An Iraqi Shia woman holding a poster bearing portraits of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani during a parade in the southern city of Basra in 2015. (AFP)

By Track Persia

May 30, 2020

The destruction of the Iraqi state by the 2003 US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq resulted in the rise of the Shiite clerics in Iraq, in particular, the most senior cleric in Iraq’s Najaf city Ayatollah Ali Sistani who has emerged as a key political power broker after the invasion.  The empowerment of Iran’s militia proxies in Iraq is attributed by some to Sistani’s famous jihad fatwa against the extremist groups the Islamic State (IS) back in 2014.

However, Sistani as a traditionalist religious leader who is the most senior cleric for the Shia in Iraq and worldwide is expected to focus on interpreting Quran and religious Shiite Islamic law based on the teaching of Shiite imams for his emulators. He is also supposed to spend his time on directing religious taxes (Khoms) and other religious charity which he receives from his followers, while his aides are expected to manage the Shiite religious educational centres and charity institutions which Sistani sponsors in Iraq and abroad such as in Iran, UK and the US.

Before the US-led invasion, Sistani and his colleagues in the Shiite city of Najaf were believed to have been practising quietist approach to politics, refraining from any political engagement because they follow the conventional school of Najaf which forbids clerics to interfere in state affairs. This Shiite school believes that the political authority on Earth only belongs to the twelfth imam, Al-Mahdi (also called the Awaited Imam) who the Shia Twelvers believe he disappeared many decades ago and will appear to rule the world with justice.

Nonetheless, these clerics did have political views before the invasion, though their views supported the pre-invasion regime. For example, a few weeks before the US-invasion, Sistani and his colleagues in Najaf expressed opposition to any foreign military aggression against Iraq in a statement aired on state-sponsored TV channel, the senior clerics were cited as saying:

The duty of Muslims in these difficult circumstances is to unite their stands and do all they can to defend beloved Iraq and safeguard it against the schemes of covetous enemies….Every Muslim should do all he can to defend Muslim Iraq and prevent the aggression against it …..Offering any kind of assistance or help to the aggressors is a moral sin.[i]

Additionally, Sistani and other senior clerics on March 13, 2003, issued another fatwa against the invasion cited by Iraqi state media as saying:

It is the duty of Muslims at these critical conditions to unify their word and do everything in their power to defend dear Iraq and protect it against the schemes of the covetous enemies. The Iraqis, people and leadership, will certainly stand united, supporting one another, against any aggression. They will resist this aggression using all their power, and they will frustrate the hopes of the aggressors with the help of God Almighty.”[ii]

Such statements debunk claims circulated by Sistani’s supporters that the ayatollah and the other clerics were struggling against the former regime.

Astoundingly, when US-led troops were approaching Baghdad in March 2003, Sistani’s position toward that military aggression was radically changed. The grand ayatollah was reported to have released a verbal fatwa in which he called upon his followers to avoid hindering the ‘liberation campaign’ that aimed to liberate the country. [iii]

In the meantime, the US Army announced the news at a briefing at Central Command headquarters at Camp Al-Sayliyah near Doha, Qatar citing that:

“In the wake of yesterday’s operations near Najaf and [inaudible] operations to date, a prominent cleric, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who had been placed under house arrest by the regime for a considerable period of time, issued a fatwa. And it was done this morning, instructing the population to remain calm and to not interfere with coalition actions. We believe this is a very significant turning point and yet another indicator that the Iraqi regime is approaching its end.[iv]

Commenting on this fatwa, Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum, the spokesman of London-based al-Khoei Foundation, which directs some of Sistani’s institution abroad, said that Sistani had called on Muslims to keep calm and stay at home, avoiding putting themselves in danger or fighting the occupation forces.[v]

Sistani’s followers defend this fatwa by Sistani claiming that it was released to resist Iranian influence in Iraq after the invasion.[vi] However, Sistani has not shown direct rejection of the extremely growing Iranian influence in Iraq nor has he directly criticised Iran’s proxies in Iraq that aim to implement Iranian interest rather than the interest of the Iraqi people.

Following the bombing of the Shiite holy shrine in Samarra city near Baghdad in 2006, the Iranian-backed militias and other local militias including Badr, Hezbollah Brigades and Mahdi Army of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr formed death squads and launched widespread reprisal campaign, particularly in Baghdad, against Iraq’s Sunni Arabs in retaliation for the bombings for which al-Qaeda-linked extremist groups in Iraq claimed their responsibility. Sistani did call for calm but many see his position towards these militias was not enough to stop their heinous sectarian crimes triggered the bloody civil war.

The Iranian-backed militias, however, aspired to expand their power and the influence of their patron, Iran, in Iraq and it was the fall of the northern city of Mosul to the extremist group of the Islamic State (IS) in June 2014 was the perfect chance for them to achieve this long aspiration.

The fall of Mosul prompted Sistani to release his famous Jihad fatwa against the extremist group and thousands of Shi’i men heeded Sistani’s fatwa by forming militias and others joined the already formed militias which were mainly backed by Iran. All these militias operated under the umbrella of al-Hashd al-Sha’bi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), which were later recognised by the Shi’i-dominated parliament as part of Iraqi forces, despite the allegiance of the majority of them was to Iran whose supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described Sistani’s fatwa as a “divine inspiration”.

The Iranian-backed militias within PMF again perpetrated serious crimes against Iraq’s Sunni Arabs in the name of liberating Iraq lands, from sectarian killing, torturing and kidnaping to banning the displaced from fleeing the fighting zones to other cities such as Baghdad where thousands of the fleeing Sunni Arabs left stranded. At Baghdad’s border crossing such as Bzaibiz crossing bridge, thousands of these displaced ended up returning to their towns to face deaths at the hands of IS militants or were killed by the Iran-backed militias which treated them IS members. Many of them took refuge at refugee camps which are notoriously unsuitable for living.

Despite the war ended and the victory on IS was officially declared by the Iraqi government in 2017, the Iran-allied militias have still been committing abuses and crimes against Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. For example, the end of the war on IS has not stopped these militias from carrying out a demographic change policy in the predominately Sunni Arab towns, such as Jurf al-Sakhr, where residents have not been allowed by these militias from returning to their homes. This policy is widely viewed as being part of Iran’s expansionist strategy in the region.

Despite Iraqi constitution bans any form of militias or their participation in politics, a large number of militiamen run for the 2018 general elections and won majority seats in the Iraqi parliament. It is worth noting that these elections had very low turnout and marred with large-scale allegations of irregularities and fraudulence. Having gained political power and controlled significant state resources, Iran-allied militias have now controlled decision- making in Iraq and have infiltrated most of the country’s important apparatuses.

Iran-backed militias have also been accused of wounding and killing thousands of human rights activists and Iraqi protesters who have been taken to the street since October to protest over government corruption, unemployment, poor services and Iran’s interference in their country. Over 600 protesters are reported to have been killed and more than 25,000 have been wounded since the outbreak of the protests.

Many Iraqis criticise Sistani for not releasing fatwa in which he disbands the Iranian-backed militias, given the official reason for their formation, the threat posed by IS, no longer exists.


[i] Ehrenberg, J., 2010. The Iraq papers. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press. P.320.




[v] Ibid


About Track Persia

Track Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.