The most powerful Shia religious leader in Iraq has put out a call for the international community to send Baghdad more modern weapons to help it fight against Isis.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, widely considered to have more authority than any of Iraq’s leading politicians, also wants neighbouring countries to close their borders so that foreign volunteers can no longer enter Iraq and Syria to join the terrorist group.
In a rare interview with a Western newspaper Sheikh Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai, the Grand Ayatollah’s spokesman, said: “The most important point is about arms – they are not giving Iraq enough arms.”
Although he did not name the countries that allow fighters to enter Iraq and Syria to join Isis or Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, he was almost certainly referring to Turkey – the most common jumping-off point for foreign volunteers – when he told The Independent: “Some countries do not care; they do not mind; they are not concerned about this [Isis fighters crossing their borders]. The international community has to take serious actions against those countries.”
The Ayatollah, who never speaks in public, is more powerful than the prime minister, not least because he issued last year’s fatwa that led to tens of thousands of volunteers joining Shia paramilitaries to fight against Isis – forces that have recently proved far more numerous and more effective than the Iraqi army.
Interviewed in his office within the Shrine of Imam Hussein in the holy city of Karbala, Sheikh Karbalai told The Independent that preventing foreign volunteers from entering Isis-controlled territory should be a priority for the rest of the world. He said it was vital “to take serious action to stop those fanatical fighters coming to this country. So many of the people from Daesh (the Arabic acronym for Isis) that we kill, or that have been killed in battle, have documents showing they are not Iraqi.”
Though many Isis fighters come from Tunisia, whose central government is too weak to stop them leaving, or Libya, where the state has effectively collapsed, the one international frontier where Isis recruits might be stopped is on the 550-mile long Turkish-Syrian border. Repeated claims by Turkey that its security forces cannot effectively police this are regarded with scepticism by the US and European governments.
Foreign volunteers make up a high proportion of the suicide bombers who are one of the main Isis weapons against military and civilian targets. Despite the stepped-up efforts of the Turkish security forces, the cost of smuggling an individual across the Turkish-Syrian border has reportedly risen from $20 (£12) to $25 per person. British volunteers who speak neither Turkish nor Arabic have often been able to enter Syria without difficulty.
Shia leaders in Karbala and Najaf say they are encouraged by America’s delivery of four F-16 fighter-bombers to Iraq last week, as well as AT4 anti-tank weapons capable of knocking out the explosives-packed armoured vehicles driven by Isis suicide bombers, but they are still hoping for more.
Grand Ayatollah Sistani and the Shia clergy have always been vastly influential among the Shia who make up two-thirds of Iraq’s 33 million population. The rout of the Iraqi army last summer, when it fled the north and west of Iraq, and a further humiliating defeat by Isis at Ramadi on 17 May this year, has further discredited the Iraqi government.
Ancient monuments under Isis threat
Ancient monuments under Isis threat
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The ancient oasis city of Palmyra
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A partial view of the ancient ruins
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The ancient Palmyra theater
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A view of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra
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The Temple of Bel
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Palmyra's famous graves
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The ancient castle
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A sculpture depicting a rich family from the ancient Syrian oasis city of Palmyra, displayed at the city's museum
The fact that the fatwa from the Ayatollah, announced by Sheikh Karbalai on 13 June 2014, should lead to 50,000 men, the great majority Shia, offering to go to the front, shows the popularity and effectiveness of the Shia clerical leadership compared with the incompetence and corruption of their civilian counterparts.
Sheikh Karbalai several times emphasised that the Hashid al-Shaabi, the so-called Popular Mobilisation Units created by the fatwa, which are today the main fighting force of the Iraqi government, are not a sectarian body. “It is not just the Shia, but all Iraqis who fighting this evil [Isis],” he said. “In this battle there are Shia, Sunni, Christians and Yazidis. I see Sunni fighters in my office. This is not a sectarian battle.”
There have been complaints by the mostly Sunni residents of Iraqi cities recaptured from Isis that Iraqi forces and Shia paramilitaries have conducted reprisals against the local population, suspecting them of collusion with the terrorists.
But Sheikh Karbalai said cities such as Tikrit that had been recaptured by the Hashid all “remain Sunni cities”. Iraqi security forces had carried out no massacres, he said – unlike Isis. “On the contrary, they provide food and shelter to people who were under the government of Daesh”. He added that the Ayatollah had decreed that anybody in need because of the war should be given food and shelter, including, specifically, Sunni victims.
The Sheikh made clear that he considered reports that the Hashid and the Iraqi army were carrying out sectarian cleansing – including accounts given to this newspaper – as libel. “We have to look for truth to real events in the front line, not from the Western media,” he said. Some of this may be wishful thinking but it is true that no other party in Iraq carries out mass killings on the same scale as Isis, which massacred 1,700 Shia air force recruits at Camp Speicher last year, as well as 864 members of the Sunni Albu Nimr tribe.
However, there is no doubt that Iraqi Sunni are frightened of the Iraqi security forces, which see Sunni as Isis sympathisers or sleeper cells. Isis is certainly aware that through its mass killings of Shia and Yazidis, it provokes a vengeful counter-reaction that leaves Sunni with no choice but to look to Isis for protection.
There is no doubt about Iraq’s Shia community’s loathing and fear towards Isis, which slaughters them as heretics along with anybody else it sees as an opponent.
“Daesh is against all humanity,” said Sheikh Karbalai. “They are similar to beasts. They are not human at all. They killed so many Yazidis and took their wives and women – they sold their women in the market.”
Many of the failures of the US and Britain after the invasion of 2003 were due to their misunderstanding the wishes and leadership of the Shia community. They generally underestimated the influence of clergy and looked to civilian politicians whose authority depended on control of oil revenues and patronage, backed up by security police. Under pressure from Isis, the post-Saddam Hussein political order swiftly crumbled because few people were willing to die for it.
There was an over-simplification of the relationship between the Shia in Iraq and Iran, the two large countries where they are the majority. Under pressure, the Iraqi Shia do look to Iran, but the religious leaders in the two countries are rivals for the allegiance of the faithful everywhere. Asked about the worries of the Western powers over Iranian influence in Iraq, Sheikh Karbalai said: “We try not to comment on these matters.”
He said the outside world had to realise that Isis was not just a danger to Iraq and Syria, but to it as well. While it will not say so in as many words, the Shia clerical leadership evidently has doubts about the degree of Western commitment to destroying Isis, if doing so offends the West’s long-standing allies in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf monarchies.