As Iraqi forces and Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga press on in Mosul, concerns about the day after run deep. Mosul, after all, is a largely Sunni Arab city and was home to much of the Iraqi Army officer corps during the Ba’athist era. Certainly, Arab residents of Mosul fear either Shi’ite or Kurdish domination of their city when it falls (Kurdish peshmerga looted villages around Mosul and portions of the city in 2003; locals have never forgotten that episode).
But the notion that the largely Shi’ite Iraqi Army or even Shi’ite militias entering Mosul would be akin to throwing fuel on a sectarian fire may be misplaced, as is the idea that all Iraqi Shi‘ites are basically Iranian puppets.
Consider Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most prominent Shi’ite religious in Iraq (and, indeed, the world). When Sunni terrorists bombed the al-Askari Shrine in Samarra in 2006, Sistani immediately forbade Shi‘ites from retaliatory strikes on Sunni mosques. Eight years later, when the Islamic State seized Mosul, Sistani called upon his followers to help his Sunni brethren. So much for the sectarian narrative.
That is not to say the sectarian threat isn’t real. While many Iraqis who join the popular mobilization units (hashd al-Shaabi) seek only to defend Iraq against the Islamic State and those who would slaughter the Shi‘ites, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has worked overtime to infiltrate and recruit inside Iraq. Usually, with time, Iraqi nationalism wins out over Iranian imperialism but the Iranian threat in certain units like Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq is real.
This is a problem that Sistani recognizes. Hence, his October 22 speech, which Abbas Kadhim, head of the Institute for Shi‘ite Studies, summarized. Speaking not only to the Shi‘ite militias but also to the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga, Sistani said (according to Kadhim’s summary edited slightly for grammar):
We have no one to be proud of other than you. You have carried the responsibility of defending Iraq, its people, and what they held sacred. You did it in the hardest times for more than two years and, by God, you were up to the great task. You never got tired of the onerous duties. Indeed, you became more steadfast with time. You offered your own lives and blood and gave tens of thousands [dead and wounded]. You have written the greatest stories of heroism and sacrifice which will be our history. We hope that you are close to final victory over terrorism, by liberating all Iraqi land. We look forward to turning this painful and blood-stained page of Iraqi history. We look forward to seeing all Iraqis build their country away from mutual hostility.
That is hardly the rhetoric of a sectarian firebrand. It is nowhere near the stump speech of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei or Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. To lump all Shi‘ite leaders together, therefore, seems a bit inaccurate.
Back in 2014, my colleague Ahmad K. Majidyar and I penned a monograph looking at non-Iranian Shi’ite communities across the Middle East and examining their strategies to push back on Iranian influence. From a U.S. policy perspective, this means that co-opting and working with more independent or nationalist Shi‘ite groups is better than a strategy which demonizes them, pushing them toward Iran and making fears of Iranian influence a self-fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, if the next administration were farsighted about U.S. relations with Shi‘ites, it should do what neither the Bush nor Obama administrations did: open a consulate in Najaf. Not only might this be a valuable resource for the one-in-four American Muslims who are Shi‘ite, but if staffed with the State Department’s best Arabic linguistics rather than randomly manned through regular rotations, it could be an invaluable resource for a dialogue that might actually promote moderation and rectify misunderstandings.