A Major Crack In Iraqi Shia Politics

Although Sayyid Ammar al-Hakim announced that he left ISCI, he apparently retained all of ISCI’s assets.
07/24/2017 08:21 pm ET Updated Jul 26, 2017

The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) was founded in 1982 to collect all Iraqi opposition groups in Iran under one umbrella, with Sayyid Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim as the entity’s leader. Al-Hakim’s credentials included more than his clerical capacity to lead an Islamist Shia party, which were very adequate. He was also the son of Late Grand Ayatollah Mohsin al-Hakim (d. 1970), the highest Shia religious authority in his time, and a member of an Iraqi family that maintained a strong clerical reputation and/therefore they became a favored target for Saddam Hussein’s Ba’th Party oppression. Most importantly, Sayyid Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim enjoyed a strong relationship with Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini.

SCIRI remained as a coalition of parties for a while before dissent started and several of its components departed, most notable of those was the Da’wa Party. Over the years, it became just another Shia opposition party, one of many, but maintained the edge of being led by Sayyid Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, who enjoyed wide support and respect from Iraqis.

After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the toppling of Saddam Hussein’a regime, SCIRI and other Shia opposition parties, returned to Iraq and began to re-establish themselves in the government and compete for support within the Shia community. The assassination of SCIRI’s founder, Sayyid Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, in Najaf in August 2003 dealt a severe blow to the group’s hope to dominate the Shia political scene. But the group survived politically, thanks to the leadership of al-Hakim’s brother, Sayyid Abdulaziz, who became SCIRI’s new leader and his ability to maintain the support of the American administration in Iraq and the backing of Iran’s Supreme Leader. Soon thereafter, SCIRI dropped the word “Revolution” and renamed itself as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), arguing correctly that the word “Revolution” was no longer appropriate after Iraq was liberated from dictatorship.

Senior members in the group, most of whom were not politically viable if not for their attachment to the al-Hakim family, were content to have Sayyid Abdulaziz al-Hakim as their leader while building their political profiles and personal networks of power, not to mention the accumulation of wealth from the rich ministries and other enterprises during the era of high oil prices and absence of financial accountability. ISCI controlled important posts such as the Ministries of Oil, Interior, Finance, Housing and Construction, not to mention their dominance of local governments in several southern provinces.

The Death of Sayyid Abdulaziz al-Hakim in 2009 presented a great challenge to ISCI’s internal structure. As leadership went, according to the tradition of inheritance, to Sayyid Ammar al-Hakim, Abdulaziz’s son and the nephew of ISCI’s founder, two problems began to emerge: the new leader was too young to lead ISCI’s old establishment, most of whom older than his late father, and they were disenchanted by his plan to gradually increase the number of young members in the leadership. Several ISCI founders simply found themselves marginalized and overruled by the young newcomers. They began to withdraw from the political scene and raise their criticism of ISCI’s leader. Some of them recently traveled to Iran to apply pressure on al-Hakim to return to ISCI’s founding principles. They also announced their intent to run for the 2018 elections outside ISCI.

In a preemptive move, Ammar al-Hakim announced today (24 July 2017) that he left ISCI and established a new political party he named “National Wisdom Movement”. He appeared on his ISCI-owned TV with eight Iraqi flags behind him and the pictures of three symbols of al-Hakim family: his grandfather Grand Ayatollah Mohsin al-Hakim, his uncle Sayyid Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim and his father Sayyid Abdulaziz al-Hakim. The set’s dominant color was changed from ISCI’s yellow to blue, the new movement’s chosen color. However, the word “Islamic” was dropped form the movement’s name to indicate that the new party is not religious in nature — the current political trend in Iraq favors “civil”, non-religious groups.

Although Sayyid Ammar al-Hakim announced that he left ISCI, he apparently retained all the significant assets of ISCI: Al-Furat TV station, all ISCI’s affiliate organizations, ISCI’s MPS, and the grand palace complex in Baghdad, where Sayyid Ammar al-Hakim resides — it once belonged to a senior minister in Saddam Hussein’s regime. There is a word on a plan to divide some of ISCI’s provincial offices and the properties ISCI acquired in various ways since 2003, which are registered under ISCI’s name. These are not many, because ISCI had no legal standing to acquire assets in Iraq, and almost all its acquisitions were registered for the affiliates that joined al-Hakim’s new party. In other words, he virtually took everything ISCI owned and left his old partners with ISCI’s name only. It is hard to tell, in this case, who left ISCI and who remained in it. In practical terms, what happened in ISCI was a major purge of all unwanted old elements who became a liability on their patron, in the same way a tree sheds its old leaves to grow new ones, while the new name is just an additional layer of camouflage.

The departure of Sayyid Ammar al-Hakim presents a challenge to the remaining elements of ISCI in more than one way. Most importantly, ISCI has evolved from its diversity of identities and currents of the founding Shia groups that historically opposed the Iraqi dictatorships to a political entity revolving around al-Hakim’s Family. It is hard, if not impossible, to maintain the entity without a al-Hakim family member in it. Essentially Sayyid Ammar al-Hakim stripped his ISCI partners of both the symbolism and the assets. Additionally, the leaders that remained in ISCI have made a mistake by accepting to take a supportive role in the past and remain as mere followers, rather than establishing their own independent networks of loyalty on a wide-scale. A third challenge relates to their political qualities. All remaining figures in ISCI have acquired a negative reputation during their terms in politics and the time they were working for ISCI. The current narrative of their “departing” partners is depicting them as old guard who refuse any change or progress.

All the ills of ISCI are being blamed now on the “old guard”, while the National Wisdom Movement is portrayed as a project to rejuvenate Shia politics by promoting a young energetic political class with a pragmatic worldview. The new National Wisdom Movement, although led by/and in the name of a clerical family, did not include the word “Islamic”, but went for the word “National” instead. The founding declaration made it clear that they will be open to including anyone from the diverse Iraqi ethno-sectarian mix who is interested in joining them. The only card in the hands of the remaining ISCI elements and their group now is the support of Iran. Will they be able to convince the Iranians that ISCI is still a relevant horse in the Iraqi political race? The answer to this question depends on how Iran plans to distribute its political patronage in the coming months.

The main question, however, is this: Will Sayyid Ammar al-Hakim succeed in convincing the Iraqis, particularly the disenchanted Shia, that his recent move is a genuine step toward reform and not merely a clever move to evade the responsibility for many years of ISCI’s corruption and political incompetence while being led directly, and almost exclusively, by him and close members of his family? This will be decided by the new course he will take and type of platform he will bring to the national debate. So far, the new National Wisdom Movement has kept its governance “wisdom” a secret. Not only in ISCI’s case, but for all other political blocs, speaking about concrete policies and plans to fix Iraq’s political, economic, and social problems is not a popular culture.

Abbas Kadhim is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University (Twitter: @DrAbbasKadhim) .

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