The troubling political economy of Iraq’s Shia Clerical Establishment

When the US invaded Iraq in 2003 it subsequently disbanded the country’s Army, dismantled its security infrastructure and instituted an extensive set of occupation policies that seemingly made it the main political, security and economic actor in the country. The consequences of those early policies and actions have radically transformed Iraq over the past few years, effectively making it a theatre for the playing out of domestic and regional contestations. One such arena of emerging struggles over the future of Iraq, and particularly for the devout Shia both in and outside the country, has been what has since happened to Iraq’s revered shrine cities of Karbala and Najaf.

As it envisaged itself to be a new permanent power in Iraq – effectively the new state order – the US actively engaged in state wrecking rather than institution building. The occupation viewed Iraq as a conquered territory and it seemed at this early stage in 2003 and 2004 as if US hegemonic power over the country could not be challenged. Its state institutions were in tatters and new and often multiple conflicts were as a consequence unfolding in the country. Notwithstanding organised violence against the occupation, which sought to upend US plans of making Iraq a client state, another set of foreign devised policies were in this context being enacted in the country. Specifically, shrine cities were now facing the onslaught of a second imposition, this time in the form of Iranian plans to undermine Iraq’s Shia clergy (Ulama), particularly Najaf’s clerical establishment (Marja’iyah), which constitutes a potential source of competition to Iran’s own Shia religious and political authorities.

In this emerging environment, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the forced collapse of its state institutions provided a rare moment for the Iranian government which sought to win what has been a historical struggle for the control of Najaf and Karbala, the main sites of Shia learning in the world. According to renowned scholar Yitzak Nakash, the historical contestation between Shia Arabs and the Shia Iranians, or Persians, in Iraq was fought over the control of Karbala and Najaf. The author, reviewing the past two hundred years, states that ‘in Karbala and Najaf, the Persian religious families managed to overshadow the Arab ulama and succeeded in dominating religious circles….by the mid-nineteenth century, the Persian ulama in Iraq had already controlled most of the Shia charitable funds and the madrasas…’

Underneath the image of a hegemonic America in an occupation that largely focused on its own security situation was the enactment of an Iranian plan to control Shia Islam’s holiest sites. The Iraq War and the changed politics brought about by the occupation, particularly in the wake of the vacuum the US had created in the country, was now being playing out in a historical contest to control Iraq’s religious sites.

Historically, the clerical class in Iraq have relied on two sources of finance; namely, money from religious tourism and pilgrimage as well as from the transportation, care and burial of the Shia dead, particularly to Najaf’s Wadi al Salam, the world’s biggest cemetery. According to Nakash, the ‘flow of foreign money to the shrine cities had major consequences on their political orientation and socioeconomic organisation. The shrine cities developed an economy based on charities and payments for religious services, and on the income from the pilgrimage and the corpse traffic.’

Whilst the political economy of Najaf and Karbala had become fundamentally transformed by key historical turning points, such as the establishment of the Iraqi state in the 1920s, the impact of Saddam Hussein’s regime later on as well as international sanctions in the 1990s, the post-2003 context once again altered the order of things.

Specifically, the implementation of a calculated set of Iranian interventions that had not been witnessed for over a century was now being implemented in Iraq. Such interventions were designed for the long – term dominance of Karbala and Najaf, and were largely economic in nature rather than overtly political or religious. Sources of funding, divided between different and often competing Iraqi Shia clerical schools, have historically ensured that Iraq’s Marja’iyah enjoyed a degree of autonomy from the whims of politicians who sought to influence the devout Shia in ways conducive to their own interests. For Iran, such autonomy from itself and its policies could not be tolerated, but also could not be attacked head – on. As a result, the Iranian government resorted under and after the US occupation of Iraq of controlling, albeit indirectly, Najaf and Karbala, which was the securest way to realise its objectives.

Iran’s political system is based on Khomeini’s Wilayat al Faqih, an arrangement that champions an Iranian based religious authority and figure of emulation in Shia Islam. After 2003, the Iranian government, cognizant of the new autonomies that Iraq’s clergy could exercise, ensured that it did not pose a threat or undermine Iran’s own religious authority in Qum – its centre of religious legitimacy – on which the post 1979 state ideology is premised on. For the Iranian government, its priority was to ensure that it was the source of Shia legitimacy in the Shia world, and not Najaf, whose main clerics have promoted the separation of religion from the state.

The empowerment of an autonomous Shia clerical establishment in Karbala and Najaf after 2003 would soon come to be undermined by Iranian action and the implementation of a concerted set of policies to control its economies. As a result, the economies of Karbala and Najaf have since been tightly controlled by Iranian state and private companies. Iran’s state – owned tourist companies have invested heavily in controlling and managing the religious pilgrimage to Karbala and Najaf, particularly as a way to ensure Iranian pilgrims spend as little of their resources as possible in Iraq. Iran’s private sector investors have also been encouraged to invest in such things as hotels and consequently have become key actors in the hospitality industry in the cities.

The provision of substantially reduced prices for accommodation and food, as well as transport to Iraq, especially for Iranian pilgrims, have all been heavily regulated in ways to reduce leakage of Iranian foreign currency that the government fears could end up strengthening Iraq’s Marja’iyah, which could in turn tap into historically significant streams derived from pilgrim’s money. Iran’s consulates, in each of the shrine cities, play a key role in enforcing these structures. More recently, in November 2015, over half a million Iranian pilgrims crossed Iraq without paying the $30 visa fee. In addition, Karbala’s and Najaf’s agrarian economies and light industries have also been decimated by subsidised goods coming from Iran. Such policies amount to a concerted policy to undermine the independent growth of anything outside the direct controlling influence of Iran.

A further rapture to the then status quo in shrine cities was also witnessed from 2003. Iraqi Shia based political parties, such as the Islamic Supreme Council and the Sadrist Movement, were now not only competing to capture as much of the remaining state institutions and the resources vested in it that the US had neglected to care for, but were also clashing with each other to capture the shrine cities for themselves. Their participation in national and provincial elections further legitimised their actions, and tied politics and religion ever closer together. Their efforts saw them develop religious, political and security wings, not unlike a state authority. Each political party championed its own version of Shia authority, based on familial lineages to deceased and respected figures of Shia emulation, or Mar’ajah. In addition to the Iranian government, they too were now also claimants to the throne of Shia power in Najaf. Captured state funding from key Iraqi Ministries that such parties were able to control was recycled back to Najaf and Karbala with a view to strengthening the political, religious and economic bases they worked to build, but also importantly as a way to compete with Iranian goals over Iraq’s shrine cities.

As a result, the blurring of lines between religion and politics had become clearly evident, which troubled and created discord in the Marja’iyah in Najaf. In this emerging environment, Grand Ayatollah Syed al Sistani, Iraq’s and the Shia world’s figure of authority, was compelled to distance himself over the past few years from both domestic political parties as well as Iranian action. As the highest source of legitimacy for the majority of devout Shia, al Sistani has often found himself carefully negotiating the actions of Iraq’s political parties and Iran itself who both vied for the seat of religious power.

At the age of 85, al Sistani will soon be succeeded by those currently competing for Najaf’s influence. Whoever becomes the next figure to take over his authority however, whether Iraqi Arab Shia or Iranian Shia, will have to deal with an economic environment heavily influenced by the outcomes of long-term and carefully calculated Iranian government interventions.

Reference: Nakash, Yitzhak (2004).‘The Shias of Iraq’. Princeton University Press (pp 16, 205)

This article was published on Open Democracy on the 29th of March, 2016. The link to the article is

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About Mehiyar

Dr Mehiyar Kathem is a researcher at University College London (UCL). Mehiyar completed a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) where he researched peacebuilding interventions and the formation of Iraq’s domestic NGO sector after the 2003 War. During this research, he looked at the gradual evolution of Iraq from totalitarian dictatorship through the country’s emerging domestic organisations. His research interests include statebuilding, civil society peacebuilding and the ways in which development, politics and money interact at a local level. In 2012 and 2013, Mehiyar conducted field research in Iraq for his PhD programme, spending a year meeting with and interviewing domestic NGO actors, political parties, government officials and international donors. Previously, Mehiyar worked on a number of grassroots programmes geared to build the capacity of civil society organisations and continues to advise international donors on the effective design and delivery of projects in Iraq. He tweets at @mehiyar

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