UBIQUITOUS HOARDINGS eulogising fallen heroes in southern Iraq’s Najaf are perhaps the only visible signs in the city of the war on Islamic State (IS). The conflict has entered a decisive phase with Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) hemming in IS remnants in the western half of the group’s last major stronghold in Mosul. The destruction of bridges in airstrikes over the Tigris River that splits the northern Iraqi city may well have driven the final nail in the IS coffin.

This is a major turnaround in less than three years since the Iraqi security forces fled Mosul in June 2014, and allowed the IS to overrun parts of the country and Syria. IS’s eclipsed rival, al-Qaeda, paled in comparison to the threat of transnational terrorism the group posed with the capitulation, which plunged war-weary Iraq into a fresh crisis and stunned the government into silence.

The seeds of Iraq’s fightback were sown in Najaf, where the cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani rallied the demoralised country. In June 2014, the reclusive religious leader issued a fatwa, calling on able-bodied Iraqis to resist IS from one of Islam’s holiest shrines — the fourth Caliph Ali’s mausoleum in Najaf. The call of Sistani, whose another fatwa a year earlier prohibited shedding of Sunni blood, galvanised thousands of volunteers who have since played a key role in giving a bloody nose to IS. It gave the resistance the much-needed legitimacy in the absence of credible political leadership.

The defining volunteerism to take on Islamic State is palpable. “While the ISF struggled with recruitment and was plagued by its poor public image, the (anti-IS) Hashd (volunteer) groups pursued a comprehensive and effective recruitment.,’’ Carnegie’s Middle East Center noted in November 2015. “Their success is largely attributed to Sistani’s (2014) fatwa.’’ It cited well-informed contacts in Baghdad to estimate that some 80 per cent of men of fighting age had signed up from Shia provinces. The center acknowledged the Hashd’s critical role in anti-IS resistance even as it had challenged “the state’s monopoly on force’’. The volunteers played an important part in reclaiming territories like Ramadi and wresting control over the Mosul-Raqqa route that choked IS’s finances and blocked its lifeline oil exports.

These volunteers have paid a heavy price, though. Pictures of fallen heroes with eulogies dot public squares, highways, markets and shrines from Najaf to Baghdad, around 170 km away. The heroes are celebrated in the media; giant screens relay visuals from the battlefields to keep alive the spirit of resistance, which Iraqis insist is a unified — hence successful — battle for their existence.

Most Iraqis are at pains to negate “the western projection” of the war in sectarian terms. Jalandhar-born Basheer Hussain Najafi, one of the five Grand Ayatollahs and potential Sistani successor, echoed the common refrain saying that Iraqis are united in the fight.

“We have smashed these terrorists; they violated women and killed children of Shias as well as Sunnis,’’ Najafi, whose family had migrated to Pakistan in 1947, told Indian journalists at his carpeted office in Najaf last year. “God forbid, God forbid, God forbid, they are lying that Shia are oppressing Sunnis.’’

 

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Across the road from Najafi’s office, Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, lies buried in the golden-domed mausoleum. Ali is central to Shia devotion, and Shias consider him the Prophet’s only rightful heir unlike Sunnis, who revere him as one of the four caliphs. In the fight against IS, there is cross-sectarian unanimity that the enemy is a modern day manifestation of the Kharijites (defectors), who had assassinated Ali in AD 661. Puritanical Saudi Arabian Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al ash-Sheikh is among those who have denounced IS as modern-age “Kharijites”.

The Shia clergy has likened IS to the killers of Ali’s son, Husain, and 72 members of the Prophet’s family at Karbala in 680 AD. It has linked the fight against IS to the survival of true Islam that Husain laid down his life for. This has given the “anti-IS jihad” a greater sense of purpose. The fallen heroes are seen to embody the continuation of Husain’s struggle. They regularly make their final journeys via his shrine in Karbala before they are laid to rest amid salutations for the Prophet and his family. Pilgrims have been pitching in by stuffing money into boxes seeking donations to help “the popular voluntary forces against IS” at the shrine, where cleric Syed Afzal al-Shami credited Sistani’s call for the success against IS. He underlined that Muslims were IS’s primary target and emphasised that the war alone would not defeat the group. “This ideology has to be countered militarily as well as through information,’’ he said.

Abdul Mahdi Karbalai, Sistani’s representative in Karbala, insisted that Iraqis were fighting the real jihad against IS. He referred to Sistani’s call and added that it was issued to defend the country against indiscriminate barbarity. “They want it their way and whosoever opposes them is killed brutally. A lot of people from different religions and sects responded to the call to work together,’’ he told Indian journalists in his well-appointed, opulent office. He called Sunnis their brothers and added they were defending the entire world that IS threatens. Karbalai regretted the projection of the war in sectarian terms. “IS has killed a lot of Sunnis, who are battling them,’’ he said, underlining that IS’s violence has affected all Iraqis — Shia, Sunni and Christians — and that they were fighting together.

Mohammed Mikhlif, a Sunni tribal chief and Hashd commander from the battlefront in Anbar, said Islamic State’s “unruliness” was the biggest challenge. “They are not worried about killing women and children,’’ he told the journalists at Hashd’s headquarters in Baghdad that was a far cry from Najaf and Karbala with jumpy soldiers virtually manning every nook and cranny of the barricaded capital. According to Mikhlif, Sunni tribal leaders have joined the resistance voluntarily. “We work under the prime minister and take orders from the military,’’ he insisted, while appearing to dispel reports of the mushrooming of militias to claim government funding. He added that even farmers and traders had joined the resistance in the Sunni-dominated Anbar. “They said we are Sunnis and will support you. But they are oppressive. We will defend our country,’’ said Mikhlif. He blamed “outsiders’’ and some politicians for spreading canards that Iraq had an anti-Sunni government. “Later, we realised it was politics and destroying Iraq. Sunnis are the worst hit,’’ he said, flanked by Shia commanders, Meesam Zaidi and Kareem al-Noree.

Noorie said that fears were stoked that they will kill Sunnis before Tikrit’s liberation. “We are looking after the city which is peaceful. We are sacrificing,’’ he said.

The efforts at unity appear to have fructified in Tikrit. In November, Scott Peterson of The Christian Science Monitor wrote that the June 2014 Camp Speicher massacre in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, had “terrorised Iraq’s Army and driven a wedge’’ between Sunnis and Shias.

Peterson added that “determined bridge-building’’ had curbed “powerful tribal impulse for revenge’’ in the region. He credited a “systematic effort” by Iraqi officials and bridge-building “facilitators” that pulled in key Sunni tribes and Shia leaders for defusing demands for retribution. According to him, Tikrit’s Sunni leaders showed that they had been victims, too. “They described how some 500 Shia Speicher cadets had secretly been shepherded to safety by local Sunnis. They noted also that Shias among the 10,000 students at Tikrit University were unharmed,’’ Peterson wrote.

It is this bridge-building that is now being seen as a model for Iraq to rise from the ashes.

 

(This article was first published by Indian Express.)