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

Unholy War in Karbala

A self-made ayatollah with his own army exemplifies the fragmented politics of the main Shia towns - and the inability of government to rein such figures in.
By IWPR Reporters
When Saddam Hussein’s regime fell in April 2003, the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf overnight became the focus of great hopes and fears all at once.

Under Saddam, Iraq’s Shia majority was repressed, their political and religious aspirations crushed and their clerics kept firmly under the control of the state. With the arrival of the United States-led coalition, the clerical establishment in the twin cities was back centre stage. Najaf and Karbala were seen as key to winning the battle for Shia hearts and minds - at least that is what Washington hoped, Tehran feared and many Iraqis believed.

The general perception seemed to be that a central order would establish itself among Iraq’s Shia community and would exercise control over the different shrines and the “hawzas”, the Shia colleges or seminaries.

But these expectations proved badly mistaken. Today no one force - neither the Iranian-influenced clerics nor the Iraqi nationalist scholars - is in full control of Najaf and Karbala. Instead, there is constant turmoil as different factions struggle for power. The Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Badr militia of Ayatollah Muhammed Baqir al-Hakim, and the followers of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, regarded as Iraq’s supreme Shia authority, all compete for influence.

Amid the anarchy, a new kind of Shia leader emerged which no one had anticipated, and which now represents a serious threat to the rule of law in the most important Shia religious centres: self-appointed clerics who combine the might of armed militias with an almost messianic sense of purpose.

The best known Shia figure who has gone his own way since 2003 is Muqtada al-Sadr, who has made a name for himself despite lacking the scholarly clerical credentials of his father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, whose murder in 1999 was reportedly ordered by Saddam’s administration. Muqtada has built up a substantial following with the backing of his Mahdi Army and his firebrand style of rhetoric.

Then there is Farqad al-Qazwini, who set up his own hawza after being cast out of the Najaf seminary. Another self-declared leader challenging the rule of law in Karbala was Dhia Abdul-Zahra al-Garawi, who headed a group called the Soldiers of Heaven, and was killed with 300 of his followers by US and Iraqi forces near Najaf at the end of January.

The most powerful of the “instant ayatollahs” in Karbala is Sayyid Mahmud Hassani al-Sarkhi. No figure better symbolises the fragmentation of order and institutions in the Shia strongholds.

Many people in Karbala regard him as a serious threat to security and stability, and accuse him of being behind several successful and attempted assassinations of Shia scholars and clerics who criticised him.

Despite the allegations against him, the security forces have been unable - some would say unwilling - to detain him and put an end to his activities.

Largely unknown prior to 2003, Hassani has risen remarkably high. He presides over the Sadiq Hawza with more than 500 students in Karbala, leads the Walaa (Loyalty) political party, and commands between 15,000 and 20,000 followers in various southern provinces of Iraq, as well as an armed militia.

His followers have clashed repeatedly with Iraqi security forces as well as with supporters of other ayatollahs.

In August last year, seven people died as the Iraqi military tried to raid his offices, but abandoned the attempt as the violence spread to nearby towns. Although he is wanted by the government as well as the US military, and is deeply disliked by all other influential Shia parties, no one has dared take him or his militia on since then.

Sarkhi’s followers react badly to criticism of their leader. In remarks on Iranian TV in June 2006, cleric Sheikh Ali al-Gorani disputed Sarkhi’s claims to be a “marja” - a source of authority on matters of Shia Islam - and a representative of the Mahdi, the “hidden” 12th imam who Shia believe will return one day as a messiah. In response, Sarkhi’s followers demonstrated in several Iraqi provinces and attacked Tehran’s consulate in Karbala, breaking all the windows and dragging down the Iranian flag.

Typically of the new style of cleric, Sarkhi did not make his way up through the Shia hierarchy, and simply declared himself an ayatollah - a title normally reserved for learned senior scholars in the hawzas. Not only that, but he has gone on to claim that he is better informed than other ayatollahs.

The nearest thing to an official biography, written by one of his students, say he gains his honorific title “sayyid” as a descendent of the Imam Ali’s family, the most noble lineage possible in Shia Islam.

Born in the Hurriyah district of Baghdad in 1963, Sarkhi graduated in engineering from Baghdad University in 1987, and entered the Najaf Hawza in 1994, when the revered Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr was in charge. Friends claim that the grand ayatollah invited him to join the most advanced group of scholars, while others assert he did not complete his studies.

Whatever the truth is about his scholarly qualifications, Sarkhi declared himself an ayatollah and a marja whose word should be followed just four years later, in 1998. Sadr promptly dismissed him from the hawza.

Just before fall of Saddam’s regime, Sarkhi was briefly held at the Abu Ghraib prison.

Kadhim al-Abbadi, an expert on Grand Ayatollah Sadr’s life and work, is dismissive of Sarkhi.

“Sarkhi is an impostor,” he told IWPR. “I debated with him for two hours in his office in Najaf after 2003, and he had no answers to my [religious] questions.”

Sarkhi’s book, entitled Solid Thought, disputes the thinking of five senior Shia scholars and concludes that he has a more profound understanding of faith matters and therefore exceeds them in rank.

Other clerical leaders are as dismissive as Abbadi. None of the marjas have commented on his book or responded to his comments, clearly regarding him as not worth a response.

“Sarkhi is untrustworthy and Sayyid Sistani has never responded to him, because he is too high in rank to answer such a twisted man,” said Kifah Wahab, the head of the Izza religious school in Karbala and a supporter of Ayatollah Sistani.

There may be little sympathy for Sarkhi among the established clergy, but that has not stopped him winning large numbers of followers, mainly among young people.

Some believe he is deputising for the long-awaited Imam Mahdi.

Ahmed al-Sayid, a representative of Sarkhi’s office in Karbala, says most of his followers are former members of the Mahdi Army. They left the younger Sadr’s group, he said, “because we were unhappy about following a leader [Muqtada] who is not a marja, and prefer to follow a thinker and commander like Sayyid Hassani al-Sarkhi”.

It is unclear who is funding Sarkhi’s movement. Although Ahmed al-Sayid insists the major source consists of donations from the large numbers of followers, others suspect Iranian or Syrian influence.

Although Sarkhi’s followers claim he is against Iran having a presence in Iraq, the precise nature of his relationship with Tehran remains unclear. His thoughts have been translated into Persian and are taught at the religious centre in Qom.

In late 2006, he told supporters that the US presence was a threat to Iran, whose own involvement in Iraq was intended only to allow it to remain aware of the nature of a possible American strike against it.

It is perhaps symptomatic of conditions in Iraq that his questionable claim to stand among the ranks of the ayatollahs, his isolation among other major Shia groups, and the warrants that have been issued for his arrest, have not been enough to stop Sarkhi’s inexorable rise.

Ahmed Jafar, a professor at Baghdad University’s research centre, sees the apparent impunity enjoyed by figures like Sarkhi as symptomatic of the failure of governance in Iraq.

“The decay of government power and order and the continuous fragmentation of Iraq have made it increasingly difficult to hold figures like Sarkhi accountable and bring them to justice,” he said. “No one is there to stop them.”

As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.


More IWPR's Global Voices

Georgian Monuments Under Threat
Hundreds of buildings are in dire need of restoration, but arguments continue over who has the authority to carry out works.
Georgian Monuments Under Threat
Abkhazia: Closure Cuts Off Health Care