When Ayatollah Abdel Majid al-Khoei was stabbed to death earlier this month by a mob in Shiite Islam’s holiest mosque, the bloody event was widely described as a blow to the forces of reconciliation in Iraq. But his death also means that another, less US-friendly ayatollah lost one of his chief rivals in the competition for leadership of Iraq’s Shiite majority. Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim’s organization, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), claims some 10,000 trained members in its military arm, the Badr Brigade, and has a history of launching violent attacks against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Fawaz Gerges, a professor of International Affairs and Middle Eastern Studies at Sarah Lawrence, says the militant group could potentially become “the Hezbollah of Iraq.” Whether that potential is realized may depend on how the United States treats SCIRI during the next critical stages of forming an interim government.
Hakim says that he is poised to return to Iraq–and that it is time for the United States to leave. His group has already displayed its militancy by boycotting the Iraqi opposition conference that began on April 15, a stance some SCIRI officials took within hours of Saddam’s statue falling, charging that the meeting was “part of General [Jay] Garner’s rule of Iraq and we are not going to be part of that project at all.” Just days earlier, on April 11, more than fifty Iraqi expatriates living in Iran stormed the Iraqi Embassy there. They tore down portraits of Saddam and replaced them with portraits of Hakim and SCIRI military banners as they chanted not only “Death to Saddam” but “Death to America.” As Time reported on April 10, SCIRI also vowed “to take up arms against American forces if they remain in Iraq after deposing Saddam.”
It’s worth noting, in the wake of these recent protests, that SCIRI was one of only six opposition groups–and one of just two Shiite groups–that the Bush Administration made eligible for $92 million in US military assistance last year. The other primarily Shiite group was the ethically challenged Ahmad Chalabi’s umbrella organization, the Iraqi National Congress.
The Administration may not have asked enough questions then about the implications of offering SCIRI political and financial support, but now that Baghdad has fallen, SCIRI is likely to emerge as a potent force in shaping the future of Iraq. According to Gerges, “SCIRI can neither be ignored nor dismissed.”
Gerges, author of the forthcoming The Islamists and the West, calls SCIRI “one of the most organized political-religious movements within the Shiite community” and says the group has widespread appeal among the rising population of religiously-oriented Shiites, whose numbers have grown under the economic hardships of the past decade. Chalabi and Khoei both maintained ties with the US military and, despite the occasional rhetorical gesture of independence, have generally been seen as pro-Western and moderate, but Hakim has demonstrated profound ambivalence toward the United States and offered mixed messages about his own political vision: encouraging US support of Iraqi efforts to topple Saddam, yet stopping short of endorsing a US invasion; suggesting Sharia, or Islamic law, “should be the basis for legislation,” yet claiming to support democracy in Iraq. SCIRI’s history provides significant cause for concern, but also suggests that the group could become more moderate if it has a place at the table.
For a group that has enjoyed US support, SCIRI has an uncomfortable amount in common with anti-Western Islamic fundamentalists: Iran provides much of the group’s financial backing and for more than twenty years provided refuge for Hakim. During a visit to Lebanon shortly after Israel withdrew its troops, according to the Hezbollah radio station Radio of Islam, Hakim used the occasion to congratulate “Hezbollah, the Islamic Resistance, and its mujahedeen for the great victory against the Zionist enemy.”
SCIRI has not only endorsed violent attacks carried out by Hezbollah; the organization has carried out its own violent resistance, from attacking political party headquarters and government buildings with hand grenades, automatic weapons, and hand-held missile launchers to planting a “high powered remotely controlled bomb” in an Iraqi security base, all according to its own website. Although such attacks may have been justified by the nature of Saddam’s regime, they also provide a precedent for how SCIRI might choose to oppose a prolonged American occupation.
Evidence of these violent activities was already available last December, when Bush issued an executive order making SCIRI eligible for tens of millions in defense articles, defense services and “military education and training” (whether that money was disbursed has not yet been disclosed). Now, in the wake of suicide attacks on US occupying forces in Iraq, SCIRI’s vows of armed resistance begin to look less benign–and the Administration may need to start asking harder questions about how it can prevent these militants from following the paths of others that once enjoyed US support, from Saddam to the Afghan mujahedeen.
There are certainly signs that SCIRI might be lured down a less militant road. Jon Lee Anderson, in the February 10 New Yorker, quoted an Iranian reformer who said he thought Hakim might be “evolving,” but that “he couldn’t openly deny seeking a religious state while he is still inside Iran” and dependent on support from its Islamic leadership. Now that he has returned to Iraq, Hakim may have room to take a more democratic path.
Journalist Frank Smyth, who interviewed Iraqi Shiites during the 1991 uprising and since, describes SCIRI as “ambivalent about whether they wanted to create an Islamic state” and says that SCIRI has been “increasingly moderate during the 1990s.” In his view, “the best way to avoid a radical Islamist resurgence in Iraq is to make sure that for the first time Shiites get their fair share of the power.”
Some of Hakim’s recent statements provide evidence that US actions may influence the course SCIRI takes. When asked in an interview in the April 28 issue of Newsweek about SCIRI’s participation in a transitional government, Hakim said, “We have no information on what they want to do, so it’s too early to decide. But we don’t want to be part of a government that’s under the supervision of outsiders.”
Even in the face of mounting protests against a US occupation, especially visible during the Shiite pilgrimage to Karbala, US officials have done far too little to assuage Iraqis’ concerns or to bring groups like SCIRI, who voice these concerns, back to the table. Instead, Administration officials have supported hand-picked figureheads like Chalabi, who according to Smyth “has more support in Washington numerically than he’ll ever have in Iraq.”
This strategy of sidelining Shiites who oppose US dominance of an interim government may strengthen the influence of SCIRI’s more extremist members. “If SCIRI is integrated peacefully into Iraqi politics,” Gerges predicts, “it will likely play by the rules of the political game and serve as a stabilizing force. Its inclusion, not its exclusion, disarms and pre-empts the religious hard-liners within its ranks.”