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The United States and Iraq's Shi'ite Clergy: Partners or Adversaries?

Authored by Dr. W. Andrew Terrill. | February 2004

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Clerics are one of the most important forces guiding and directing Iraqi Shi?ite public opinion. Many of Iraq?s secular leaders were sullied by their collaboration with the Saddam Hussein regime or were tainted by their prolonged absence from Iraq, and thus do not have the potential power of the religious establishment to mobilize popular opinion. Moreover, many Shi?ite clerics are emerging as important spokesmen for their communities. Iraqi Shi?ites have been denied power proportionate with the size of their community since Iraq was established in 1920 and are determined not to be disenfranchised again. Their actions toward the United States are often calibrated with this goal in mind.

All of Iraq?s major Shi?ite clerics are critical of the U.S. military presence. Some are deeply critical and may choose to support anti-coalition violence should the U.S. forces remain in Iraq for an extended period of time. Those who do cooperate with the U.S. presence usually are careful to explain to their followers that they do so reluctantly and only in recognition of overwhelming U.S. power.

The leading Shi?ite clerics in Iraq at this time are Grand Ayatollah ?Ali Sistani and his four colleagues who control the Najaf Hawza, a Shi?ite religious seminary and center of religious scholarship. The Hawza clerics have had a tradition of staying distant from politics, but this tradition now seems to be eroding. Sistani publicly treats the U.S. presence as illegitimate, but also engages in tacit cooperation with U.S. authorities. His continued cooperation with the United States will be vital for U.S. forces now in Iraq, but his patience is not assured.

A potentially important leader seeking to compete with the Hawza is the young and militant Muqtada al Sadr, a junior cleric whose father was Iraq?s most senior cleric in 1999 when he was murdered by Saddam?s agents. Sadr is backed by the deeply radical and anti-Semitic Grand Ayatollah Kazem Ha?eri, an Iraqi exile in Iran and a believer in a variety of hateful conspiracy theories about the United States. Sadr hopes to develop a strong following among the young and impoverished dwellers in Shi?ite slums.

Shi?ite political parties with an Islamic agenda also are emerging as significant players in post-Saddam Iraq. The most important of these is the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which has a long history of collaboration with Iran. SCIRI currently is cooperating with the United States on the grounds that Shi?ite interests must be strongly asserted, or they will be ignored. Nevertheless, SCIRI publicly stresses its strong distrust of the United States and unhappiness with the U.S. presence in Iraq. The smaller Da?wa and Iraqi Hizb?allah parties likewise stress the need for the United States to leave Iraq as soon as possible. None of these parties publicly call for violence against the United States at this time, although one of Da?wa?ssources of spiritual inspiration (Sheikh Fadlallah of Lebanon) has hinted that violence may be appropriate.

While none of Iraq?s leading Shi?ite clerics is friendly to the United States, some are more tolerant than others of the U.S. presence. None seem to trust the United States or assume that the United States has a benevolent agenda in the region. The ouster of Saddam thus earned the United States surprisingly little credit with a clerical leadership that suffered unspeakable oppression under the ousted tyrant. The dangers of militant Shi?ites committing acts of terrorism against U.S. forces in the foreseeable future thus are real and pressing. The likelihood and potential scope of such attacks will probably increase so long as the U.S. military presence continues.

In examining the above questions, the author has included a glossary at the back of this monograph for individuals who are less familiar with some of the titles, honorifics, names, and concepts within Twelver Shi?ite Islam.


When the U.S.-led military forces took control of Iraq in early 2003, they assumed control of a country with a short but extremely complex religious, ethnic, and social history. As the future of post Saddam Iraq unfolds, the attitudes and behavior of the Shi?ite Muslim Arabs are emerging as critical factors for Iraq?s future. This community, traumatized by years of Iraqi government brutality, forms 60-65 percent of the Iraqi population. Currently, the majority of its members appear determined not to return to their former status as an oppressed majority ruled by minority Sunni leaders.

At the time of this writing, U.S. military forces in Iraq are facing serious ongoing casualties in their confrontation with predominantly Sunni Muslim Arabs, some of whom are supporters of the previous regime. The Shi?ites, in contrast, while showing strong signs of impatience with the U.S. military presence, have not yet joined in the guerrilla war at any significant level. So long as they continue to remain outside of the fighting, the United States may have a reasonable chance of succeeding in the rehabilitation of Iraq. The Iraqi situation will, however, become vastly more complex should Shi?ite leaders call upon their followers to resist the U.S. military presence.

If the majority of Shi?ites are currently not clear U.S. supporters, neither have they yet chosen to take up arms against U.S. forces in significant numbers. Consequently, a strong effort must be extended to win their cooperation and avoid pressing them into becoming enemies, while still seeking good relations with Iraq?s non-Shi?ite citizens. If the Shi?ite Arabs of Iraq do rise in significant numbers to oppose the U.S. presence, the result will be a radicalizing experience for them and increasing casualties for the U.S. armed forces. Any Iraqi political system emerging from such a crucible can be expected to be hostile to the United States and potentially destabilizing for the region. Correspondingly, U.S. sacrifices of blood and treasure made during and after the invasion of Iraq will have yielded few, if any, tangible results.

Under these circumstances, it is important to consider the current and emerging leadership of Iraq?s Shi?ite community. Much of the current leadership can be found among religious leaders. Although these individuals and their organizations may yet be displaced by more secular elites, they are the most powerful forces in the Shi?ite community at present. The Shi?ite community?s religious hierarchy, current leaders, possible strategies, and future aspirations, therefore, deserve serious consideration by U.S. policymakers and military leaders.


The United States, through its military presence in Iraq, has found itself in a position whereby its civilian and military leaders must understand the internal dynamics and activities of the Shi?ite clergy within larger Shi?ite and Iraqi societies. While this clergy may not actually rule Iraq, it is likely that it will be highly influential in determining Iraq?s future. Moreover, any breakdown in relations between the United States and the Shi?ite clergy during the occupation could threaten grave consequences for U.S. troops remaining in Iraq. With this situation in mind, the following policy recommendations are made.

1. U.S. leaders need to recognize the non-American values of most of the Shi?ite clergy and correspondingly understand that Shi?ite clericalcooperation with U.S. forces remains largely tactical. This does not mean that most of the Shi?ite clergy has a short-term anti-American agenda, but neither does it mean that the Shi?ite clergy is trustworthy or should be considered as a long-term ally. None of the major Shi?ite clerical leaders are comfortable appearing too close to the occupation. All have criticized the U.S. presence, and some have done so in odious and incendiary ways.

2. U.S. policymakers must correspondingly maintain the subtlety to recognize that Shi?ite clerics are now legitimate long-term and important political actors in Iraqi politics. A dialogue between the U.S. and major Shi?ite groups, therefore, remains essential. Nevertheless, the clergy does not speak for all Iraqi Shi?ites, and this must also be understood.

3. U.S. policymakers may have to gamble on continued cooperation with Grand Ayatollah Sistani and the Hawza and even with SCIRI. U.S. leaders are not always comfortable with Shi?ites, and especially Shi?ite clerics, perhaps due to decades of problems with Iran. Nevertheless, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, for all his difficulties, is not someone who can be ignored or marginalized. To treat him as an enemy could make him into an enemy.

4. The U.S. Government will have to expect that Iran will continue to compete with the United States for influence in Iraq on a more or less permanent basis. Iran, nevertheless, does not have so much to offer the Iraqi Shi?ites that its influence cannot be contested effectively. Moreover, tensions between Iraqis and Iranians will not disappear now that Saddam has been removed from power. Additionally, any clear or borderline Iranian incitement against U.S. troops must be treated as much more serious than merely competing for influence in Iraq.

5. The U.S. Government needs to be particularly wary of Muqtada al Sadr and his movement, but should try to avoid a direct confrontation with them if possible. Muqtada al Sadr has behaved like a clear enemy of the United States on numerous occasions. Nevertheless, Sadr is such a divisive figure internally that he may not have any chance of seizing power. Sadr is often on bad terms with other important Shi?ite leaders, including Sistani and Hakim. He also has substantially antagonized Sunni Muslims, and his heavy-handed Islamic vigilantism is deeply offensive to secular Iraqis and religious minorities such as Christians. The U.S. forces must therefore be certain that they take no action that will force Iraq?s major clerics to support Sadr, unless such action is indispensable for the safety of coalition forces or Iraqi civil society. Knowing where to draw the line on these issues will have to involve discussions with Hawza and perhaps SCIRI.

6. U.S. policymakers cannot depend on the defeat of the current Sunni-based insurgency to quiet Shi?ite criticism of the U.S. presence in Iraq. The defeat of the current insurgency and the destruction of Saddam remnants sometimes are viewed as the magic bullet to allow all Iraqi citizens to begin expressing gratitude for the U.S. intervention. Ironically, the final destruction of Saddam remnants may empower Shi?ites to oppose the U.S. presence in Iraq in a more assertive manner. At that point, they will not need the United States to help destroy their Ba?thist enemies. Once the United States is no longer performing the useful function of killing their enemies, the U.S. presence will be much more unwelcome.

7. U.S. Army forces in Iraq must understand that virulent anti-U.S. propaganda is emanating from Shi?ite sources as well as Sunni mosques and publications. Careful attention must be directed at these sources to detect efforts at incitement against U.S. forces and their Iraqi partners. In some cases, U.S. authorities in partnership with the emerging Iraqi leadership will have to continue closing radical Shi?ite newspapers, radio stations, and news magazines. They must remain aware that incitement can sometimes occur in subtle ways.

8. U.S. forces must also emphasize their concern about Iraqi Shi?ite groups, which may seek to coordinate with outside radicals such as those in Lebanon. While it may be impossible to prevent Da?wa and Iraqi Hizb?allah from seeking theological inspiration from radical Lebanese clerics, the formation of any kind of operational ties should be of grave concern to the United States.

9. Finally and most importantly, the United States needs to consider withdrawing its forces from Iraq as soon as a stable government is in place, so that anti-American feelings in the Shi?ite community do not grow unmanageable as the United States potentially wears out its welcome. Most Shi?ite clerics feel the need to treat the United States as an entity with either no legitimacy or only the most conditional legitimacy for remaining in Iraq at this time. Many clerics also have their own conspiratorial and sometimes bizarre explanations for why the United States intervened in the first place. The longer the United States stays in Iraq, the more pressure will be placed on that tolerance. Should an explosion occur among the Shi?ites, it may well become unmanageable.