Alissa J. Rubin and Farnaz Fassihi
Iraq — The annual ceremony commemorating a founding figure of Shiite Islam is
one of the most important religious celebrations in the Shiite world, drawing
millions of pilgrims to the holy city of Karbala, Iraq.
the Arbaeen ceremony was also a political skirmish — the latest test of Iran’s
power in Iraq and of Iraq’s increasing desire for independence from its
largest Shiite Muslim country in the world and a regional powerhouse in the
Middle East, saw the pilgrimage that ended Saturday as an opportunity to assert
its role in Iraq and send a message about its regional reach.
a display of power for Iran and a showcase of unity among Shiites in the
region,” said Hossein Sulaimani, the editor in chief of Mashregh, a newspaper
affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
contributed tents, bathrooms and hospitals along the pilgrimage route,
supplementing those erected by Iraq, to aid the estimated 15 million pilgrims,
nearly one in four of them from Iran. It released inspirational videos claiming
credit for saving Shiite shrines from destruction by the Islamic State.
Iran said it would send tens of thousands of police officers into Iraq to
provide security for the event, Iraq drew the line.
authorities welcomed the aid to the pilgrims but blocked the police force,
which would have been seen as a humiliating display of Iranian authority.
which defeated Daesh are capable of securing the pilgrimage and we don’t need
any foreign forces to enter Iraq to police it,” Lt. Gen. Saad Maan, the Iraqi
Interior Ministry spokesman, said last week, using an Arabic acronym for the
rejection of Iranian security was a small but clear effort to limit Iran’s
footprint in Iraq.
American-led military forces overthrew the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in
2003, empowering Iraq’s Shiite majority, a crucial question for Iraq and the
region was the extent to which it would fall under the sway of Iran, the Shiite
theocracy to the east.
gradually expanded its influence in Iraq through a web of political parties,
Shiite clerics and militias, and it invested heavily in Shiite religious cities
like Najaf, Karbala and Samarra.
Islamic State seized a third of the country in 2014, Iran rushed to Iraq’s aid,
backing militias that, with the help of Kurdish and American forces, drove the
jihadist group out.
Iraq as its literal gateway to regional influence — the first stop on a land
bridge to its proxies in Syria and Lebanon. More recently, Iraq has been
critical to Iran’s survival of painful American economic sanctions, thanks to
an American waiver allowing it to buy oil and gas from Iran. Iraq is also a
major customer for Iranian goods that are not under sanction, including food
and construction materials.
Iran’s influence increased and America’s ebbed, Iraq has increasingly chafed at
Iran’s presence and its efforts to insert sympathetic politicians into Iraq’s
winner in Iraq’s last election was the party backed by Moqtada al-Sadr, a
nationalist cleric who opposes both American and Iranian involvement in Iraq,
but the kingmaker was a bloc representing Iraqi militia groups with links to
Iran. It was Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the elite Quds Force
of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who brokered the agreement that put the
current prime minister, president and Parliament speaker in office.
years after the battle against the Islamic State officially ended, the
Iranian-backed militias remain. With more than 125,000 armed men, they are now
technically part of the government security forces but in reality they have
become a force unto themselves.
protests erupted across Iraq this month against corruption and unemployment,
Iranian officials were caught off guard. Some of the demonstrators blamed Iran
and its outsize influence for Iraq’s economic troubles. Protesters in Shiite
strongholds typically loyal to Iran burned the Iranian flag and chanted for the
Islamic Republic to stop meddling in the country’s affairs.
meeting in the foreign ministry in Tehran this month, several diplomats
wondered if Iran had misread Iraq all these years, mistakenly seeing its
alliance with politicians as tantamount to public support, according to one
person who attended the meeting.
officials saw the approaching Arbaeen festival as a way to burnish Iran’s
marks the 40th day after the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet
Muhammad, who was killed in a battle for the leadership of Islam. His
descendants became Shiite Muslims, while the forces that defeated him evolved
into the Sunnis, establishing the two main sects of Islam today.
demands that Shiites walk to Karbala in a re-enactment of the journey taken by
Imam Hussein’s family when they brought his head to the city for burial. Some
walk for weeks from as far away as Basra, Iraq, about 300 miles.
festival has experienced a resurgence since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a
Sunni Muslim who banned its celebration fearing it would rally the country’s
Shiites. For years after his ouster, Al Qaeda and its successor, the Islamic
State, attacked the Karbala walkers, killing thousands.
the pilgrimage has grown from a few thousand brave souls to an estimated 15
million, making it one of the largest annual pilgrimages in the Muslim world.
proud of the accomplishment and this year should have been their moment to
celebrate their ability to organize and protect the ceremony. But Iran, which
not only built way stations along the route but has spent millions over the
last five years renovating Shiite shrines in the Iraqi cities of Karbala and
Najaf, also took credit.
walking to Karbala this past weekend were confronted with both narratives.
billboard depicted the Iranian-backed militias as modern-day comrades of Imam
Hussein: a militia fighter standing next to Imam Hussein faces a crowd of
modern-day warriors carrying Islamic flags, while Imam Hussein faces warriors
in ancient garb.
Revolutionary Guards commander, General Suleimani, released a video on Friday
showing him walking through the battlefields of Mosul, peering through
binoculars as explosions go off, a pointed reminder of Iran’s role in the fight
against the Islamic State there. Then, as the video shifts to an aerial view of
the golden dome and two pillars of the Karbala shrine, he intones: “If they had
gotten to our shrines, they would have completely destroyed them.”
ends with Arbaeen crowds marching to Karbala.
the road from the militia billboard was a display of large posters of Iraqi
protesters killed in the last two weeks when they marched peacefully against
corruption in the Iraqi government, an indirect rebuke to Iran.
photos stood outside tents belonging to the followers of Mr. al-Sadr. Despite
his campaign against Iranian influence, the tents welcomed Iranian pilgrims,
who totalled some 3.5 million this year.
“As long as
the Iranians are here as a guest, as a visitor, we welcome them,” said Abu
Karar, 50, a retiree who had set up one of the photos. “They are the guests of
Imam Hussein. Even if the enemy comes for Imam Hussein, we will welcome him.”
Iraqi pilgrims sometimes availed themselves of the 22 guesthouses, 250
restrooms, four field hospitals and 14 emergency centres that Iran built along
the route to Karbala in Iraq, according to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard spokesman,
Gen. Ramezan Sharif.
also provided free food and accommodations for millions of pilgrims, cooking
giant vats of rice and lentils, chick peas and broad beans, making millions of
cups of sugared tea and ladling out countless glasses of fresh yogurt.
Sharif told Iranian media that the Guards’ construction entity, Khatam al
Anbiya, had paved and repaired roads leading to Karbala’s shrines.
uniformed Iranian police were barred from Iraq, Iranian intelligence operatives
and undercover forces did come. The Iranians, citing recent unrest, also pushed
to have a large number of the Iraqi militias included in the festival security
60,000 security officers dedicated to the festival, some 15,000 were militia
members, according to Maj. Gen. Qais Khalaf al-Mohammedawi, the festival’s
security coordinator. He did not provide a breakdown of how many of them came
from militias tied to Iran.
antagonism notwithstanding, the effort was ultimately symbiotic. Security was
coordinated in a joint Iraqi-Iranian operations center, cooperation that
benefited pilgrims from all countries.
For many of
the worshipers, politics seemed a long way off.
is very welcoming, very friendly, we love to come here,” said Ruhollah Hadadi, 38,
an Iranian pilgrim who works in public relations in Tehran. “Some people said
Baghdad is unsafe, but we are walking everywhere, the security people are very
utopia,” he added. “Arbaeen is for all.”
J. Rubin reported from Karbala, and Farnaz Fassihi from New York. Falih Hassan
contributed reporting from Karbala.
Johannsen Rubin is the Baghdad Bureau chief for The New York Times.
Headline: A Shiite Holiday Turns Into a Test of Iranian Power in Iraq
Source: The New York Times