Shi’ite militia commanders responsible for recruiting fighters in Iraq said the number of volunteers has increased considerably since the issuance of these edicts, despite divisions within the clergy.
While the Iranian government and some Qom-based ayatollahs are enthusiastic about supporting Assad, Shi’ite authorities in Najaf, led by Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, have objected to Shi’ite volunteers going to Syria to fight in a war which they see as political, not sectarian.
Despite Sistani’s position, however, some Shi’ite parties and militias in Iraq, which are loyal to the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have sent their members to fight in Syria.
A senior Shi’ite cleric, who runs the office of one of the four authorities in Najaf, said those who went to fight in Syria were doing so against the wishes of the authority.
According to a cleric close to the Najaf authorities, “disagreements between Qom and Najaf are not new, but this disagreement affects Iraq’s stance on the Syrian issue.”
He added that “had both authorities been united, we would have seen the Iraqi government supporting the Syrian regime.” The Iraqi government announced its neutrality on the conflict, but the flood of Iraqi Shi’ite fighters into Syria has jeopardized this position.
Senior clerics and politicians say that Syria, to Khamenei and his supporters in Iraq and Iran, is an important part of the “Shi’ite crescent” which runs from Tehran to Beirut, through Baghdad and Damascus.
In response to a question about the legitimacy of fighting in Syria, Ayatollah Kazim Al-Ha’eri, who lives in Tehran, said this fighting was a duty to defend Islam.
According to militia sources, around 50 Iraqi Shi’ites go to Syria every week to fight alongside Assad’s forces and defend Shi’ite shrines, such as the Zainab Shrine on the outskirts of Damascus.
Ali, a former member of the Al-Mahdi Army which belongs to Moqtada Al-Sadr, said while packing his bags to go to Syria: “I follow the orders of my authority. My spiritual leader said fighting in Syria was a religious duty, and I do not care what others say and no one has the right to stop me. I fight in defense of my religion and the daughter of my imam,” in reference to the Zainab Shrine. The cleric in Najaf, mentioned above, said Iran was using the protection of Shi’ite shrines as an excuse to encourage Shi’ites to fight.
Since the fall of the Saddam regime, Iran’s influence in Iraq has increased and it has tried to gain a foothold in Najaf in particular. Senior Iranian Shi’ite clerics have opened offices in Najaf as well as non-governmental organizations, charities and cultural centers, all funded by the Iranian Shi’ite authority or the Iranian embassy in Baghdad, according to local officials.
A cleric working under Khamenei, under the condition of anonymity, said: “We have a major project which targets the spreading of the principles of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist), and the youth are our target. We do not aim to establish an Islamic state in Iraq, but we want to at least establish revolutionary bodies which will be ready to fight in defense of the Shi’ite project.”
Haydar Al-Gharabi, a teacher at the Najaf seminary who is close to the Shi’ite religious authorities in the city, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The disagreement between Najaf and Qom is natural, and it is not just a disagreement between the two authorities in Iraq and Iran as the media likes to portray it, seeming like an actual disagreement between two opposing parties. It is a disagreement which exists within Najaf, and within the Qom authorities.”
Gharabi added that there were some clerics on Qom who agreed with their colleagues in Najaf, and some in Najaf who agreed with their colleagues in Qom.