Iraq’s Shias and Sunnis are caught in the struggle of the region’s big powers
By Iftikhar Gilani
Mumbai: The Euphrates no longer flows through Karbala, where Hussain ibn Ali, grandson of Prophet Muhammad and forces of Umayyad ruler Yazid fought the fatal battle in the 680 CE (Common Era) that divided Islam between Shias and Sunnis. The battlefield is just 100 kms away from Baghdad. Like Iraqi history, the river has also changed its course over past 15 centuries. Once a glorious civilisation, the country is in tatters, with Shias dominating the south, Sunnis at the centre and Kurds holding fort in the north. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is the fourth contentious element, with its sway over a significant territory to the south-west.
Baghdad looks like Srinagar of late 90s, dotted with checkposts, bunkers, with security patrols checking identity cards and searching people, which, in turn, create traffic snarls. Our guide identified a building behind high walls as the palace of deceased dictator Saddam Hussain. We clicked photographs. But to our horror, a motorcycle-borne policeman chased our vehicle, overtook us at a cross-section, and ensured that we deleted the pictures.
On the other side of the road, which has been cleared of traffic, military vehicles of Hashd al Shaabi, a militia turned paramilitary, zoom past, brandishing arms. They are transporting dead bodies from the war-front for burial.
Hashd al Shaabi was cobbled up after Najaf-based Shia grand spiritual leader Ayatullah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani issued a fatwa, asking people to protect Iraq and the shrines. So far 1.20 lakh volunteers have enrolled in the force. The Hashd factions are now stronger than the official state-administered Iraqi Army. The Army is widely seen as weak, corrupt, and ineffective, as its 33,000-strong force could not save Mosul from 800 ISIS fighters.
Raised mainly to protect the Shia shrines, its ranks now include Sunni and Christian tribes as well. The Sunnis and Christians too consider the ISIS as a menace. A resolve is now sweeping across Iraq to rid the country of ISIS. Its Sunni commander, Sheikh Mohammad Miklif, also head of Abu-Shaban tribe of Anbar province, stresses that Hashd is now a state force, rather a militia. He recounts the umpteen miseries the ISIS has heaped on the Sunni population. He, however, admits that they initially got swayed by their propaganda to re-empower Sunnis, who feel let down after the ouster of Saddam Hussain.
But there are many Iraq’s Sunni Arabs who are apprehensive about these civilian paramilitary groups. In Baghdad, the shrine of Sheikh Syed Abdul Qadir Gilani is the symbolic centre of the Sufi world. In the large courtyard of the splendid medieval building that has a beautiful blue and white dome, Ayad al-Samarrai tries to make a point in broken English. “The country has become a chessboard of a great game, between Saudi Arabia, Iran, United States and Russia,” he says. With Iran now having gained influence both in government as well as within the large Shia population, Saudis feel left out. Both parties disagree on who should have a role and what those roles should be, and now, on how the war with the ISIS should be fought. The Saudis have concerns over the Iranian role in Iraq, mainly the support given to the Popular Mobilization Units. On the other hand, the Iranians accuse Saudis of being the main supporter of terrorism.
The game becomes more intriguing in the deep south of the country. At the Al-Safeer hospital in Karbala city, adjacent to the holy shrine, Hashd soldier, Adil Fozi, swears that he himself saw American planes dropping arms in the ISIS-occupied territory, when he was manning at the Baiji front, some 130 miles north of Baghdad as late as in last July. Flashing a victory sign, Fozi is crippled after a mortar hit his legs. “We shot at the plane, but it flew away,” he says. At Hashd headquarters in a Baghdad suburb, top commander Karim Al Noori claims their force was getting training and arms from the Americans as well as from Iran. “For the first time I am disclosing that we have 5000 American and 30 Iranian military advisors guiding and training our soldiers,” he said. But is it not the case that while the Americans are training Hashd, they are also supplying arms to rival ISIS to keep the pot boiling? The commander maintains silence over his soldier Fozi’s claims.
Rather than reviving the Army, Iraqi politicians are repeating the mistakes of Afghanistan and Pakistan, by dangerously propping up their own armed groups who, though at this stage are engaged in fighting a common enemy, are bound to haunt them and their country in future. For example, Hadi al-Ameri, advisor to current Prime Minister Haider Jawad Kadhim Al-Abadi, leads a powerful group known as the Badr Brigade within Hashd.
Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has a close relationship with another large Hashd faction, Asaib Ahl al-Haq. He is also on his way to create his own military group. The third major Hashd group, known as Kataib Hezbollah, is believed to be working under Iranian influence. The famed Al-Abbas Brigade, especially raised to provide security to Shia shrines in Iraq and Syria, has links with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Several other politicians, including the head of Iraqi judiciary, Midhat Mahmoud and Transport Minister, Bayan Jabr, not only patronise their own armed groups, but are also accused of running the secret prison as well.
Further, while talking to Hashd commanders, it also appears that the military strategy of hammer-and-anvil approach of defeating the ISIS is also missing. Though these groups have made advances and wrested some provinces from the ISIS, the missing anvil is helping the ISIS to regroup and to continue to hold on to oil-rich territory of Mosel. This was exactly what led to the failure of US, Afghan and Pakistani military strategies to counter Taliban effectively in Af-Pak region. Raising civilian paramilitaries rather than strengthening government forces world over has proved to be risky — be it raising renegades Ikhwan to fight militancy in Jammu and Kashmir or Pakistani political groups patronising armed groups to fight either in Afghanistan or Kashmir. In Iraq also the government’s dependence on al-Hashd al-Shaabi is undermining the Iraqi army.
After living under Saddam’s iron fist for more than half-a-century, democracy has brought relief to Iraq’s Shia population. Their two most holy places, Najaf — housing the tomb of Hazrat Ali, fourth caliph and son-in-law of the Prophet — and Karbala are now thronged by visitors. Both shrines are being expanded. The places now have largest congregations, attracting 50 million pilgrims annually, more than for the Hajj in Makkah. Democracy may have brought relief but it will not bring peace and stability unless it is inclusive and participatory. Though the ISIS threat has united the country, the need of the hour is to address the fears of the 42 per cent Sunnis who feel disempowered after the fall of Saddam. The architect of Northern Ireland Peace Process, Lord Paterson, once said even a microscopic 2% population can become a perpetual national security problem if it feels left out from the system.
As night falls in Karbala, the half moon striking the grand walls of the tomb of Imam Hussain turns everything into a gold hue. The streets choke with pilgrims even from far off Kargil. The chants of Yaa Hussain get shriller.
History comes alive on the battlefield of Karbala where Imam Hussain was martyred after his access to water and river Euphrates was blocked. Women in black hijab are wailing at a hillock from where Hussain’s sister Zainab witnessed the murders of her dear ones. Though 15 centuries old, the message of Hussain has relevance — to end dictatorships and kingships, return power to people and settle regional disputes. The message is the only panacea, not only for West Asia and Iraq, but for other regions as well.
[The writer, Chief of Bureau of dna, was in Iraq at the invitation of the management of Karbala’s Imam Hussain Shrine.]