Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric has issued an unprecedented call to arms after the al Qaeda offshoot ISIS seized more towns in northern Iraq.
The call by a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani came as ISIS, which is fiercely anti-Shia, widened its grip in the north and east, and threatened to march south towards Baghdad and Najaf.
Sistani is considered one of Iraq’s most influential leaders. His fatwa, or religious ruling, is expected to galvanize a significant movement from within Iraq’s majority-Shia population. Al-Sistani is, after all, the most influential voice for Iraq’s estimated 20 million Shia faithful.
Despite his identification as a Shia leader, the 84-year-old Sistani has been so far viewed as a moderating influence in Iraqi politics. After the al-Askari Mosque was bombed in Samarra in 2006 (one of Shia Islam’s holiest sites), in an act that precipitated the country’s civil war, Sistani blamed the sectarian violence on foreign forces and urged reconciliation between Iraq’s disparate groups.
But his latest fatwa reflects the urgency of the latest problems in Iraq, where a Shia-led government has struggled to contain a Sunni-led insurgency that accelerated after US troops withdrew from the country in December 2011.
Shia Iraqis cannot count on the army to defend them from Sunni radicals. An ISIS force of reportedly just 800 men captured Mosul, a city of 2 million, without resistance from Iraqi troops, who shed their uniforms and joined an exodus of 500,000 residents from the city. ISIS fighters have gone on to conquer the city of Tikrit, birthplace of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and have threatened to advance on Baghdad and the Shia-majority cities that lie to the capital’s south.
Although Sistani called on all able-bodied Iraqi men, regardless of religious affiliation, to join the fight against ISIS, his fatwa may actually exacerbate the sectarian tensions that have plagued the country. One possibility is that Shia men will re-establish militia groups, similar to those formed in the aftermath of the al-Askari bombing in 2006, and attempt to defend Shia populations from ISIS attackers. An ISIS bombing or attack on a Shia population center would have a “galvanizing” effect on Shia populations and may escalate sectarian tensions within the country.
The role of third-party countries remains a wild card. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has requested US air strikes, but it’s unlikely that Washington would do anything more than that. Appearing at the White House Rose Garden on Friday, President Barack Obama ruled out sending American ground troops to Iraq, and said he is weighing options for what else to do there.
Iran, Washington’s principal adversary in the region, has mobilized its elite Quds forces from its Revolutionary Guards. But Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, has reportedly assured al-Maliki that Iran will not invade.
ISIS, meanwhile, announced that its capture of Mosul has triggered a recruitment surge, as radical Sunnis from around the region have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the group.