Could Sunni-Shiite Rift make Tikrit a Pyrrhic Victory? Al-Azhar & Shiite Militias

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment)

The foremost Sunni Muslim seat of learning, al-Azhar University in Cairo, has stirred controversy by issuing a considered legal opinion (fatwa) condemning the Shiite militias or “Popular Mobilization Forces” that are now fighting alongside the Iraq army to take Tikrit back from Daesh (ISIL or ISIS).

To be fair, the al-Azhar has also condemned Daesh or ISIL. In fact, the Egyptian state has turned on political Islam in general and says it is fighting a Daesh branch in the Sinai Peninsula.


But the timing of the opinion and its call for the Iraqi army to reconsider cooperating with the Shiite militias has given many Iraqis the impression that religious Sunnis in Egypt prefer Daesh to Shiites.

Traditional Sunnism viewed Shiites as heretics (the differences between the two are about religious authority after the passing of the Prophet Muhammad and resemble in a vague way splits in Christianity such as that between Protestantism (I would argue it is more like today’s Sunni Islam) and Catholicism (perhaps today more like Shiite Islam).

But from the 1950s, al-Azhar began a Dar al-Taqrib or office for Sunni-Shiite ecumenism. In 2005, the major Amman Statement condemned the practice of excommunicating or calling Muslim non-Muslims, whether they are Sunni or Shiite. The Saudi Wahhabi branch of Islam wasn’t as enthusiastic for this ecumenism, but even in Saudi Arabia the late King Abdallah put two Shiites on his national legislative advisory counsel, the embryo of the future Saudi parliament.

Also to be fair, some of the Shiite militias have in fact been involved in ethnic cleansing campaigns and in atrocities against Sunnis, especially in 2006-7 but also more recently. Many Sunni Iraqis are afraid that they will commit reprisals against non-combatant Sunni populations who have cooperated with Daesh. (Sunnis who committed war crimes under the banner of Daesh should be arrested and tried; non-combatants are helpless once they have been conquered and should be left alone).

But the fact is that there are perhaps 50,000 militiamen fighting in Takrit, a much larger number than the regular Iraqi army, and they are functioning as the US National Guards do, being local forces that can be called up for national campaigns. WSJ alleges that Iranian commander Qasim Solaimani, who is coordinating the Tikrit campaign, has been trying to moderate their behavior toward local Sunnis because he wants to improve Iran’s relations with Iraq’s north and west in the aftermath of the Daesh, fiasco, in which Iraqi Sunnis allied even with the horrible Daesh to escape Shiite rule.

The al-Azhar ruling demonstrates the bind in which the current Iraq situation puts Sunnis in other countries. They almost universally despise Daesh/ ISIL, but it is hard for them to cheer Shiite militiamen on as they conquer a Sunni bastion like Tikrit.

The Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) newspaper in Jordan exemplifies these anxieties, writing that the Tikrit campaign could put an end to terrorism in Iraq (most Jordanians really hate Daesh) or it could unleash a new round of it if the Shiites are not prudent and restrained (Jordanians are strong Sunnis on the whole).

Some news outlets are alleging that the al-Azhar ruling was a favor to Saudi Arabia. Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal is said to be upset that the Tikrit campaign is spreading Iranian Shiite power into Sunni Iraq. Saudi Arabia just announced another $3 billion grant to the government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

A more measured response from Iraqi Intellectuals takes the position that the al-Azhar clerics are not close enough to the scene to appreciate the ways in which the Shiite militias have moderated and become an arm of the regular Iraqi army. The article just cited also quotes an Egyptian jurist who argues that it isn’t right for a religious authority to give a fatwa about something when it is distant and not on the ground, but should leave that to local Muslims facing the threat.

12 Responses

  1. The Shiite militia will of course keep going, eventually into Syria. That will do interesting things to the civil war dynamics. The question is whether the US will keep up airstrikes against Daesh when Assad receives these 50,000 battle hardened, Iranian-led reinforcements.

    • Militias hate to travel and fight far from home. Historically if you use militiamen to win a battle, they will disappear the next morning. If these militiamen were anything as disciplined and directed as Hezbollah, they could easily have wrecked the US occupation garrison during the twin uprisings of Anbar and the Sadrists in March/April 2004, cut off Baghdad, and forced Washington to either wipe out the country or evacuate its bureaucrats by air. It would have changed the course of world history.

      If anything, these militias seem to have decayed since then. Granted, chaos was a good strategy for driving the Americans crazy and getting them to leave. But here we are.

      However, I agree that even staying within Iraqi borders, they could cause big changes in the wars in Syria and elsewhere. The Sauds & their fellow oligarchs will not sit still; in fact they will likely panic at the chimera of bloodthirsty Iraqi Shias coming for their monarchies. The lack of historical legitimacy of the borderlines of these states makes it impossible for self-defense to be viewed by others as genuinely defensive, and the thin population densities and lack of natural barriers makes it hard to tell when or why anyone will stop.

    • If they want to finish ISIS threat, the only way displaced civilians can go back, they have to follow ISIS to Syria and probably will, including many Sunnis too, as mercenaries coordinating with Assad to end this nightmare, what comes next? Reforms, independence or autonomy, territorial arbitrations, rebuilding the cities, old grudges and fresh wounds. Is anybody looking that far forward?

  2. oxfordgirl

    @ClancyReports Sunni and Shia lived in harmony for generations, this is manufactured rift and everyone falling for it

  3. first of all. tikrit has not been taken yet. second of all, even if it is taken, it will not be held. us marines took fallujah. who runs fallujah now?

  4. The Grand Sheik of al-Azhar has claimed that the IS is an American directed conspiracy created to sow chaos and tear apart Arab states.

    The hypocrisy of al-Azhar condemning the brutality of Shia militias while enjoying encouraging similar barbarity in Egypt is obvious. It is a dispute over who should monopolize state supported atrocities.

    Al-Azar has long been infested with pro-Mubarak and pro-dictatorship minions.

    It certainly is not a viable source for any kind of “religious revolution.”

  5. The reports are that 20,000 of the 24,000 Iraqi troops fighting to take Tikrit are Shi’i militias. If so, there is no Iraqi regular army that is large enough to fight ISIS, in the first place. The Iraqi army has collapsed, and it is not likely to be restored any time soon. I have also heard reports of ethnic cleansing in the battle for Tikrit, with Shi’i militias expelling Sunnis from their villages and confiscating their property. If that is the game plan, the Iraqi troops fighting ISIS are not going to get very far.

  6. Sunni Shhite divide has been inflamed by Wahabbis of Saudi Arabia. These fantatics are behind madrasas who educate terrorists which practice genocide agains shiia and Ahmadiya in Pakistan. Saddam used the divide to his benefit to portray Iraqi aggession as war between Sunni Iraq and Ajam/shhite Iran. Do you remember how he mowed down Shia protesteors after the Gulf war? I don’t condone ethnic cleansing on the part of Shias (you can’t condemn it in elsewehre like Palestine and support it in Iraq), but taking the blame off the sunnis who were enablers of Saddam or Saudis who enable extremists in Pakistan is naive. It is easy for us who haven’t lost relatives to Sunni jihadism, to condemn others who have from the comfort of our homes in North America

  7. I have seen conflicting reports of militia behaviour: some vague ones of houses being burned, but also:

    – a report quoting a militia leader that strict instructions had been given to behave correctly;
    – reports of militia help evacuating given to locals around Tikrit;
    – an interview with a member of a Sunni unit in a Shia militia. Recruited from around Tikrit, and enthusiastic about being in a force that knew its business.
    – tribal leaders in Anbar and Salahuddin calling for militia paricipation and help, as the force with the numbers and motivation to defeat Daesh.

    While I think the jury is still out on this one, and we are likely to see some ugly behaviour, the picture is more nuanced than a lot of people allow.

  8. I suspect that the Saudis have looked ahead at what happens after ISIS is defeated and decided they prefer the current situation. Given the geography and the area across which ISIS is operating, it is unlikely more than half of the ISIS fighters are going to be killed or captured. Which leaves a large force of heavily armed violent men searching for an escape route out of Iraq. They can’t go East or North. Iran will make sure they can’t go West. That only leaves Saud.

    • the assumption that isis will be defeated is unrealistic. it will take substantial us intervention to do that. containment is the more likely outcome.

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