Shiite Militias announce “Here I am, O Husayn” Campaign for Sunni Ramadi

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | –

Shiite militias in Iraq, joined by some Sunni tribal levies, on Tuesday reached a university campus just to the southwest of Ramadi in what is called a “shaping operation” intended to set the stage for an all-out assault. There were some scattered firefights with Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) commandos, and the US-led coalition bombed Daesh targets around Ramadi.

Ahmad al-Asadi, a parliamentarian from the Shiite Islamic Mission Party (Hizb al-Da`wah), said that regular Iraqi army troops, police gendarmes, and counter-terrorism units, along with most of the major Shiite militias, were all joining in. He said that the campaign would swiftly take Ramadi and then go on to conquer all of al-Anbar Province (geographically Iraq’s largest, which is dominated by the Sunni Dulaym clan).

The Shiite militias say they have already taken back Ankur and Tash south of Ramadi. They also claim to have cut the roads to Ramadi off on three sides, the east, south and west, hampering Daesh reinforcements. (This makes no sense to me, since presumably the reinforcements would come down from Syria to the north, and the north is wide open all the way to the Syrian border.)

Shiite Iraqis were alarmed by the fall of Ramadi to Daesh a week and a half ago, since it brought the terrorist organization to only 78 miles from Baghdad and striking distance from the Shiite religious center of Karbala to the southeast.

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 1.07.43 AM
Via Google Maps

The Shiite militias or “popular mobilization forces” termed their campaign to take Ramadi away from Daesh “Here I am, O Husayn” (Labbaik Ya Husayn). Husayn, the martyred grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, is especially honored by Shiites in ritual ways beyond what is done by Sunnis, though most Sunnis also reverence him. Friday was Imam Husayn’s birthday, and a Shiite mosque in Saudi Arabia was blown up by Daesh on that day.

Hard line Salafis, influenced by the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia, deeply object to Shiite veneration of Husayn, so the campaign’s name is a poke in their eye. In 1803, Wahhabi armies from what is now Saudi Arabia attacked the shrine city of Karbala in Iraq and looted and damaged the tomb of Imam Husayn there, viewing tombs and shrines as a form of idolatry.

If you will permit me an inaccurate analogy: It is sort of like calling a largely Catholic campaign to take a largely Protestant city the “St. Peter’s Offensive.” Protestants probably favor Paul over Peter, but honor them both. Everyone knows, though, that Catholics view Peter as the founder of their branch of Christianity, so it might be provocative to name it that way if you wanted to avoid a sectarian overtone.

Colonel Steve Warren, Pentagon spokesman, objected to the naming of the campaign, calling it “unhelpful.” He did, however, express pleasure that Sunni fighters were joining in.

Sunnis hold that the Prophet Muhammad was succeeded after his death by four Orthodox Caliphs, the fourth of which was Ali b. Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. Shiites believe that Ali should have been the first vicar of the Prophet, and they call these vicars Imams rather than Caliphs.

After the Orthodox Caliphs, Sunnis hold that authority passed to the Umayyad Caliphate, though may contemporary academics think the Umayyad state was just an Arab kingdom, with only a minority of early Muslims investing its kings with spiritual authority.

After Ali’s assassination in 661, Shiites hold that he should have been succeeded by his sons with Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet. These were Hasan and Husayn, and then they hold the succession should have gone to Husayn’s son, grandson and so forth until the 12th of the line. They believe the 12th Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, disappeared from mortal eyes as a child, and will one day return to fill the world with justice, rather as Christians await the return of Christ.

Muslims in Iraq chafed under the rule of the Umayyads, and late in the reign of Yazid I, they pleaded with Husayn to come from Mecca and lead them in their protest. Husayn answered their call, but ended up being surrounded with his family and a small contingent of supporters on the plain of Karbala in 680. Yazid’s general, Shimr, cut them all down. Husayn’s small son was pierced by an arrow. He himself was beheaded and the head was mounted on a stave and deposited at the feet of Yazid in his capital of Damascus.


Shiite Muslims commemorate Husayn’s death annually on Ashura, the 10th of the month of Muharram, with processions, chanting and flagellation (beating the chest rhythmically or in some folk practice beating the body with whips or chains, as with some medieval Catholic practice). Many Shiites also go on pilgrimage (ziyara) to the shrine of Imam Husayn in Karbala, where a tomb was erected where he was struck down. They go especially on Arba’in, the 40th day after his death.

Sunnis do not typically practice these rituals, though some Sunnis in Iraq do join in the Arba’in pilgrimage, e.g. Husayn is nevertheless a hero to many Sunnis, and there are mosques dedicated to him in both Damascus and Cairo (largely Sunni cities). Egyptian Sunnis have given me a special pudding on Ashura in Cairo.

But the Wahhabi branch of Islam in Saudi Arabia and the Salafi Sunnis influenced by it elsewhere are sometimes hostile to Husayn. A Salafi in Islamabad once maintained to me that Caliph Yazid I was right to stop the disorder down in Iraq. Most Sunnis and all Shiites would avoid naming their children Yazid, but it is a name found among Wahhabis.

So saying “I am here for you, O Husayn” in a campaign against the Salafi Daesh in Ramadi definitely has sectarian overtones, though they are not straightforward given mainstream Sunni reverence for Husayn and the family of the Prophet in general.

Related video:

DW: “Iraq launches operation against IS in Ramadi | Journal”

4 Responses

  1. Very nice article. I am a Muslim that does not like to identify on sectarian grounds. I come from a Sunni heritage.

    After studying early Muslim history from both sides, I do clearly think that the Prophet Muhammad preferred that Ali to lead the Muslims after him.

    In the tradition of Ghadir Khumm is one of the few traditions that has numerous lines of tradition at each generation and it seems to indicate that he preferred Ali to succeed him (not as a prophet of course) but as a leader of the state since Ali was most wise and pious.

    Sunnis interpret Ghadir Khumm differently and think that the Prophet did not intend political succession but I think the Sunnis interpretation is weaker than the Shia interpretation.

    Nevertheless, Shias recognize that Prophet Muhammad did not force this succession before his death.

    If Ali being leader was so vital, then the Prophet would have been more forceful in ensuring it. So both sects should calm down on their sectarianism.

    I do also think that certain practices did creep into the Shia Muslims transforming their political stance into more and more theology creating a separate sect. I find some of these practices that some of them do such as their saying Ya Ali Madad (Oh Ali, help) when they have difficulty to be outrageously against the Qur’an. Once I went to a Shia mosque to pray. I asked the Imam to tell me, that had Ali come back alive and were he to come to this mosque….if we asked him who would he want us to call for help when we have any difficulty…would it be him or God? The Imam did not want to answer because he knew that the answer is obvious that Ali would have been outraged at anyone calling on him rather than God.

    I love reading the profoundly wise and pious sermons of Ali in Nahj al-Balagha.

    Here is a discussion by the late Shia scholar, Ayatollah Murtadha Mutaharri on glimpses of Ali’s profound sermons on the perfection and unity of God.

    link to

    Interestingly even in Nahj al-balagha, Ali in one of his sermons says something to the effect that his followers to correct him if he errs since he is a human (but unfortunately, Shia scholars use acrobatic gymnastics to try to obscure that excerpt) . It is ironic how the former pagan enemies of the Prophet (the Ummayads) ended up taking the leadership over the Muslims. But, Shias should not exaggerate on Ali or Husayn (who also a very pious and great leader).

    May God bring peace, wisdom, and goodness to all our hearts.

    Thanks again for your article.

  2. Every day brings something new; for once I have to agree with a Pentagon spokesman !! “Unhelpful” is a very measured, vaguely venomous word choice to describe the Shi’a militias’ choice of an operation name.

    Clearly these religious arguments and history that Juan so excellently summarizes remain extremely important in the psychological/personality structures of many of the region’s populations (the plural to signify the many self-defined communities of religion, national identity and accepted degree of “modernization/globalization” that exist among the people of the states from Libya to Iran. And clearly these religious arguments also remain important in the philosophies/religions/sciences of people in the region, and in their choices of which other persons in their communities to give honor, status, rank and official position to, the human behavior that gives rise to what we call “politics.”

    I do suspect/fear that both the blindly Potomac-centric strategists of the American conventional wisdom, and and the various peoples of the Middle East who form militias and armies to spread their views (or defend against their neighbor who is spreading his views) may be overcome by larger climate-change related catastrophes: major crop failures, or unforeseen breakdowns of several important global infrastructures at once. Even if the physical environment allows all these wars to be played out to their ends, it doesn’t look good for human happiness or personal satisfaction, anywhere on the globe.

    If it’s not a digression to pick up a comment of my own on a previous post a few days ago, I re-read my Saudi history literature as I promised (and the subject is closely tied to modern Sunni-Shi’a relations).

    My conclusion is that the rise of the Saudi state was an extremely close-run thing, and that Abdul-Aziz was an amazing character to pull it off. But he faced disaster about every other year, and a large part of his success was his ability to operate in several socio-historical environments, in the Arab context both the nomadic/traditonal society and the settled city society, and to successfully grasp and use the colonial/world power conflict international environment, in dealing with British power from before World War I, to using motorized vehicles & weapons to defeat the fanaticallyy-religious nomads who had helped him capture Mecca a few years before — and also for understanding the behavior necessary for the Muslim world to accept his rulership of the Holy Cities. And later, to making the “Gasoline-Powered Economy Alliance” with America after 1944.

    All in all, a remarkable combination of traditionalism and modernity in one national leader, Abdul Aziz. Can the current generation of Saudi leaders be as creative in understanding the many types of threats that our 21st Century rapidly-warming poses to their patriarch’s state? And the many modern attitudes that they may eventually have to negotiate to retain their successes?

  3. Informative as always. Nevertheless, one has to be fair to Shia militia. In order to defend against Sunni Daesh, you need a force equally fanatic as them and the militia is just that. They are motivated by revenge partially; remember what Saddam did to Shias, and after 2003, how many Shiite police and pilgrims to Karbala were blown off by suicide bombers. And these bombers were Alqaeda members but were initially sheltered by Sunnis before Awakening movement turned against them. I am not condoning revenge taking and human rights abuses, but let’s no forget the history of the last decade.

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