Splits emerge among Iraq’s Shia militias over closeness to Iran
Four armed groups loyal to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have broken away from the Popular Mobilisation Forces over concerns that Iran wields disproportionate influence over the umbrella group of militias.
Forces loyal to Iraq’s most senior cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, are breaking away from the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) amid tensions between rival Shia militias over Iran’s influence on the umbrella group.
According to the Middle East Eye, a faction of four groups, made up of 15,000 fighters, that are loyal to the religious leader and are unhappy about Iran’s influence on the PMF, will form a new grouping called the Mobilisation of Holy Shrines.
The UK-based outlet said the militias joining the new umbrella group include the Abbas Combat Division, Ali al-Akbar Brigade, Ansar al-Marjiya Brigade and Imam Ali Division.
Sistani was instrumental in the formation of the PMF, which came into being after he issued a fatwa calling for a force to combat the Daesh terrorist group in 2014 after it had swept aside Iraqi army forces and seized much of the country’s north, including Iraq’s third largest city of Mosul.
The fighters were instrumental in defeating Daesh but also have a reputation for human rights abuses, particularly against Iraq’s Sunni Arabs.
But even within the Shia community, some factions within the PMF stand accused of taking their orders from Iran instead of Baghdad, and that seems to be the cause of the gripe between Sistani’s followers and rival factions.
The report notes that in recent months, more Iranian aligned figures within the PMF have secured positions within its senior leadership prompting Sistani to create a parallel force.
Separately, some within the Sistani faction want to distance themselves from accusations of corruption and other abuses of power associated with the pro-Iranian militias.
Though all Shia militias in the PMF are nominally loyal to Sistani, pro-Iranian factions, such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataeb Hezbollah, are considered to lend their loyalty to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini.
Najaf versus Qom
Militias whose primary loyalty lies with Sistani rather than Khameini have found themselves uncomfortably close to the low level conflict between pro-Tehran Iraqi militias and the US. That conflict has in itself increased the strain between pro-Iranian factions of the PMF and the Iraqi government, which the militias suspect of involvement in US attacks on its leaders.
Sistani has been eager not to let US-Iranian tensions play out within Iraq, a position illustrated in his response to the January 2020 US killing of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a senior PMF and Kataeb Hezbollah commander.
While Sistani praised the men as “heroes” of the battle against Daesh and condemned Washington’s “insolent breach” of Iraqi sovereignty, he also warned Iraqi militias to practice “self-restraint” and act “wisely”.
The senior Shia religious figure has also warned against apparent Iranian attempts to undermine Iraq’s sovereignty.
Fighters loyal to pro-Iranian militias, for their part, are accused of deliberately disobeying orders from Sistani in order to sap support from the religious leader.
In an article for the London School of Economics, the academic Mehmet Alaca, explains that the divisions are at least partially rooted in a long standing rivalry between the Shia religious establishments in the Iraqi city of Najaf and the counterparts in the Iranian city of Qom.
Despite being born in Iran himself, Sistani has sought to counteract efforts by the Qom establishment to increase its influence in Shia holy cities in Iraq, such as Karbala and Najaf.
Sistani has been a lifelong opponent of the concept of the ‘vilayat-e-faqih’, around which Iran’s ruling class is organised, and which holds that the custodianship of a state should be held by the clerical class.
While Sistani ostensibly calls for Iranians and other Shia Muslims to obey the authority of Khameini, his disagreements on the core concepts justifying clerical rule in Iran serve as a challenge for its revolutionary rulers.