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Shiite Politics in Iraq: The Role of the Supreme Council
Shiite Politics in Iraq: The Role of the Supreme Council
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Iraq: Protests, Iran’s Role and an End to U.S. Combat Operations
Iraq: Protests, Iran’s Role and an End to U.S. Combat Operations
Report 70 / Middle East & North Africa

Shiite Politics in Iraq: The Role of the Supreme Council

Often misidentified in Western media as “the largest Shiite party” in Iraq, SCIRI – the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Al-Majlis al-‘Aala li al-Thawra al-Islamiya fi-l-Iraq) – is certainly one of the most powerful.

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Executive Summary

Often misidentified in Western media as “the largest Shiite party” in Iraq, SCIRI – the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Al-Majlis al-‘Aala li al-Thawra al-Islamiya fi-l-Iraq) – is certainly one of the most powerful. Its defining characteristics are a strong organisation, whose leadership hails from one of Najaf’s leading families, the Hakims; a surprising political pragmatism in light of profound sectarian inclinations; and a somewhat incongruous dual alliance with the U.S. and Iran. Since its founding a quarter century ago, it has followed a trajectory from Iranian proxy militia to Iraqi governing party, whose leader, Abd-al-Aziz al-Hakim, has been courted and feted by the Bush White House. Today, it is engaged in a fierce competition with its main Shiite rival, the movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr, which may well determine Iraq’s future. To help shape the party into a more responsible actor, the U.S. should stop using it as a privileged instrument in its fight against the Sadrists but press it to cut ties with its more sectarian elements and practices.

As a result of the pervasive distrust, if not open hostility, SCIRI encountered upon its return from Iranian exile in April 2003, its quest for power (political in Baghdad, religious in Najaf) has first and foremost taken the form of a quest for respectability. It has made strenuous efforts to distance itself from its Iranian patron, whitewash its embarrassing past, build political coalitions, profess the importance of Iraq’s unity, maintain the semblance of government and, as conditions deteriorated, use the state’s security apparatus to protect the Shiite community from insurgent attacks. Although it continues to receive Iranian funds, it is in this not all that different from other parties, many of which became beneficiaries of Tehran’s strategy of diversifying support.

In 2007, it removed the word “revolution” from its name, becoming the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (Al-Majlis al-‘Aala al-Islami al-Iraqi), or ISCI, thereby suggesting that its days of armed opposition were over. It also hinted that it had dropped adherence to Iran’s brand of theocracy and switched its loyalty from Tehran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to the Shiites’ foremost religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf.

If SCIRI/ISCI has so far failed in achieving respectability, it is because it has never quite managed to shake off its past as an Iran-bred group of exiles with a narrow sectarian agenda enforced by a potent militia. SCIRI claims with justification that it was established and inspired in response to the Iraqi regime’s tyranny and crimes but perceptions forged during the hard years of the Iran-Iraq war, in which the party and its Badr militia fought alongside Iranian forces, have been slow to change; suspicion that SCIRI remains guided by a foreign hand even as it plants its roots in Iraqi soil has hobbled its ambition.

Hakim’s calls for the establishment of a Shiite super region in the nine southern governorates have provoked widespread opposition, including among fellow Shiites. Equally suspect to many Iraqis has been the party’s more recent cosy relationship with the U.S. As a result, SCIRI/ISCI enjoys little popularity. Moreover, the party faces a possible succession crisis, as a gravely ill Abd-al-Aziz al-Hakim gradually fades from the scene, with his son Ammar perhaps too young and inexperienced to replace him.

Still, the party is a formidable force. As a result of the U.S. surge, it is benefiting from coalition efforts to suppress not only al-Qaeda in Iraq but also ISCI’s principal rival, the Sadrists’ Mahdi army (Jaysh al-Mahdi). As long as the U.S. remains in Iraq, its alliance with ISCI will help entrench the party in the country’s governing, security and intelligence institutions, in Baghdad as well as most southern governorates. Its only true challenger remains the Mahdi army, which despite its ruffian credentials and bloody role in sectarian reprisals enjoys broad support among Shiite masses. Their rivalry now takes the form of a class struggle between the Shiite merchant elite of Baghdad and the holy cities, represented by ISCI (as well, religiously, by Sistani), and the Shiite urban underclass.

This struggle, more than the sectarian conflict or confrontation between Anbari sheikhs and al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters, is likely to shape the country’s future. The most plausible scenario is a protracted struggle for power between these two movements, marked perhaps by temporary alliances, such as is presently in force.

The U.S. has fully backed ISCI in this rivalry. This is a risky gambit. Unleashing ISCI/Badr against the Sadrists is a dangerous policy that will further deepen intra-Shiite divisions; it also is a short-sighted one, given the Sadrists’ stronger mass base. Instead, the U.S. should adopt a more even-handed approach between the movements, while pressuring ISCI to reform its behaviour. The U.S. can help ISCI move away from its controversial past, and it has an interest in further anchoring the party within the current set-up. An ISCI fully transformed into a responsible, non-sectarian political party could make a significant contribution to the country’s rebuilding. In particular, ISCI should:

  • project itself further as a truly Iraqi party that supports the country’s unity in both its public positions and actual policy, abandoning its advocacy of a nine-governorate Shiite super region, which has proved highly divisive and has inflamed sectarian debate;
     
  • urge its representatives to cease sectarian rhetoric, which has further polarised the country;
     
  • remove commanders who have engaged in illegal detention, torture and death-squad activity; and
     
  • support total transparency in hiring practices by government institutions, including the interior and finance ministries, which it controls in effect, as well as the army, police and other security services and intelligence agencies.

 

Baghdad/Istanbul/Brussels, 15 November 2007

 

Iraq: Protests, Iran’s Role and an End to U.S. Combat Operations

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk to Crisis Group’s Lahib Higel about the Tishreen uprising that upended Iraqi politics and what President Biden’s announcement that U.S. forces will end their combat mission in Iraq means for the country.

After a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi earlier this week, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that American forces would end their combat mission in Iraq by the end of 2021. Biden’s announcement comes after a turbulent few years for Iraq. Mass protests saw young people camp out in city and town squares across much of the country despite harsh crackdowns by security forces and Iran-backed paramilitaries. Although demonstrations forced one government to step down and have largely dissipated this year, few of the protesters’ grievances have been addressed, and it is far from clear whether elections in October this year offer a chance for political renewal. In this week’s episode, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh are joined by Lahib Higel, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Iraq, to talk about Iraqi politics, Iran’s role, how much of a threat ISIS poses, and what an end to U.S. combat operations likely means for the country. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more information, explore Crisis Group’s analysis on our Iraq page.

This is the last episode of the first season of Hold Your Fire!. Please do get in touch with any feedback for the hosts or ideas for the next season at podcasts@crisisgroup.org.

Contributors

Interim President
atwoodr
Naz Modirzadeh
Board Member and Harvard Professor of International Law and Armed Conflicts
Senior Analyst, Iraq
LahibHigel