ʾAlī al-Sīstānī: Guiding Conduct of Pro-Government Militias in Iraq

By Marta Wojtowicz

Description: The Advice and Guidance to the Fighters on the Battlefields[1] was issued by ʾAlī al-Sistānī in February 2015 and directed to the fighters involved in the campaign against ISIS, addressing the issue of their conduct in war. The fatwā is an example of humanitarian considerations in warfare framed in the terms of Islamic law and Shīʿī legal scholarship.

Commentary: In February 2015, Imam ʾAlÄ« al-SistānÄ« of Najaf issued a fatwa outlining the principles guiding the conduct of war for his followers. SistānÄ« is one of the highest-ranking ShÄ«Ê¿Ä« legal scholars in Iraq, recognized as the authority to be followed – marjaÊ¿ al-taqlÄ«d.[2] This opinion was primarily intended for the use of militants involved in the campaign against ISIS and their affiliates in northern Iraq. The fatwa invites comparison with the sources of international law, providing a ShÄ«Ê¿Ä« perspective on humanitarian principles to be observed during the conduct of war.

The document should be read in conjunction with the opinions issued by Sistānī at the outbreak of the conflict, in particular, his fatwā from 13 June 2014 calling all civilians able to carry arms to mobilize against the ISIS threat.[3] This call proved highly consequential, creating an Islamic law obligation for those who followed al- Sistānī’s religious guidance.[4] The fatwā prompted a widespread mobilization of Iraqi civilians in southern Iraq during the summer of 2015, and the creation of numerous para-military groups which would subsequently be known as the hashd al-shaʻbi or the Popular Mobilization Units.[5]

This picture is complicated by the fact that many of the groups active during the war have declared the acceptance of religious guidance from Imam ʾAli Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran. Practical consequences of the divisions related to the religious authority were seen throughout the campaign. For instance, the groups recognizing the authority of Sīstānī were the only Shīʿī militia organizations authorized to support the regular security forces inside Mosul.[6]

Sistānī’s intervention in June 2015, as well as the scale of response to his call seen across southern Iraq as a result, have raised questions on the matter of political influence of the marājiʿ of Najaf and their willingness to actively intervene in the political affairs of Iraq. In this context, ʾAli al-Sistānī is often considered a key, albeit restrained, actor in the country’s political process. Some of his interventions after the fall of the Baathist regime in 2003 were seen as attempts to reconcile Islamic religious principles with democratic thought.[7]

The Advice and Guidance to the Fighters on the Battlefields was announced over six months after the original mobilization of the militia forces. By that time, the Iraqi Security Forces and Popular Mobilization had regained control over some key locations in the vicinity of Baghdad and Karbala (e.g. Jurf al-Sakhar in Babil province) and started positioning themselves for an offensive in the Sunnī-majority areas. Therefore, concerns had been raised that the high presence of Shīʿī military element would lead to humanitarian abuses, exacerbated by the Popular Mobilization groups deficiencies in military discipline and training.[8]

Sīstānī’s advisory fatwā presents an outline of rules applicable to the conduct of war, providing insight into the contemporary interpretation of the laws of war in the Shīʿī jurisprudence. The opinion introduces the basic rules in war as “necessitated by the wisdom and mandated by primordial nature of human beings.” The Qurʾān and the tradition of the Prophet are principal sources for the Shīʿī interpretations of the Islamic law. The majority of source material refers back to the tradition revolving around additional members of the family of the Prophet, Imam ʻAlī in particular. Sistānī makes an explicit reference to the Ḥadīth al-Thaqalayn, accepted by both the Shīʿī and Sunnīs, which highlights the importance of the Prophet’s family example.[9]

In the fatwā, the tradition related to the conflicts with Imām ʾAlī’s involvement provides a crucial reference point for the interpretation of the rules of modern warfare, in particular, those cases when a conflict occurs among the Muslims. Events from the early military history of Islam – the Battle of Siffin, the Day of the Camel, the Battle of Karbala, the Night of Harir – provide basic examples for the rules of conduct applicable in war.

The substantive content of the opinion touches on some key issues in the conduct of hostilities, following the path set by this tradition. Some of the themes overlap with the major principles of the international law of armed conflicts,[10] although both the systematization and the framing are distinct. These common issues include the protection of non-combatants, respect for fallen opponents, ban on looting or collective punishment. “The lives of those who do not fight you are sacred, especially the weak among the elderly, the children, and the women, even if they were the families of those who fight you.”[11] Notably, by February 2015, reports on the Popular Mobilization and regular security forces committing abuses during the conflict had gained notoriety.[12]

Much attention is devoted to the issues arising from facing Muslims on the battlefield. In a brief comment, more closely related to the just war issue rather than the law of war, Sistānī reinforces the justification for waging a war when other Muslims are acting as oppressors. He highlights the protections afforded to non-Muslims further in the text. The call for an open mind and “respect for different tribes and races” can be seen to anticipate the difficulties arising not only from the conduct of hostilities against the Sunnī Muslim groups but also from the complex ethnic and religious composition of northern Iraq’s provinces, Ninawa and Kirkuk in particular.[13]

The Advice and Guidance to the Fighters on the Battlefields was a normative reference point for the Iraqi fighters following Sistānī’s religious guidance in the course of the campaign against ISIS. Therefore, i applied not only to para-military groups created as a result of the fatwā from June 2014, but also to the large proportion of the regular Iraqi Security Forces members who recognize Sistānī’s authority as a marjaʿ. In fact, although the presence of paramilitary Shīʿī groups in Ninawa and other majority-Sunni provinces in northern Iraq had been anticipated to drive the risks of sectarian violence, reported abuses against the civilian population remained relatively limited in scale and uncoordinated.[14] Although this can be attributed to a range of practical circumstances and political influences, Sistānī’s religious authority was arguably among the mitigating factors.

The Guidelines raise questions on the practical regulation and dissemination of the rules of warfare among the regular and irregular militia units in the Islamic law jurisdictions.[15] Although Iraq is a party to the main humanitarian law treaties, including the Geneva Conventions and its first Additional Protocol, the practical application of these instruments have been questioned by human rights advocates, in particular, in regard to the Popular Mobilization Units.[16] Although the militias have been incorporated within the chain of command of the Iraqi Security Forces, with the Prime Minister as the Commander-in-Chief overseeing the Popular Mobilization Commission, these organizations have been functioning with a significant degree of autonomy.[17] Conversely, the principles outlined by Sistānī enjoyed the privilege of both wider distribution and acceptance in the framework of his religious authority.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary sources

ʻAlī al-Sīstānī, ADVICE AND GUIDANCE TO THE FIGHTERS ON THE BATTLEFIELDS (2015), https://www.sistani.org/english/archive/25036/ [https://perma.cc/65QQ-ZLAU].

ʻAlī al-Sīstānī, The Sermon of the Representative of the High Religious Authority in Karbala, delivered by Sheikh Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai, 14 Shaaban 1435 (13 June 2014), https://www.sistani.org/arabic/archive/24918/ [https://perma.cc/shh6-chyw].

Reports

Iraq: Pro-Government Militias’ Trail of Death, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH (2014), https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/07/31/iraq-pro-government-militias-trail-death [https://perma.cc/6ZJ2-HYRY].

Customary International Humanitarian Law, INTERNATIONAL COMMITTEE OF THE RED CROSS, https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/home (last visited Nov 12, 2018).

Iraq: Militias Escalate Abuses, Possibly War Crimes, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH (2015), https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/02/15/iraq-militias-escalate-abuses-possibly-war-crimes [https://perma.cc/329J-2C6K].

Literature

Ahmed Ali & Kimberly Kagan, ISW BLOG: THE IRAQI SHI’A MOBILIZATION TO COUNTER THE ISIS OFFENSIVE ISW BLOG (2014), http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/2014/06/the-iraqi-shi-mobilization-to-counter.html [https://perma.cc/4W32-K5JJ ].

ONDER BAKIRCIOGLU, ISLAM AND WARFARE: CONTEXT AND COMPATIBILITY WITH INTERNATIONAL LAW (2014).

Hamid Dabashi & Joyce N. Wiley, MARJAʿ AL-TAQLĪD, THE OXFORD ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE ISLAMIC WORLD. OXFORD ISLAMIC STUDIES ONLINE, http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/opr/t236/e0505.

Adel al-Gabouri, THE ROLE OF THE POPULAR MOBILIZATION FORCES IN THE IRAQI POLITICAL PROCESS, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-role-of-the-popular-mobilization-forces-in-the-iraqi-political-process [https://perma.cc/ACA6-ZES7].

Michel Knigths & Hamdi Malik, THE AL-ABBAS COMBAT DIVISION MODEL: REDUCING IRANIAN INFLUENCE IN IRAQ’S SECURITY FORCES THE WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-al-abbas-combat-division-model [https://perma.cc/C2VR-286S].

HOSSEIN MODARRESI TABATABA’I, AN INTRODUCTION TO SHĪʻĪ LAW: A BIBLIOGRAPHICAL STUDY 2 (1984).

Harith Hasan al-Qarawee, The ‘formal’ Marjaʿ: Shiʿi clerical authority and the state in post-2003 Iraq,  BRITISH JOURNAL OF MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES 1–17, 4 (2018).

Saled Qassim, DISPUTED ZONES: A RESERVOIR OF ETERNAL CONFLICT THE WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/disputed-zones-a-reservoir-of-eternal-conflict [https://perma.cc/529P-LEJB].

Issam Saliba, IRAQ: LEGISLATING THE STATUS OF THE POPULAR MOBILIZATION FORCES | GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (2016), http://www.loc.gov/law/foreign-news/article/iraq-legislating-the-status-of-the-popular-mobilization-forces/ (last visited Nov. 12, 2018).

Erik Slobe, AMNESTY: IRAQ MILITIAS COMMITTING WAR CRIMES JURIST, https://www.jurist.org/news/2017/01/amnesty-iraq-militias-committing-war-crimes/ (last visited Nov. 11, 2018).

Notes:

[1] ʻAlī al-Sīstānī, Advice and Guidance to the Fighters on the Battlefields (2015), https://www.sistani.org/english/archive/25036/ [https://perma.cc/65QQ-ZLAU]. English quotes follow the translation published on Sīstānī’s official website.

[2] Hamid Dabashi & Joyce N. Wiley, Marjaʿ al-Taqlīd, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/opr/t236/e0505.

[3] The Sermon of the Representative of the High Religious Authority in Karbala, delivered by Sheikh Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai, 14 Shaaban 1435 (13 June 2014), https://www.sistani.org/arabic/archive/24918/ [https://perma.cc/shh6-chyw].

[4] Ahmed Ali & Kimberly Kagan, ISW Blog: The Iraqi Shi’a Mobilization to Counter the ISIS Offensive ISW Blog (2014), http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/2014/06/the-iraqi-shi-mobilization-to-counter.html [https://perma.cc/4W32-K5JJ ].

[5] Shia Militias in Iraq, 23 Strategic Comments i–ii (2017).

[6] Michel Knigths & Hamdi Malik, The al-Abbas Combat Division Model: Reducing Iranian Influence in Iraq’s Security Forces The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-al-abbas-combat-division-model [https://perma.cc/C2VR-286S].

[7] Harith Hasan al-Qarawee, The ‘formal’ Marjaʿ: Shiʿi clerical authority and the state in post-2003 Iraq,  British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 1–17, 4 (2018).

[8] Iraq: Pro-Government Militias’ Trail of Death, Human Rights Watch (2014), https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/07/31/iraq-pro-government-militias-trail-death [https://perma.cc/6ZJ2-HYRY].

[9] Hossein Modarresi Tabataba’i, An introduction to Shīʻī law: a bibliographical study 2 (1984).

[10] Customary International Humanitarian Law, International Committee of the Red Cross, https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/home (last visited Nov. 12, 2018).

[11] al-Sīstānī, supra note 1.

[12] Iraq: Militias Escalate Abuses, Possibly War Crimes, Human Rights Watch (2015), https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/02/15/iraq-militias-escalate-abuses-possibly-war-crimes [https://perma.cc/329J-2C6K].

[13] Saled Qassim, Disputed Zones: A Reservoir of Eternal Conflict The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/disputed-zones-a-reservoir-of-eternal-conflict [https://perma.cc/529P-LEJB].

[14] Adel al-Gabouri, The Role of the Popular Mobilization Forces in the Iraqi Political Process, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-role-of-the-popular-mobilization-forces-in-the-iraqi-political-process [https://perma.cc/ACA6-ZES7].

[15] Compare Onder Bakircioglu, Islam and warfare: context and compatibility with international law (2014).

[16] E.g. Erik Slobe, Amnesty: Iraq militias committing war crimes (Jurist blog), https://www.jurist.org/news/2017/01/amnesty-iraq-militias-committing-war-crimes/ (last visited Nov. 11, 2018).

[17] Issam Saliba, Iraq: Legislating the Status of the Popular Mobilization Forces | Global Legal Monitor (2016), http://www.loc.gov/law/foreign-news/article/iraq-legislating-the-status-of-the-popular-mobilization-forces/ (last visited Nov. 12, 2018).

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