fatwa in 2014. Known as the religious establishment or “Sistani militias,” they are managed by the holy shrines—controlled by Sistani—and include the Imam Ali Brigade, Ali al-Akhbar Brigade, and the Abbas Division. Sistani enjoys a large following within the PMF and commands respect across the ethnic and religious spectrum. Like Sistani, the fighters of these groups oppose Iranian encroachment into Iraqi affairs.19 Their commanders refuse to meet with Iranian officials and advisors, unless there are other Iraqi officials present, and they also refuse direct Iranian military support.20 Both the Ashura Brigades and Peace Brigade have daily interactions and coordinate closely with the religious establishment militias.21 However, since 2020, the PMF has become engulfed in a battle with Sistani-aligned militia factions that were previously part of the PMF and withdrew from the organization in 2019 in response to Iran’s growing influence and its proxies’ bid to monopolize power within the organization.22
The withdrawal of the Sistani-aligned factions from the PMF has left Iran’s proxies with limited religious cover and it may have diminished their political reach. The split severely undermined the PMF’s until-then strong religious legitimacy, and it augmented the reputational vulnerabilities of the pro-Iran leadership and factions as being street thugs and Iranian stooges. This move was also significant because the PMF’s Iran-aligned leadership relied on the blessing the organization received from Sistani, which provided Iran-backed proxies with a cover of Iraqi nationalism and patriotism as well as religious legitimacy. Iran’s proxies had once exploited this to expand their support bases and political tentacles. Now, however, the withdrawal of a collection of shrine militias, like the Ashura militias, has significantly reduced PMF membership numbers, long inflated with ghost soldier counts, and diminished the group’s claim to state budgets. Along with the Sadrists, the shrine militias now constitute another rival to the PMF that could compete for influence, access to resources, and territorial influence.
Playing The Long Game
Sadr, therefore, retains several advantages, not least the mobilizing capacity of the Sadrist movement.23 While his Iran-aligned rivals are renowned for their battlefield success against Islamic State, the PMF is organizationally vulnerable, and has been since the emergence of a protest movement in 2019 that remains determined to shift the tide of public opinion against Iran and its proxies.24 After the PMF’s electoral setbacks, some observers on the ground are noting that PMF cadres and low-ranking fighters are already beginning to look elsewhere in an effort to secure their livelihoods.25 If this increases and becomes more widespread, it could have existential implications for the PMF’s ability to mobilize fighters and, in turn, its access to a national budget that is worth $2.6 billion.26
However, Iran is waging a battle for influence on several fronts. Tehran clearly wants political and religious pre-eminence in the shrine city of Najaf, where religious contestations can either enable or augment political superiority in Baghdad. Religion plays a crucial role in Shiite political mobilization. Shiite activism in Iraq has historically been wedded to the Shiite clerical establishment. Shiite militias depend on the clerics for legitimacy, and have strived to align their discourse and intellectual output with those of the seminaries. Religious sermons facilitate the dissemination of political and social goals. The contestation that takes place within the seminaries of Najaf and Karbala is not too dissimilar from that unfolding within the politics of Baghdad, with Shiite communal and religious networks comprised of economies worth hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions. These religious endowments manage their affairs and vast resources independently of the state and oversight from Baghdad, drawing on charitable institutions and funds located across the globe. Shiite endowments can project substantial symbolic and political influence as a consequence, while providing a platform that reaches and can mobilize millions in Iraq and far beyond. This platform, and the management or control over Islamic endowments in the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala, is a highly sought-after prized asset that Iran will dedicate substantial focus and resources to in the coming years, especially as Iraq nears the passing of Grand Ayatollah Sistani.
It is, therefore, in the centuries old Najaf-Qom rivalry where the most ideological and consequential battle for the future of Iraq could unfold. Away from the glare of Western media channels, this struggle is already underway and intensifying. On August 13, Iraqi militia leader Hamid al-Yasiri delivered an unprecedented denunciation of Iran’s proxies by directly accusing them of killing protestors and stealing public funds in the name of Shiite Islam.27 Yasiri is tied to Ayatollah Sistani, and his public denunciation of Iran’s proxies in Iraq indicates the extent to which the rivalry and tensions have intensified. As such discourse takes hold within the Shiite community, the scramble for power will intensify and become increasingly violent. In many ways, Haeri’s indirect rebuttal of Muqtada al-Sadr, which paved the way for the August clashes, may be a dress-rehearsal for future conflicts unfolding in response to intra-Shiite religious rivalries. This will be both political amid tensions in Baghdad and geopolitical amid the centuries-old tensions between Najaf and Qom: while Najaf continues to believe in the idea of the civil state and the quietist tradition of Shiite Islam, Qom and the Islamic Republic continue to fiercely push the Wilayat-I faqih doctrine, relying on its proxies, tribal groups and religious leaders in the Hawza to espouse and expand the pan-Shiite worldview that underscores Iran’s system of governance. Sistani may constitute a formidable and impenetrable buffer against Iranian encroachment in Najaf, but his passing will pave the way for a succession process that could take months or even years to resolve, and produce immense upheaval and volatility that will reverberate throughout the country.
The Uncertainty of Change
Muqtada al-Sadr’s revival as the most dominant socio-political authority in the country has been cemented by his ability to upend the political system and use his pre-eminence to challenge even the most battle-hardened of Iranian proxy groups. It is likely the cleric will continue to engage Iraqi politics as a supra-state actor that possesses influence and resources that are beyond the reach of the Iraqi state and its political system. Muqtada al-Sadr, depending on one’s perspective, has either responded to the urgency of reform amid growing socio-economic grievances or has instrumentalized the despair of the Iraqi people.
It should be remembered that Sadr’s father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, likewise took advantage of the suffering and injustices faced by Shiites in the 1990s to found the Sadrist movement. The elder Sadr was an Arab Iraqi cleric and a staunch critic of what he described as the elitist Iraqi Shiite opposition and clerical establishment. His endorsement by Saddam Hussein’s regime after the passing of Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei in 1992 also fractured the already weakened Shiite opposition that operated under Iranian sponsorship and tutelage.
Sadeq al-Sadr attacked his exiled Shiite counterparts for their elitism but at the same time offered advice and counselling to those suffering from Baathist rule and economic hardship. His weekly sermons helped galvanize the masses and provided an outlet for grievances and discontent for a voiceless Shiite underclass. After taking control of the Hawza in the early 1990s, he extended his network of representatives and began to send emissaries to all Shiite areas of Iraq, paying attention to the poor and to the clans and tribes. This included the hinterlands of the south, such as the Marshes, which were notorious for criminals and disease. By the 1990s, the mantle of Shiite leadership effectively passed to Sadeq al-Sadr and the mantle of resistance to Iraq’s Shiite underclass. Sadeq al-Sadr and his followers thus filled the lacuna that was left by the intellectuals, technocrats and other middle-class Shiites who were either forced underground, imprisoned or executed by the Baathist regime, or who went into exile in Iran and the West. Muqtada has moved to position his movement as an alternative or supplement to the post-2019 popular Tishreen protest movement. Sadr’s own complicity in repressing protestors notwithstanding, the Sadrist movement could be the Tishreen movement’s one best hope of establishing a buffer against the systemic and wide-spread atrocities committed by Iran’s proxies against protestors in 2019. It is precisely the fluidity and dynamism of Sadr’s relationship with the wider Iraqi society that U.S. policy-makers should focus their attention on as they grapple with developing the policies that could see the U.S. sustaining the momentum against Iran’s proxies, alongside efforts to devise a political coalition in Baghdad that can deliver much-needed reforms and good governance.