Thursday, December 1, 2011

How Iraq’s Religious Parties Attempted To Seize Power In The Post-Invasion Vacuum

In April 2003, the government of Saddam Hussein fell. With it went the bureaucracy and the security forces. Into this vacuum stepped local Shiite clerics and exile political parties, all attempting to take advantage of the chaos to seize power. The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) in coordination with Iran moved in thousands of its militiamen. Moqtada al-Sadr’s followers tried to take over in major cities, and killed one of his main rivals. The SIIC and Sadrists were not only able to take control of some areas of the country during this period, but set the stage for them to become the new leaders of Iraq.
Badr Brigade fighters in Iran (SIIC)
The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) was one of the largest and most well organized parties to step into the void created by the overthrow of Saddam. As early as November 2001, the SIIC’s militia, the Badr Brigade met with friendly tribes, to begin planning for post-Saddam Iraq. Badr told the sheikhs to take over government offices after the impending U.S. invasion. This was coordinated with the Iranians, which the SIIC had close ties to. The Supreme Council’s founders Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim and Sayid Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who came from one of Iraq’s leading religious families, fled to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War where they created the party. They pledged allegiance to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard created the Badr Brigade to help in its war with Baghdad. The Supreme Council would later forge ties with the Americans, participating in various opposition meetings before the March 2003 invasion. The U.S. ended up picking the SIIC as being the main Shiite party it would work with, despite its ties to Iran. This was partly due to its connections with other leading opposition parties like the Kurds and the Iraqi National Congress, all of which the SIIC had worked with for years. In the new Iraq, the Hakims were hoping to play upon their name, opposition to Saddam, support from Tehran, and organization to take advantage of the U.S. invasion. This gave it an early lead to become one of the new powers in the country.

Immediately after the March 2003 invasion, the SIIC sent in thousands of its Badr Brigade fighters into Iraq. They positioned some in Kurdistan before the attack, while others moved in from Iran. The United States was aware of these moves, and warned Badr that it would be attacked if it were encountered during the invasion. In April 2003, the U.S. deployed peshmerga and Special Forces into Diyala province to try to block Badr from entering from Iran there. Neither of these actions deterred the Supreme Council however. The Badr Brigade was able to seize key cities in Diyala, and ended up fighting Baathists, Sunni tribes, and the Iranian-opposition party Mujahedeen e-Khalq in the province. This forced the United States to try to disarm the Badr, which only partially worked. The SIIC also moved to seize power in southern Iraqi cities like Basra, Najaf, and Karbala. In Kut, the capital of Wasit for example, SIIC cleric Sayid Abbas Fadhil claimed control of the city, and took over the city hall before U.S. forces arrived. The Badr Brigade also began assassinating Baathists. While being nominally aligned with the United States, the Supreme Council proved to have its own agenda. The SIIC had been waiting for twenty years for the fall of Saddam, and were not going to pass up the opportunity to assert itself across Iraq. They moved into Shiite areas of northern and southern Iraq, went after their opponents like former regime members, and set themselves up as the new government in parts of the country.

Ayatollah Haeri appointed Sadr his representative in Iraq, and called on Shiites to seize power after the fall of Saddam (New York Times)
Moqtada al-Sadr was also active during this period. First, Ayatollah Kadhem al-Hussein al-Haeri, a leading cleric based in Qom, Iran, appointed Sadr his representative in Iraq on April 7, 2003. The next day, al-Haeri issued a Fatwa calling on Shiites to seize power, and to oppose the United States. At the same time, Sadrists began asserting their control over Sadr City in Baghdad and southern Iraq, setting up offices, banning alcohol, and making women wear veils. On April 10, Sadr’s followers assassinated one of Moqtada’s main rivals, Sayid Abdul Majid al-Khoei in the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, and surrounded the house of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most senior cleric in Iraq, threatening him as well. Like the Supreme Council, the Sadrists tried to take over local administration in several of the country’s cities. Sadr’s followers also began working at the grass roots level with their offices that distributed social services to build up its support. Sadr went on to directly challenge his rivals by assassinating Sayid Khoei and threatening Ayatollah Sistani. Those events set the trend for the Sadrists as they would become the main movement of the Shiite poor, as well as one of the more violent militias.

Both the Hakims and Sadr were able to translate their early moves after the U.S. invasion into political power in post-Saddam Iraq. In 2003, Sayid Abdul Aziz Hakim became a member of the Iraqi Governing Council put together by the Coalition Provisional Authority. The Sadrists led two revolts in 2004, and became the major Shiite opposition group to the Americans. In 2005, the two parties decided to work together in the United Iraqi Alliance, which ended up winning the most seats in parliament in the two elections held that year. They then took over local administrations, provincial councils, governorships, and police forces in southern Iraq as a result. They then turned on Sunnis in response to the constant sectarian attacks by groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq, as well as fighting each other for dominance of southern Iraq. The United States was caught flatfooted to deal with any of this. They did not expect the government to totally collapse in the wake of the invasion, and did nothing during the chaotic weeks that followed when the war was officially over. That space allowed groups like the Supreme Council and Sadrists to rise to prominence. The SIIC turned out to be the party, the United States decided to work with, because it was willing to cooperate with them, while the Sadrists were considered a threat, because they constantly called for the Americans to leave the country, and were willing to use force to achieve that. Today, both parties remain members of the government, which is in part, the result of their aggressive moves to seize power in the wake of the U.S. invasion.


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