Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iranians Join Sadr Cause

Shia from Iran enlist in Mahdi Army, pledging to keep US forces out of Iraqi holy places.
By Aqil Jabbar

At Iraq’s most famous arms market, two Iranians are spotted loading rocket-propelled grenades into their battered GMC pickup, and covering them with a layer of oranges.


Weapons once used to guard the frontiers with Iran are now sold wholesale at the Majar al-Kabir market in eastern Iraq, where vendors lay out lines of RPGs, mortars and assault rifles in the open air.


The two Iranians were among dozens of Persian-speakers that an IWPR reporter spotted later carrying weapons alongside Iraqi members of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in Kufa, whose main mosque is the headquarters of the Shia leader.


Most of the Iranians in Kufa - a three-hour drive away from Majar al-Kabir - refused to talk, but several said their motive for joining or supporting Sadr was to ensure that the Americans are kept out of Iraq's holy places - such as the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, which is surrounded by US forces who’ve demanded Sadr's surrender and the dissolution of his militia.


"It's an obligation,” said Ali Bahnad, a former military officer from Qum, shopping for RPGs in Majar al-Kabir.


“The protection of the Imam Ali should not be carried out only by Iraqis. If we don't fight Americans [ourselves], then we must provide money to buy weapons.”


Marjan Nasiri, a day-labourer from Iran, shelters in a concrete emplacement on the outskirts of Kufa with his new-found Iraqi friends. A few hundred metres away, the barrel of a US tank is trained on their position.


Nasiri’s towering frame shakes with emotion as he talks about fighting the Americans. "Iranians and Iraqis are one Muslim people, and we must stand together against America and occupation," he said.


"This situation is not about politics but religion - keeping the city of Najaf pure of Americans and Jews, as it is the city of Imam Ali."


Nasiri came to Najaf with his family as a pilgrim, but says he felt “obliged” to join in the conflict.


"I sent my wife back to Iran, and stayed in Najaf,” he said, pointing out that a visit to the shrine city is a religious obligation for any honourable Muslim.


Iranian tailor Abdi Mahbian, another pilgrim-turned-recruit, came to Najaf specifically to fight. He knew followers of Sadr when they were living in exile in Iran before the fall of Saddam Hussein, he says.


Mahbian said Iranian enlistment was a "chance for [them] to clear away the history of the [Iran-Iraq] war”.


It would, he said, “open a new page in relations between the two countries, standing against unbelievers and atheists that try to contaminate Najaf because they hate Muslims”.


Other pilgrims declared their willingness to join in the fight if required by Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani - a senior clergyman whose authority claims millions of followers throughout the Islamic world.


Mahmoud Asadi, an Iranian pilgrim who has so far remained neutral, said many “Iranians will enter Iraq” if Sistani declares a fatwa, or religious edict, against the Americans. “I will be the first man to fight,” he said.


Zakri Bahnad, a pilgrim from India, said, "It will be the same with many people from Pakistan and India who follow Sistani.


"I shall fight against the US forces if Sistani orders it."


Aqil Jabbar is an IWPR trainee.