Will Shiite power struggle turn into armed conflict in Iraq?

Signs are indicating that political disagreements over power among Shiite parties may turn into armed conflict, given the multiple armed factions and their influence on the street and within government institutions.

al-monitor Fighters from the Peace Brigades loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr take part in field training in Najaf, Aug. 23, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani.
Mustafa Saadoun

Mustafa Saadoun


Topics covered

shiite politics, shiite-sunni conflict, sadrist movement, muqtada al-sadr, iraqi domestic politics, iraq crisis, badr organization

Jul 7, 2016

BAGHDAD — Most Shiite political parties in Iraq have their own armed groups, enjoying influence on the Iraqi street and engaging in the war against the Islamic State. Yet these groups all have different religious authorities and funding sources, and their stances towards domestic and foreign issues also differ.

Concern is widespread in Iraq over potential fighting among armed Shiite groups, and the potential for the political crisis within the Shiite alliance to exacerbate. Such conflicts could lead to a major crisis with great human and material losses that could further aggravate the deteriorating situation.

Recently, a dispute over the management of religious shrines flared up. On June 25, Al-Khaleej quoted Muhammad al-Rubeii, a leader of the Muqtada al-Sadr Peace Brigades, as saying that the Badr Organization, led by Hadi al-Ameri, is implementing foreign agendas (a reference to Iran) to exert military and administrative control over the city of Samarra, home to the shrine of Al-Askari.

The dispute over the management of the shrine between the Shiite and Sunni endowments continues. Because Samarra is a Sunni-majority city, the dispute is worsening the recent row among Shiite groups and the city at large over the shrine’s management.

Management of the holy shrine has a lot of advantages and benefits, including symbolic prestige and financial interests, as it is visited frequently by Shiites from Iraq and elsewhere. The Sunni endowment used to manage the place in the time of Saddam Hussein. But after terrorists bombed Al-Askari Mosque in 2006, Shiites took over. Since then, different Shiite groups have competed for control.

As Moqtada al-Sadr and his supporters in the Sadrist movement took part in protests against the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and stormed the Green Zone twice, some Shiites condemned this move as unjustifiedOn June 7, protesters believed to be supporters of Sadr shut down the headquarters of the Shiite parties in southern Iraq, tearing up photos of Iraqi and Iranian Shiite clerics.

On June 12, State of Law Coalition parliamentarian Rasoul Rady expressed trepidation that an armed conflict could break out among Shiite parties if the attacks against political parties' headquarters in southern Iraq continue.

In response to the shutdown, a group of Shiite parties that have their own armed factions issued a warning June 10. The statement read, "We are calling on those claiming that they are leading the peaceful protests to [have the courage] to identify themselves and be dealt with in accordance with the protest law, to avert dire consequences and the combatant's anger."

Most Shiite factions in Iraq are backed by Iran, which is not on good terms with Sadr. His supporters are known for chanting slogans against Iran and Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who leads the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps' operations in Iraq. Their actions have angered Iranians and Iran's supporters in Iraq and could spark an armed conflict between the Sadrists and armed pro-Iranian groups.

When Sadrists stormed the Green Zone, where government and diplomatic headquarters are located, for the second time on May 20, gunmen affiliated with Khorasani Brigades were deployed in the streets of the Iraqi capital. This force, a faction of the Popular Mobilization Units, was led by Ali Yassiri, who was seen giving instructions to his men to shut down the entry points and protect the Green Zone.

Since then, other signs have emerged that the conflict could turn violent between the Sadrist Movement and its armed wing, the Peace Brigades, and other armed Shiite factions close to Iran.

Shiite National Alliance parliamentarian Hamed Khodor told Al-Monitor, "I do not expect fighting to take place between armed Shiite factions. It is a mere political dispute that may not reach the point of armed conflict."

Yet National Alliance member Saad al-Matlabi disagreed with this optimism. He told Al-Monitor, "There is a political bloc [of Sadr and his followers] trying to impose its will upon other political blocs by force, which will not happen." Matlabi went on, "The threat of chaos and protests and imposition of wills are no longer useful. Iraqi political blocs agree that there is a flaw in the Sadrist policy, which no longer has any allies, and all blocs are allied against it."

Political analyst Wathek al-Hashemi, president of the Iraqi Group for Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor, "There is more than one scenario for the post-IS stage. … If the [political] conflict evolves into an armed conflict, the Iraqi state would be unable to control the situation, due to its weakness."

He added, "There is a struggle within the Shiite alliance and tension between its parties. If the Sadrist movement returns to the streets, things may evolve and the political and security situation may further worsen."

The multiplicity of armed factions and leaders portends great danger, especially in the post-IS era. Everyone is fighting terrorism now, but later on, political disputes may turn into armed conflicts over either political gains or a specific geographic area.

This potential violence is seen as likely considering that 12 years ago, two armed Shiite groups fought in this manner. Jaish al-Mahdi, which was affiliated with Sadr, and the Badr Organization, which was under the umbrella of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and headed by Ameri (a commander of the Popular Mobilization Units in addition to leading the Badr Organziation), had fought each other. The fighting resulted in the burning of the two groups' offices and the deaths of dozens of people.

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