Background Brief: Major Shia political groups

A companion to the report from Matthew Duss and Peter Juul, "The Fractured Shia of Iraq: Understanding the Tensions within Iraq’s Majority."

Leader of the United Iraqi Alliance, which includes the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Da’wa, and the Sadrists. (AP/Samir Mizban)
Leader of the United Iraqi Alliance, which includes the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Da’wa, and the Sadrists. (AP/Samir Mizban)

Report: The Fractured Shia of Iraq: Understanding the Tensions within Iraq’s Majority

Background brief: Shia Islam


Da’wa is a Shia Islamist party formed in the Shia religious center of Najaf in the late 1950s as a religious response to secular ideologies such as Arab nationalism, socialism, and communism. Regarded as threat by the Baathist regime, Da’wa suffered from severe persecution throughout the 1970s, culminating in a widespread crackdown in the early 1980s following the Iranian revolution. During Saddam Hussein’s rule, Da’wa members went into exile in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and the United Kingdom, among other places. As a result, Da’wa effectively ceased to exist as a meaningful political force inside Iraq, though a breakaway faction of Da’wa members formed the Islamic Da’wa-Iraq Organization, now a member of the current Shia political coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance.

Years in exile took a toll on Da’wa’s political standing within Iraq. Da’wa returned to Iraq in 2003 without much of an indigenous base, and even today it does not maintain a large militia. Da’wa derives its power from its position within the Shia electoral bloc, with its control of the prime minister position in the Iraqi government. Both of Iraq’s elected prime ministers in the past two governments, Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Nouri al-Maliki, were Da’wa members (though al-Jaafari has since broken from Da’wa and formed his own party).

Their appointments, however, are regarded as a result of compromise between Da’wa’s two main rivals, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, or ISCI, and the Sadrist movement now led by the radical Islamist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, rather than a reflection of Da’wa’s own electoral strength. As Iraq expert Phebe Marr points out, “it is not clear how many votes Da’wa would gain” absent its political alliances. Until recently, Da’wa did not have the ability to mobilize popular support like the Sadrists or the political organization of ISCI.

But Da’wa’s fortunes may be on the rise. Maliki has used his authority as prime minister to bolster Da’wa’s electoral prospects, both by establishing his nationalist credentials through his hard-nosed negotiation of the U.S. withdrawal agreement last year and by using the Iraqi security forces to degrade the organizational infrastructure of political competitors, especially the Sadrists. Maliki has also created a series of independent tribe-based paramilitary units known as “support councils” in Basra, Maysan, Babil, Wasit, Karbala, Dhi Qar, and Baghdad provinces, which answer directly to him and the Da’wa party inner circle.

The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq

ISCI was founded in Iran in 1982 as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, until its name change in 2007. ISCI’s control over state institutions such as the Finance Ministry, as well as continued funding from Iran, is the party’s main sources of power. ISCI was allotted 36 seats of the 130 seats won by the United Iraqi Alliance in the December 2005 legislative elections. Large numbers of SCIRI’s Badr militia infiltrated the new Iraqi government’s security services during the party’s hold on the Interior Ministry in 2005. In 2007, in an attempt to buttress its Iraqi nationalist credentials and distance itself from its Iranian patrons, SCIRI changed its name to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, though many believe ISCI still retains close relations with Iran. ISCI currently retains the loyalty of wide swathes of the security forces. Indeed, the Badr militia is now the security force of the Interior Ministry.

As a result of its predominant role in state institutions, ISCI wields far more power than its limited popular base would suggest. It also controls the governments of the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, and has profited from the lucrative pilgrimage industry in those cities. This control led to clashes with Sadrist Mahdi Army militia, including the August 2007 fight in Karbala that led to the Mahdi Army ceasefire. ISCI’s political constituency is mostly comprised of the Shia business class and religious elite located in Najaf and Karbala. The Shia clerical establishment gives tacit support to ISCI in its battle with the more radical Sadrists. Yet ISCI’s largely middle-class base has been shrinking as more and more moderate to wealthy Iraqis flee the country.

ISCI champions the creation of a nine-province “Shiastan” consisting of the main Shia-majority provinces. The party also depends on the United States to shore up its domestic position. It has seen its relationship with the United States, which began before the U.S. invasion, as a check against the power of the more popular Sadrists, and has largely opposed the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. As a consequence, despite ISCI’s close ties to Iran, the United States has seen ISCI as its primary Shia ally in Iraq and has worked to forge a strong relationship with the party’s leadership.

The Sadrists

The Sadrists are an indigenous social movement with roots in Baghdad’s dispossessed urban Shia underclass. Traditionally repressed by Sunni-led governments in the past and often ignored by Shia religious elites, these dispossessed Shia see the Sadrists and their current leader, Muqtada al-Sadr—the son of the movement’s revered founder, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr—as a defender and promoter of their interests. Sadr has used his control over public and private goods and services in and around Baghdad to consolidate his power by benefiting this base. This network of redistribution gives the movement a central role in many neighborhoods, further cementing its importance. In the December 2005 elections, the Sadrists received 29 seats of the United Iraqi Alliance’s 130 seats in the Council of Representatives.

Today, the Sadrists have a foothold in Iraq anywhere there are “recently urbanized, economically disadvantaged, socially marginalized, and politically disenfranchised Shiites.” As a movement of the dispossessed, Sadrists represent a natural challenge to the middle-class politics of ISCI. The Sadrists also represent a challenge to the Shia religious establishment, which abhors Sadr’s lack of formal religious training and his “rabble” following. The Sadrist’s militia, the Mahdi Army, is thought to have nearly 60,000 members. Many Mahdi Army members also have infiltrated Iraq’s security forces, particularly the local police and military rank-and-file. Despite this successful penetration, the Mahdi Army does not have “control” over official Iraqi security forces to the same degree that ISCI’s Badr Organization militia might.

In the wake of government offensives in Basra, Sadr City, and Amarah in March and April 2008, the Mahdi Army has been substantially degraded. It will remain, however, a serious potential threat to Iraq’s long-term stability if the movement is not sufficiently integrated into Iraq’s governing structure. Furthermore, the Sadrist movement continues to maintain a fairly visible presence in key parts of Iraq through the Organization of the Martyr Sadr, a social services network that provides for the basic needs of thousands of ordinary Iraqis.


Fadhila is a Basra-based regional Islamist party that follows the ideology of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, father of Muqtada al-Sadr. Like the Sadrists, Fadhila generally follows an anti-Iranian Arab nationalist line; Fadhila, however, does not recognize Muqtada’s claim of leadership, following instead Ayatollah Muhammad Yaqubi, a student of Sadeq al-Sadr, who is based in Karbala. Fadhila largely controls the levers of local government in Basra, controlling 21 provincial council seats of 41 total. Fadhila’s leader, Muhammad al-Waeli, holds the governorship. Like the Sadrists and ISCI, Fadhila controls a militia; like the party itself, the militia is limited in geographic reach. It was initially part of the United Iraqi Alliance, but left the Shia bloc in 2007 after a dispute over the Oil Ministry.

Fadhila’s major political objective is the creation of a three-province “southern region” incorporating Basra, Maysan, and Dhi Qar provinces. The idea of a “southern region” has percolated for decades and receives considerable support in Basra, but the idea places the party at odds with ISCI’s desire for a nine-province “Shiastan” region. Furthermore, Fadhila feels ISCI’s super-region project threatens to dilute its own Basra-centered power base. As a result, Fadhila has faced a concerted ISCI-Sadrist effort to remove, al-Waeli, its leader, from his governorship. Recently, Fadhila supported an effort by independent parliamentarian Wail Abd al-Latif to hold a referendum on establishing Basra as a separate federal region, but Latif’s petition failed to reach the required 140,000 signatures.

Fadhila’s second main power base is its control of Basra’s oil sector. Some 80 percent of Iraq’s oil flows through the province, and as much as 20 percent of the total reserves in the Middle East are thought to be located under Basra. Fadhila’s departure from the United Iraqi Alliance is perceived to be a result of losing the national Oil Ministry portfolio to its rivals in ISCI. In Basra, the party controls the 15,000-strong local Oil Protection Force, which is responsible for safeguarding the oil infrastructure, and Fadhila stands accused of attempting to take control of the state-owned Southern Oil Company. Along with almost every other major party in Basra, Fadhila is believed to profit from oil and fuel smuggling.

The Najaf Hawza

The Hawza is a collective term for the Shia scholarly-religious establishment, based in Najaf, in southern Iraq. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is currently the leading authority, expressing what he determines, through consultation with various other clerical scholars, to be the consensus opinion on issues relating to correct Islamic practice. Throughout the history of modern Iraq, the Hawza has played a role in shaping and mediating the relationship between Iraq’s often disenfranchised Shia majority to the various Sunni-dominated regimes that have ruled the country.

Though the dominant trend among leading clerics had been away from overt involvement in politics, Sistani took a more active role in guiding the post-invasion political process within the political and security void that opened up after Saddam Hussein’s regime fell. In summer 2003, against the plans of U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer, Sistani insisted that only an elected body could write the new Iraqi constitution. In November 2003, Bremer tried to create an interim government through appointments and indirect voting, but “Sistani ruled that only direct elections would do.” The United States eventually acquiesced.

Amid the massive upsurge in violence in the wake of the February 2006 bombing of the Samarra mosque, Sistani again withdrew from any public role. His imprimatur continues to be a source of legitimacy for the Iraqi government, however, as evidenced by the regular visits he receives from high-ranking government officials seeking advice. Recently, Sistani issued a series of statements relating to the U.S.-Iraq security agreement that were intended to ensure that the agreement restored full Iraqi sovereignty.

Report: The Fractured Shia of Iraq: Understanding the Tensions within Iraq’s Majority

Background brief: Shia Islam

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