Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al Abadi announced the “collapse of the terrorist state of falsehood and terrorism,” on Monday June 10th. Iraq is celebrating the victory over the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as it claims Mosul from the self-styled caliphate after months of brutal war and destruction. Previously, Abadi announced “the end of the state-let of ISIS,” when the symbolic al Nuri Mosque in Mosul — from where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi announced the caliphate — was liberated by Iraqi security forces.
However, he did not just thank the security forces, but also acknowledged the contribution of Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani in the fight to defeat ISIS. He thanked Sistani for his historic religious decree (fatwa) to fight the enemy, which according to Abadi, mobilised Iraqis to rally behind the army in its fight against ISIS.
“Citizens who are able to bear arms and fight terrorists, defending their country and their people and their holy places, should volunteer and join the security forces to achieve this holy purpose.” This decree was read by Sistani’s representative in a Friday sermon in Karbala in June 2014. Thousands of Iraqis followed the call and volunteered to fight. Within two days of the decree, an umbrella organisation al Hashd al Sha’abi was formed by the Iraq’s ministry of interior on June 15th, 2014. It was created to stop the advancing ISIS and participate in the counteroffensive. Hashd played an instrumental role in defeating ISIS and liberating several towns from western al Anbar province to the northern town of Baiji and now Mosul.
Sistani’s fatwa became decisive to defeat ISIS. Unlike what is portrayed mainly in the Western media that Hashd is a force solely consisting of Shias, it also brought together Sunni tribesmen as well as Christian and Yazidi volunteers. However, Shia volunteers form the majority and in 2016 Iraq’s parliament recognised Hashd as an official force.
The fatwa came at a time when Iraq was experiencing a political turmoil. In the wake of ISIS’s lightening advances, Iraq’s former prime minister Nouri al Maliki began to lose the support of his allies, including Washington. He lost support within his own Islamic Dawa party, but he was defiant not to step aside despite pressure from different quarters. Due to Iraq’s history of military coups, the threat of another coup was looming. In his Friday sermons, Sistani declared the need for change and finally wrote to the leaders of the Dawa party to select a new premier.
Sistani remained under house arrest for many years during Saddam Hussein’s regime. When American forces invaded Iraq in 2003, he urged his supporters to avoid violent confrontation with occupying forces. His political role became apparent when he started criticising US political plans for Iraq. When US officials decided to appoint the framers of Iraq’s new constitution, he gave a fatwa against it and asked to elect members rather than appoint. “We want free elections and not appointments,” he said, while rejecting a US plan for the transfer of sovereignty to an unelected provisional government in June 2004.
Subsequently, he challenged the caucus format of the election announced by the US. He called for a representative government based upon the principle of majority rule and insisted on a one-person, one-vote standard. Mentioning Sistani’s defiance against the US, Vali Nasr in his book writes that Sistani ordered people to rally behind his order, which caused a large organised crowd to gather on the streets of Baghdad for five consecutive days.
Sistani has millions of followers not only in Iraq but also abroad. According to experts, he has proven himself to be the most powerful political voice of Iraq. So far, he has shown no intention to supplant the state, despite a growing demand from the population to intervene in some governmental issues. But his one call can bring millions on the streets to protest.
By Sajjad Ahmad
The writer is a senior research fellow at Area Study Centre for Europe, University of Karachi. He tweets at @saj_ahmd