Skip to main content

The Rise of 'Cleric Militias' in Iraq

In recent years, Iraq has witnessed a rise in militias led by Shiite clerics, with some fearing that Sunnis may soon follow suit, thus exacerbating the regional sectarian conflict.
Posters of late Shi'ite Mehdi Army members are displayed on their graves in a Sadrist cemetery in the holy city of Najaf, 160 km (100 miles) south of Baghdad September 13, 2008. Forced off Iraq streets and with diminished political clout, what anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army militia do next will be crucial if they are to remain relevant.  Picture taken September 13, 2008. To match feature IRAQ/SADR     REUTERS/Ceerwan Aziz (IRAQ) - RTX8SVI

Despite the long history of Shiite clerics attempting to influence politics in their communities, it is only in the past few decades that Shiites have witnessed clerics leading militias. The Iranian Fada’iyan-e Islam movement can be considered the first. This movement was led by a young cleric named Navab Safavi, and it targeted intellectual, religious and political figures who opposed its views. One of the movement's most well-known victims was Ahmad Kasravi, an Iranian historian and linguist. Following the Iranian revolution, Safavi was transformed into a symbolic hero, leading many Shiite revolutionary groups to emulate him. Furthermore, the jihadist Muslim Brotherhood movements had a general influence on revolutionary Shiite parties.

The Islamic Dawa party is the first example of an Iraqi Shiite party that has ties with Shiite religious figures. The party engaged in military actions against the former regime, which sometimes resulted in civilian deaths. In 2003, the Mahdi Army was established. This militia was led by Muqtada al-Sadr and became the first Shiite militia in Iraq directly led by a cleric. The Mahdi Army did not receive any support or acceptance from officials in the Shiite seminaries, and even faced criticism from Shiite authorities in Najaf. This was mentioned in a book titled "The Medical Therapeutic Journey of Sayyed al-Sistani and the Najaf Crisis," written by Sistani's official spokesman, Hamid al-Khafaf.

Access the Middle East news and analysis you can trust

Join our community of Middle East readers to experience all of Al-Monitor, including 24/7 news, analyses, memos, reports and newsletters.


Only $100 for annual access.