by Barbara Slavin
Nearly 4,500 American military personnel have died in Iraq since 2003. The latest, Delta Force Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, was killed during a raid on an Islamic State prison compound last week.
Many in the Middle East, as well as in the United States, fault the Bush administration for invading the country over what turned out to be false intelligence and with so little foresight about what could go wrong. Others blame the Obama administration for withdrawing most U.S. forces and opening the door for the return of Sunni militants under the guise of the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS).
In Washington last week, Sayyed Jawad al-Khoei, a member of a distinguished Shi’ite clerical family in Iraq, told VOA that Iraqis remain grateful for American intervention and removal of a brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein. But Iraq, he conceded, “is not how we hoped it would be,” and needs carefully calibrated U.S. help.
“I am not calling for ground troops but for [more] support from the sea, from the air and training and equipping Iraqi forces,” said al-Khoei, speaking after a private briefing to Middle East experts at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“We look to the United States as superpower, as a civilized and advanced state. It has done a lot to help Iraq and it can do a lot. We need support on all levels – cultural, economic, scientific, academic [as well as] military.”
U.S. policy toward Iraq, he said, has lurched from the large-scale interventionism of Bush to the minimalist footprint of Obama. After the 2016 U.S. elections, al-Khoei said, “We hope to see a president, whether male or female, in between President Bush and President Obama.”
Al-Khoei is the grandson of the late Ayatollah Sayyed Abdul-Qasim al-Khoei, the spiritual leader of most of the world’s Shi’ite Muslims for two decades before the ascension of the current grand ayatollah, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in 1992.
Al-Khoei, Sistani and other clerics based in the Iraqi theological center of Najaf generally follow the so-called “quietist” school of Shi’ite Islam, which espouses the separation of mosque and state. This distinguishes them from those who embrace the concept of velayet-e faquih, or rule by a religious expert , which was introduced by the leader of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and still holds sway in Iran.
Most Najaf clerics oppose having religious figures assume temporal jobs for fear that that will tarnish religion. But with many Sunni Arab countries hostile to Iraq since the ouster of Saddam – Saudi Arabia has yet to send an ambassador to Baghdad – Iraqis have had difficulty resisting Iranian influence over their affairs.
“I respect Iran because I like intelligent people,” al-Khoei said. He used a sports analogy to explain Iran’s large profile in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. “If Brazil plays Iraq in soccer and Brazil scores ten and Iraq zero, we don’t blame Brazil,” he said.
“My problem with Iran is when they claim to represent all Shi’ites,” al-Khoei explained. “They are only one reading of Shi’ism.”
Although Iran is the world’s largest Shi’ite power and the Arab world is largely Sunni, al-Khoei said he did not see the current conflicts in the region in religious as much as political terms. He said the Middle East is now caught up in a new war between Ottomans and Safavids – a reference to the struggle between western Turkish and eastern Persian empires – as well as a new cold war between the United States and Russia.
Asked about Iran’s goals, al-Khoei said, “Iran’s interests are the same interests of any powerful state that has ambitions. Iran has financial and military power. It has history, civilization and culture. It’s natural to find them intervening in other states.”
Some Iranian foreign policy experts have said that there is a debate in Iranian elite circles over how extended Tehran’s forces should be. Some believe it is necessary to defend only Shi’ite majority areas, rather than to confront IS in areas with a Sunni majority.
Al-Khoei said defending Shi’ite areas in Iraq was a priority for Tehran, but that Iran also has “very strong relations with Sunnis and Kurds.”
Mindful of the devastation caused by the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war – a conflict that Iraq started – Iran wants to make sure that “history doesn’t repeat itself,” al-Khoei said. “So wherever it can interfere, it will interfere.”
The 34-year-old cleric, who spent nearly a decade in Iran after his father was assassinated by Saddam’s regime in 1994, also spoke of the role of so-called popular mobilization units in the battle against IS. These groups have become controversial. Several of them are viewed as dominated by Iran and have a history of killing American soldiers during the U.S. combat mission in Iraq.
Ayatollah Sistani, al-Khoei said, called on all Iraqis to join popular mobilization units after IS seized the northern city of Mosul in the summer of 2014 and began advancing toward the Kurdish capital, Irbil, as well as toward Baghdad.
“He asked them to fight under the framework of the Iraqi state, not to be a third force,” al-Khoei said. “He asked them to defend Iraq’s borders, not fight only for Shi’ite provinces… But unfortunately some of these units have been exploited politically and for foreign interests because they were not given enough support by other friends or even the Iraqi government itself.”
Al-Khoei, who is studying for a Ph.D. and wears the black turban of a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, is secretary general of the Al-Khoei Institute in Iraq and has taken part in extensive interfaith dialogue in Iraq and abroad.
Invited to the United States to speak at a symposium on counter-extremism at Rutgers University, al-Khoei came to Washington to urge Americans to stay committed to Iraq.
“I appreciate what Americans have given to Iraq in terms of sacrifice and blood,” he said. “Do not forget us.”