Iraq Diaries: Ground Zero Of Spirited Fightback Against ISIS

The seeds of perhaps the most spirited fightback ever against terrorism were sown in narrow Rasool Street in Iraq’s Najaf, where Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa in 2014 from his small house urging all able-bodied men to resist ISIS

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa in 2014 from his small house in Iraq’s Najaf urging all able-bodied men to resist ISIS
Pope Francis on his way to Sistani’s residence for a meeting in 2021.

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Makeshift electricity lines dangled overhead as we made our way through the narrow Rasool Street, which culminates at one of Islam’s holiest shrines—fourth Caliph Imam Ali Bin Abi Thalib’s gold-domed tomb in Central Iraq’s Najaf. The alley is wide enough for just about three people to walk side by side. 

The setting appeared undistinguished. But it was by no means ordinary. The seeds of perhaps the most spirited fightback ever against terrorism were sown in this lane. The rear-guard action began after reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, 92, the leader of the Iraqi Shia Muslim religious establishment (Hawza), issued a fatwa in 2014 from his small rented house on Rasool Street.

The edict urged able-bodied men to assist Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in combating the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), defending Iraq, its people, their honour, and sacred places. 

Iranian-born Sistani’s fatwa carried weight as the spiritual leader for millions globally. It swelled the ranks of voluntary resistance forces raised to combat the terrorist group that posed a formidable challenge. 

ISIS perhaps controlled the largest territory a terrorist group has ever held—a third of Syria and 40% of Iraq. At its peak, the group controlled a bigger territory—88,000 square km (34,000 square miles)—than Austria’s land area (82,523 square km).

With swathes of land and resources at its disposal, ISIS was among the most serious threats to world peace since al-Qaida emerged decades back as the most lethal transnational terrorist group. The threat was compounded as the Iraqi state virtually collapsed. The American-trained and equipped ISF forces escaped Mosul in June 2014 in the face of an ISIS offensive. 

The capitulation plunged Iraq into an existential crisis as ISIS threatened to march on Baghdad and take over the rest of the country. It offered the death cult, which masqueraded as a caliphate, a base to mount brutal attacks globally.

The fall of ISIS, which became infamous for inflicting barbaric punishments on its captives, was, however, as quick as its dramatic rise. The group was fully decimated territorially when the Syrian Democratic Forces ended its claim to any territory on March 23, 2019, with the fall of the last village—Baghouz—under its control. 

Seven months later ISIS chief Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was killed. The self-styled caliphate earlier lost its last stronghold—Hawija—in Iraq on October 5, 2017. 

The turn of the tide within three years of the Iraqi state’s capitulation was particularly remarkable given how the almost two-decade-long US war in Afghanistan ended. The Taliban remained undefeated and returned to power in 2021. They survived the sole superpower’s unmatchable resources—air power, ground forces, and drones. 

The US failed to defeat the Taliban despite spending $778bn on military expenditure alone in the first 18 years of the Afghan war. The war, which began in October 2001 to topple the Taliban regime for sheltering Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida after the 9/11 attacks, left 2,300 American soldiers dead. 

Over 45,000 Afghan security forces personnel died between 2014 and 2020 when the Taliban continued to control much of Afghanistan. Over 100,000 civilians were reported dead or injured after the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan began systematically recording civilian casualties in 2009.

Despite the massive economic and human costs of the Afghan war, the US was eventually forced to sign a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020. The over $2 trillion Washington pumped into its war and to rebuild the war-ravaged Afghanistan, which remained among the largest source of displaced people globally, literally went down the drain.

Military campaigns against terrorist groups with territorial controls have been bloody, long-drawn, and often unsuccessful. Sri Lanka took 25 years to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), one of the deadliest terrorist organisations in the 1980s and 1990s. 

The LTTE was infamous for suicide bombings that left hundreds including former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi dead. Pakistan took two years to reclaim control over the Swat Valley in 2009. It mounted a three-year military campaign to liberate the country’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan from terrorists in 2017. 

Wars on terrorist groups in Pakistan and LTTE involved much smaller territories and stronger states, unlike a collapsing Iraqi state. Iraq would have been unable to achieve the feat of defeating ISIS and that too in just three years had not it been for Sistani’s fatwa.

The edict rallied demoralised Iraqis in June 2014 and inspired thousands of volunteers to sign up for the war on ISIS. It provided much-needed legitimacy to the resistance amid a vacuum in the credible political leadership. 

Anti-ISIS volunteer force camps were flooded with volunteers following Sistani’s call when, as Renad Mansour of  Malcolm H Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center wrote in November 2015, ISF struggled with ‘recruitment and poor public image.’ 

The volunteers played an important role in liberating places such as Ramadi and controlling the Mosul-Raqqa to throttle ISIS’s finances linked to oil exports. The sacrifices they offered made them national heroes overnight. The heroism was celebrated on banners with pictures and eulogies to the fallen fighters almost everywhere in Iraq. 

The banners dotted shrines in Najaf, Karbala, and Baghdad as well as almost all highways, public squares, and markets. The fighters were celebrated in the media and big TV screens relayed images of their exploits from the battlefields to keep up the public morale.

As part of a group of journalists covering the war on ISIS, we spent a full day at ground zero of the resistance in Najaf, where centuries-old seminaries have trained clerics such as Iranian Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. 

Much of the day was spent interacting with the Hawza, a less institutionalised setup that has been likened to a heavily standardised and bureaucratised Catholic Church. It has been a key Iraqi institution since the 2003 US invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein

Hawza has earned global praise for strengthening democracy and promoting tolerance as well inter-sectarian and inter-religious harmony. Iraq has since the invasion looked for guidance to Hawza under Sistani, who has won accolades in the West for his belief in ‘separation between politics and religion’ as long as ‘politics does not break Islamic tenets.’

Sistani seldom appears in public or on TV. He issues messages through representatives. He was unavailable despite many efforts to a meeting with us. He has been the most sought-after Iraqi among journalists as his rare but authoritative interventions have been credited with helping positively shape Iraq. 

Millions globally revere Sistani as a spiritual guide and turn to him for guidance on day-to-day and theological issues. His modesty and frugal lifestyle have helped the spread of his influence beyond his moral and spiritual authority. 

Born in 1930 in Iran’s Mashhad, Sistani’s early Quranic education began in his city of birth in 1935. He later moved to Qom (Iran) for further education before settling down in Najaf permanently.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide 

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