Iranian influence: Iraq’s bulwark against the Martyr-Myth

This article was originally published in German by Die WELT on 27 July 2021. The original can be found here.

By Alfred Hackensberger Correspondent for WELT – photos by Sebastian Backhaus

Crystal chandeliers, ornaments, brightly lit arches on marble columns; in between are hundreds of Shiite faithful who mutter their prayers on hand-knitted carpets on the floor. After only a few steps inside the Imam Hussein mausoleum in Karbala, the feeling of sacred majesty overwhelms you – as is characteristic of all major pilgrimage sites in the world.

“Here you are closest to God,” says Hassan Wanas, a computer expert from Baghdad. The 27-year-old walks through the gate with the huge golden double doors that lead into the shrine of Imam Hussein. Once inside, everything sparkles and shines with gold, precious stones, glass, and mirrors. The 27-meter-high dome resembles a sky full of twinkling stars. Wanas joins the crowd of faithful who walk around the shrine, weeping, crying, praying, and clinging to the bars of the arched windows of Imam Hussein’s grave.

Hassan Wanas at the holy shrine to begin his prayers. Source: Sebastian Backhaus
Faithful at the grave and shrine of the Shiite Imam Hussein. He is venerated as a martyr. Source: Sebastian Backhaus

“You feel like you are reborn,” says Wanas when he is back in the large lobby. He comes to Karbala as often as he can. “Whether for celebrations or a personal problem, I always come here,” assures Wanas us with a smile. “This is an important part of my belief, because it all started here.” By ‘this,’ Wanas means the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD. When Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, wanted to succeed him as caliph, and fought against the ruling Umayyads. Hussein and his companions died fighting a vastly outnumbered army. The defeat in the Battle at Karbala marks the division between Shiites and Sunnis.

A construction boom at the pilgrimage site

Karbala city is located more than 120 kilometers south of Baghdad and has up to thirty million visitors from around the world every year. This makes Karbala the most prominent place of pilgrimage in Islam. “Because of the pandemic, we have 20 percent fewer visitors,” says Afdhal al-Shami, spokesperson for the Imam Hussein shrine. “Nevertheless, we are expanding as the number of pilgrims will rise again.”

Construction sites can be seen all around the holy places. The intention is to buy up, demolish and rebuild all adjacent residential areas. Dozens of major projects worth hundreds of millions of euros are already under construction or in planning. Much of the funds are from Iran. Karbala, the cradle of the Shiite origin-myth, is very important to Tehran. Iran already has very significant influence in Iraq. Its representatives sit in Iraqi parliament and government. Over forty militias with around 70,000 men follow orders from Tehran. But Iran does not control the holy places.

Members of the Shiite militia “al-Hashd al-Shaabi” in the Iraqi village of Zargo, southwest of Mosul. Source: Sebastian Backhaus

“Karbala is Sistani land,” a local journalist tells us. “The presence of representatives of the Iran-affiliated militias is top secret.” ‘Sistani’ is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most popular Shiite cleric in Iraq. He and his advisory staff determine what is preached in Karbala. The 90-year-old rejects Iran’s claim to Shiite leadership. The Grand Ayatollah is one of the last and most important institutions opposing Iranian expansion.

Iran’s construction investments in the holy city are an attempt to further increase its influence. One of the main investors is the Kawthar Foundation. It has been on the US-sanctions list since 2020 and is owned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Some of the IRG high-ranking officers regularly inspect the construction work, albeit mostly incognito over local sensitivities. Even Qassem Soleimani was in Karbala before his death to inspect construction work. The head of Iran’s military operations abroad was killed in a US drone attack in Baghdad in 2020.

Also Read: Iraq now belongs to Tehran’s henchmen – with fatal consequences

Soleimani’s visit and that of his successor Esmail Ghaani underline how important the Martyr-figure Imam Hussein is for the Iranian regime. Its myth is the basis of the expansionist foreign policy that has made Iran a major power factor in the Middle East.

This policy was conceived by Grand Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, the head of state of the Islamic Republic who died in 1989. Khomeini knitted his very own theory of revolution from the Battle of Karbala, in which he derived from history a duty for all Shiites to resist any form of oppression.

Khomeini’s religious doctrine of oppression today remains the primary political guideline for the leadership in Tehran. The doctrine underlies the arming of the radical Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon for wars against Israel.

In the Syrian civil war, Iran commands Shiite militias to fight “Sunni terrorists” in order to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power. In Yemen, the Houthi rebels are supplied with Iranian drones and missiles to take down Saudi Arabia’s influence. In Bahrain, Tehran supports the Shiite protest movement against the Hamad al-Khalifa monarchy. And in Iraq, Iran-backed militias have long ruled entire regions of the neighboring country. And now that US President Joe Biden has announced that he will officially end the US combat mission in Iraq and concentrate in future only on training and advising the Iraqi security forces, the influence of the militias might continue to grow.

Shiite Iran is more powerful in the Middle East today than ever before. Imam Hussein and his companions lost 1,341 years ago. But this fate must not happen again. The Islamic Republic, founded in 1979, has led the Shiites to a renaissance and claims the leadership over all faithful. To accomplish this, Khomeini introduced “Wilayat al-Faqih”, the so-called governorship of the legal scholars. The chief clergyman is supposed to be a political and religious leader in one – best for all Shiites.

“We will not accept a Wilayat al-Faqih,” says Sheikh Imad Assadi angrily in one of the sixty-five religious study rooms of the Imam Hussein shrine. “Never, ever,” emphasizes the 60-year-old clergyman with the long, white beard while he raises his index finger. “Democracy is a collective process and not an individual decision.” Assadi belongs to the circle of Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani and is an opponent of Iranian doctrine. The cleric with a white turban on his head does not accept the ‘duty to resist’ as written in the Shiite Iran-doctrine.

“Yes, you can defend yourself in the event of an attack, but nothing more.” He recalls an example from an appeal by al-Sistani from 2014. “At that time, the IS terrorists were advancing on Baghdad and the Great Ayatollah urged all young men to register as soldiers for defense.”

Sheikh Imad Assadi, follower of the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani. Source: Sebastian Backhaus

Assadi firmly opposes the growing Iranian influence in Iraq. “The Iraqi people alone decide in elections. Nobody else,” explains the married clergyman and father of five children. In the small study full of books, it becomes clear how deep the rifts are between the different Shiite factions and how divided Iraq is.

When asked how such divergent religious interpretations could come about, Assadi answered only succinctly: “Look at Christianity. Look at Catholics and Protestants. Why should there not be any differences of opinion among Shiites?”

In the middle of the conversation, the muezzin suddenly calls. It is time for prayers.

You can follow Alfred Hackensberger via Twitter @hackensberger and on his blog.