Ayatollah Sayid Ali Al-Sistani is the leading Islamic Shi’a scholar, playing a preeminent role similar to the Pope amongst Catholics. Housed in modest dwellings in the holy city of Najaf, he has been the mainstay of calm and moderation in Iraq. His fatwas throughout the last decade urging Shi’a-Sunni unity have been credited for holding back Iraq from all-out civilian strife at the height of sectarian tensions in 2006-8. So when Sistani issues a call to arms, our world stands up and takes notice.
Delivered through his main representative, Sheikh Abdul Mahdi Al-Karbalei, in last Friday’s prayer, Ayatollah Sistani called on every able-bodied Iraqi to volunteer to join the security forces in the fight against terrorism. His call came after a tumultuous week in which the Iraqi army melted away before an aggressive onslaught from ISIS consolidated their hold on Mosul, and started to move towards the capital Baghdad after seizing control of Tikrit.
Over the last 48 hours, Iraqi and Arab television screens have played over and again those words, and tens of thousands of Iraqis are responding, forming long queues of volunteers.
The significance of Sistani’s call to arms
Sistani’s message yesterday provided a much-needed morale boost to Iraq’s beleaguered security forces. Iraq’s army and police are under huge pressure, facing national and international scrutiny over the way they allowed ISIS to invade large swathes of territory without putting up a fight. Some generals are being accused of outright collaboration with ISIS, while others are alleged to have accepted bribes, or simply deserted. Sistani’s words of support have garnered much needed support for the security forces that must ultimately shoulder the responsibility of leading the fight against violent extremism. But the key impact of Sistani’s intervention is political.
Internally, Sistani’s words directly addressed the fractured Iraqi political class. They are helping reunite Iraq’s dithering Shi’a factions under the strategic priority of fighting terrorism, and boosting moderate Sunnis by emphasizing the need to sacrifice to save the locals of Mosul from extremist rule.
The intra Sunni fight between moderates and extremists is ultimately what will make or break ISIS, and Sistani’s words may already be having an effect. Just yesterday the Imam of Mosul’s main mosque, Sheik Mohammed Al-Mansouri was killed by ISIS after refusing to hand over the mosque to their control. The Sheik’s assassination quickly drew condemnation throughout Iraq, with Iraqi Shi’a clerics close to Sistani offering their sympathies and support to their fellow countrymen.
Externally, Sistani’s words have sent tremors into the corridors of power in the Arab and broader Muslim world. Sistani’s words were understood as a call for jihad: a holy war against the terrorists. It represents by far the strongest statement Sistani has ever issued since assuming leadership of the Shi’a Muslim world.
The political message to the Gulf and Ankara is clear: if they continue to fund and sponsor extremist Sunni militant groups, the leadership of the Shi’a Muslim world will no longer stand idly by. If a fight is inevitable, they are ready.
A rare American-Iranian partnership?
The enormity and seriousness of the ISIS threat on Iraq brings the United States and Iran onto the same strategic side. Shared interests in the stability of Iraq and the need to eradicate terrorists create a significant opening for cooperation between the two countries. The last time the sides came together was in the aftermath of 9/11, when Iran offered support for the US war on the Taleban. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has seized on this opportunity, calling today on “all to practically and verbally confront terrorist groups,” indicating Iranian willingness to cooperate with the US in the shared goal of fighting terrorism. If this cooperation takes place, prospects for increased trust in the western-Iranian nuclear negotiations may follow.
Pessimists see the ISIS attack as resulting in Iraq’s breakup and the boosting of terrorism in the region. Optimists see a great opportunity for Shi’a-Sunni unity against extremists, and the moves toward an American-Iranian rapprochement that can be transformative for peace and security prospects in the Middle East. Either scenario is possible, or more likely, events leading to somewhere in between.