The Position of the Iraqi Shiite Marjaya on the Iranian-American Escalation and the Factions of the Popular Mobilization Forces


The Shiite Marjaya  in Najaf has focused on the issue of integrating all  armed groups of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)  into   Iraqi security  institutions. The Marjaya   has often reminded Iraqi officials of  Iraq’s  sovereignty and the need to preserve it.

However, on both issues, the Marjaya  could only offer an opinion, but it could not carry out any reform or policy decision. The Marjaya  reiterated the same two issues following the recent escalation that erupted between the Iranians and Americans on Iraqi soil that led to the killing of the Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, and his companion Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Deputy Commander of the PMF.

This escalation dates back to late 2019, specifically on December 27, when the Hezbollah Brigades targeted a US base in Kirkuk with a number of missiles. This rocket attack killed an American civilian contractor, and a number of American soldiers were seriously injured. On December 29, 2019, US forces in response bombed targets belonging to the Hezbollah Brigades in the city of Qaim. A spokesman for the US Ministry of Defense stated that the American strikes against the militia group was to hamper its ability to launch future attacks against the forces of the Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR). Sources from the Hezbollah Brigades said that the US strike killed 15 people, including leaders, and wounded several others.

  1. Iran-backed Militias and Involvement of  the Iraqi State

There are factions belonging to the PMF which are loyal politically and doctrinally to the supreme leader in Iran. They are not traditionally subject to Najaf’s  Marjaya,  nor to  Iraq’s  government. Among the largest and most important pro-armed militias to Iran and the Quds Force are the Hezbollah Brigades, which were the main instigators of the recent escalation,  and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.

In 2018, the Hezbollah Brigades targeted Iraqi security forces and refused to submit to Iraqi police checkpoints. This  resulted in a confrontation between the two parties in which an Iraqi soldier was killed and several others were injured and led  the security forces to besiege one of the headquarters of the Hezbollah Brigades  in east Baghdad. In July 2019, the Hezbollah Brigades refused to respond to the decision of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to withdraw from the town of Nukhaib, along the Saudi border.

This  proves that the Hezbollah Brigades are not loyal to the Iraqi state and the popularly elected government, and their political and doctrinal  loyalty belongs to the supreme leader  in Iran. This was confirmed by an official in Baghdad, that the Hezbollah Brigades do not consider themselves part of the PMF that fall under the Iraqi state’s purview, but is part of the axis of resistance. 

The Hezbollah Brigades were first established following the American invasion of Iraq with the help of the Quds Force and the Lebanese Hezbollah. It was led by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The Hezbollah Brigades was designated as a terrorist group by the United States in 2009. The US Treasury then imposed severe sanctions on Muhandis. The Quds Force was also designated as a terrorist organization in 2007.

Furthermore, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq does not operate within the framework of the Iraqi state, and the United States included it on  its list of terrorist organizations on January 3, 2020.  Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq is one of the largest pro-Iran militias loyal to the supreme leader in Tehran. International human rights organizations have accused it of committing genocide, ethnic cleansing in Iraqi Sunni provinces such as Diyala and others, with direct support from the late Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, and committing the Barwana massacre in January 2016. Human Rights Watch accused it of torturing civilians in Mosul. Indeed, the movement was involved in the suppression of the Iraqi uprising on October 1, 2019. It contributed to the killing of dozens and the wounding of thousands in Baghdad and the southern provinces with a  Shiite majority. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq also extended support to the Assad government in suppressing the Syrian revolution and facilitated terrorist cells in the Gulf countries. In addition,  it offered logistical assistance to Ansar Allah in Yemen. However, a remarkable statement was made by Asa’ib leader Qais Khazali, saying that they will establish a Shiite  full moon not a Shiite crescent.

The influence of these militias has reached the point  where they control the appointment of government officials and override the decisions of the Iraqi state. Iraq’s former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi himself criticized them, and accused these militias of political rivalry, and interfering in the appointment  of ministers and the government.

At this time of crisis, we should pay attention to the position of the Shiite Marjaya  in Najaf. It is always seen in Iraq as a factor contributing toward  political and sectarian stability, and a buffer against the disintegration of the Iraqi state and a force preventing the country from sliding into civil war, or regional conflicts. It has repeatedly stressed the necessity for integrating these armed militias into  state institutions, to preserve the sovereignty of Iraq from cross-border loyalties.

  1. The Najaf Marjaya  Position

On March 26, 2019, the Najaf Marjaya announced that the Friday sermon of December 27th would not be a political sermon. The purpose of  this statement was to ban  any discussion of political affairs. The anger of the Marjaya  was due to the delay by  Iraqi politicians in forming  a new government and meeting the demands of the protesters, who were protesting in Iraq’s streets and at Tahrir Square in Baghdad since the beginning of October 2019. Politicians were not responding to the demands of the  Marjaya , especially those that were included in the December 20 sermon in which the Marjaya  called for early elections, forming a new election law, and denouncing torture and kidnappings.

However, under the weight of political events, the Marjaya  was obliged to talk  politics again, after America  targeted factions of the PMF.  On December 29, 2019, the Shiite supreme authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, condemned the American attack against the Hezbollah Brigades in Qaim. According to the statement, “The Marjaya  condemns this heinous attack that targeted a group of fighters of the official Iraqi forces, killing  and wounding a large number of them. The Marjaya stresses the need to respect Iraqi sovereignty and not to violate it under the pretext of responding to unlawful practices by some parties. Iraqi authorities are entitled to deal with these practices and take necessary measures to prevent them. They are called upon to do so and to ensure Iraq does not become a field for settling regional and international scores and that others do not interfere in its internal affairs.”

This statement apparently calls on the Iranian Marjaya  not to interfere in Iraqi affairs  under the pretext of retaliation, because this is the jurisdiction of the Iraqi official authorities alone, and not  armed groups. It  warned against settling regional scores on Iraqi soil.

On January 3, 2020, the Marjaya  said in the Friday sermon, in response to the assassination of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and his companion Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis by the United States near Baghdad airport, “Events are accelerating, crises are worsening and the country is passing through critical junctures due to  the attack that led to the killing and wounding of dozens of our fighters, the unfortunate incidents Baghdad witnessed during the past days, and  the brutal attack near its international airport last night. This attack  is an insolent breach of Iraqi sovereignty and violation of international law. It led  to the killing of a number of  heroes who defeated Daesh terrorists.”

We note that the Marjaya   focused in its statement on denouncing the targeting of the PMF  in Qaim and called for  respecting  Iraqi sovereignty. It apparently   referred to the Americans and Iranians. With American escalation following the targeting of Qassem Soleimani, the Marjaya, after it denounced   the targeting of Soleimani and his companions, called for restraint and to act wisely by saying, “As we call upon the parties concerned to exercise restraint and act wisely, we pray to the Almighty, to keep  Iraq and its people away from  the evil of the wicked and the plot of the ungodly.”

When the Marjaya  calls for self-restraint and underlines the need to act wisely, it reinforces its previous stance on rejecting Iraq’s entry into an international conflict and settling regional scores. It reiterates the principle of Iraqi sovereignty, whether  in regard to Americans or  Iranians violations.

A similar stance was adopted by  Sheikh Bashir Al-Najafi – who is one of the top four   Marjas

  in Najaf along with Sistani, Saeed Al-Hakim, and Sheikh Al-Fayad. Sheikh Bashir Al-Najafi  expressed his condolences  on the death Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis  by saying: “It is unfortunate that Iraq has become a battlefield for settling scores.” However, Bashir Al-Najafi was more explicit in his statement than Sistani. He led the congregation at the funeral prayer, while the other Marjas did not attend.

An important question is related to the purpose behind condolences offered  by the Najafi Marjas on  Soleimani’s death, despite their disputes over  some Iranian practices on Iraqi soil. The answer relates firstly to understanding the nature of the dispute, because  it is a dispute which emerged from within the sect itself over status, influence, and positions. However,  it did not reach the level of estrangement or lead to a public rivalry between the sides. Secondly, it is related to the historical Shiite legitimacy, in which each Marjaya   can draw and reinforce its legitimacy only through Iran, home to the largest Shiite community in the world. To reinforce the position of the  Marjaya  among the  masses, there can be no confrontation with the supreme leader in Iran. Thirdly, the most important answer  is related to the issue of public Taqlid; the Shiite public felt humiliated that their sovereignty was violated when the assassination took place on their land. It is difficult in the wake of such violent events for the Marjaya  to contradict the masses. Motahhari, Sorush, and other Shiite thinkers highlight that if the Marjaya  confronts  the public it means that it has a serious weakness.    If the Marjaya  contradicts  the feelings of the masses and their deep questions regarding  the violation of Iraqi sovereignty by Soleimani and by the PMF— which ignored  the advice issued by the Marjaya  for the need  to  integrate within the institutions of the Iraqi state— it will face public outrage with the outpouring of angry and revolutionary sentiment after the violation of their sovereignty. Moreover, the Marjaya will have to face  the supreme leader  of Iran.

One important factor  in this context is that the assassination was committed by   the Americans. Shiite groups, especially those loyal to Iran, have been spreading news, day and night, that there are American plans to eliminate them, and the state of the supreme leader. Those Shiites groups absorbed the Shia’s teachings: Anti- international oppression and    anti-imperialism, and if the Marjaya  confronts  any of those prevailing teachings by opposing the masses, it will  lead to a decline inits authority.

All of these dimensions dominate  the messages of the Marjaya, both inside and outside.

  1. II-                The Positions of Other Marjas

When looking at the thin thread of commonality between the condolence statements of the various  Marjas, we find that they focused on the issue of martyrdom and sacrifice which represents the way of the imams. This indicates how marjas strengthen the militant culture and create  Shiite jihadi enclaves, which the Iranian elite consider as a strategic choice that they cannot give up both   politically and ideologically.

In the statements of  Kazem Al-Haeri, Al-Aarafi, Khamenei, Ra’aisi and others, they reiterate  the issue of martyrdom and sacrifice. This philosophy is rooted in the beginnings of the Guardianship of Islamic Jurist. For instance, Khomeini believed  that the Iran-Iraq war was an opportunity for Iranian youths to ascended  to God when they were killed as  martyrs!

At the grassroots level, the pro-Iranian media tried to stir up the sectarian dimension and create a sectarian context  similar to the killing of Al-Hussein in the Shiite memory. To this extent, images of Hussein meeting Soleimani in Heaven, and other images of him being hugged  by Hussein  went viral. There were narratives that began to appear  involving  confrontation  with the Umayyads and their mocking of Soleimani’s killing, and other  narratives related to this event to fuel the Iranian imagination, according to some authors.

Iran also worked to use the killing of Soleimani and his companions to eliminate internal Iranian  demonstrations, known as the gasoline demonstrations, and externally to eliminate  the Iraqi uprising  that has been  ongoing since the beginning  of October 2019. The protesters’ demands have not been met  yet, which was curbed basically  by  Iranian interference. In the context of exacerbation, the followers of the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist  in some governorates of Iraq held  a symbolic funeral for Soleimani and  Muhandis, while protesters in Nasiriyah  refused entry of  the funeral ceremony into  the city, and threw stones at the procession, and burned a number of vehicles.

There are undoubtedly  great gains that Iran will reap from the killing of Soleimani, related  to restoring  the cohesion of the  Shiite house, and undermining political and sectarian opponents both internally and externally. The Iranian religious elite lost this cohesion  after the burning of the images of the supreme leader by protesters since October 2019  in the central Shiite capitals of Karbala, Najaf, Basra, Beirut, and even one day before Soleimani was killed.

  1. Does the Marjaya  Contribute to De-escalation?

The  Marjaya   represented by Sistani and the three big Marjas in Najaf do not want Iraq to slide into an American-Iranian conflict, which may drain  it. Therefore, the Marjaya repeatedly called for the integration of all armed factions into the official state security institutions, and demanded all parties concerned to respect Iraqi sovereignty.

At the same time, the Marjaya  was unable to ignore the killing of Soleimani because  it was  considered a violation of Iraqi sovereignty by the Americans, and to save its face in front of the Shiites masses who are sympathetic to the killing of Soleimani, who is widely credited by Iraqis for eliminating the Islamic State. In addition, the Marjaya could not ignore the killing of the PMF leaders that   accompanied Soleimani, like Muhandis and others who were recognized for  maintaining the cohesion of the Iraqi state in the face of the expansion of the Islamic State. This  brought popular sympathy for their killing, even from some of the protestors of Tahrir Square who called for  the liberation of Iraq from Iranian and American hegemony.

Given these interactions, the Marjaya  acted as a balance in light of these sharp regional fluctuations. It tried to satisfy the Shiite masses. Meanwhile, it reminds  Iraqi politicians and officials of the sovereignty of the Iraqi state, and not to engage in regional conflicts that threaten the cohesion of the fragile Iraqi state.

However, the Marjaya   in Najaf remains largely spiritual. It does not have the ability to enforce  political decisions on the ground by virtue of the presence of militias affiliated with the supreme leader  in Tehran which act under his command, and by virtue of the fact that the Najaf seminary does not adhere  to the Guardianship  of the Islamic Jurist. Therefore,  its mandate is limited to matters of daily life. Some of its followers are sympathetic to Iranian grievances, and influenced by the power of the Iranian media, which  frequently speaks on behalf of all Shiites.

Therefore,  the Marjaya  will retain its mentorship role, and remains greatly blessed  by politicians who  show their affection and reverence to it. In political practice, the guidance of the Marjaya is overridden in favor of the political  Marjaya   represented by the supreme leader  in Tehran.

Editorial Team