Foreign Policy Blogs

Soldiers of Heaven

The clashes between the Shi’ite sect Soldiers of Heaven and the local Iraqi security forces have occurred almost exactly a year after the previous clashes that killed over 25o people in Najaf, although this time, the violence is farther south, in Nasiriyah and Basra. They are targeting Shi’ite observers of Ashura, a major Shi’ite holiday which involves a pilgrimage to Karbala. They began attacking police positions in a coordinated fashion, and also targeting pilgrims. Not much is known about the Soldiers of Heaven, they seem to be a heavily armed Shi’ite messianic cult.

Last year, the battle that ensued after the confrontation between the Soldiers of Heaven and the local Iraqi security forces took the Iraqi government completely by surprise. US ground troops as well as air support had to be called in. After the battle was over, it was discovered that the SoH had set up camp for quite some time preparing to storm Karbala, and had dug trenches, tunnels, and even had anti-aircraft weaponry. What was disturbing was that this messianic cult had so much military prowess. They seemed to be very well organized, and as the deputy governor of Najaf at the time said, “This group had more capabilities than the government”.

Why is a Shi’ite group attacking other Shi’as, especially during the holiest day of Muharram? Where on earth did they get all this firepower and training from? These are some difficult questions. Last year, SoH's goal was to assassinate top Shi’a leaders such Ayatollah Sistani and to occupy the main shrine at Karbala. Some officials link them to Al-Qaeda, because during last year's battle, they apparently arrested/found some Sunnis and foreign fighters. Since Al-Qaeda is so anti-Shi’a, this seems suspect, although it would make sense from a training and funding point of view because the majority of the fighters were poor peasants from the surrounding countryside. Where else could poor peasants get such training, funding, and equipping? Najaf's governor at the time of last year's attack, Asad abu Kalal, said,“In external form, the way they look is Shiite, but its reality is something else,” Kalal said. “They meant to destroy the Shiite and kill the Grand Marjiyas and occupy the Holy Shrine of Imam Ali,” he said.

But I don't think that Shi’ite on Shi’ite violence is impossible, perhaps it should be looked at as Iraqi on Iranian violence, because the group's main goal last year was to kill Ayatollah al-Sistani and occupy the Holy Shrine. It may be that they wanted it out of the hands of foreign (ie: Iranian) influences.