Saraya al-Atabat: Iraq’s Shrine Militias That Helped Defeat ISIS

Shrines of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Hussain in Karbala and his father Imam Ali in Najaf funded Saraya al-Atabat and deployed them for their protection as well as to fight ISIS

Firqat al-Abbas al-Qitaliyah or al-Abbas Combat Division's camp in Karbala was designed as a replica of Imam Hussain encampment—al-Mukhayyam

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

When the Iraqi state was on the verge of collapse in the face of an ISIS onslaught in 2014, the country’s clergy took the lead in rallying people against the terror group. The campaign they devised was multi-pronged and religious imagery would play a key role in Iraq’s extraordinary and unprecedented feat of defeating ISIS—a terrorist group with territorial control—in a short span of just three years.

The clergy smartly likened ISIS to the killers of the Prophet’s grandson Imam Hussain, who opposed the undermining of basic Islamic values of egalitarianism, justice, and equity under an unjust ruler in the seventh century. The opposition triggered the Battle of Karbala, which ended with the massacre of Imam Hussain and his 72 companions and family members. Imam Hussain’s sacrifice immortalized him in Muslim lore as the ultimate symbol of courage and commitment to the essence of Islam.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani led the spiritual battle against ISIS. His wajib al-kifah (obligation to fight) fatwa urging all able-bodied men to resist the terrorist group swelled the ranks of voluntary al-Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Force). Hashd’s volunteers were deployed as shock troops in the war on ISIS and proved critical to Iraq’s success. 

The religious symbolism deployed in the war on ISIS was most striking at the camp of Hashd’s Firqat al-Abbas al-Qitaliyah or al-Abbas Combat Division in Karbala. The base camp was designed as a replica of the encampment—al-Mukhayyam (Arabic) and Kheymehgah (Persian)—of Imam Hussain during the Battle of Karbala.

As part of a group of journalists covering the war on ISIS in February 2016, we met a batch of newly trained volunteers under a conical tent-like structure at the camp. The mood at the camp of Firqat al-Abbas al-Qitaliyah, one of the four brigades in a network of ‘shrine militias’ called Saraya al-Atabat, was of determination.

A 20-year-old volunteer from Najaf told us that he joined the brigade on Sistani’s call. ‘My family encouraged me to join,’ he said when asked whether his family was fearful. He added he was following in the footsteps of his three brothers and uncles, who were on the battlefield and had killed a ‘lot of Daesh [ISIS] fighters.’

An older volunteer Yasin Hussain, 63, echoed the younger recruit. ‘I heard the call of Sistani to protect the nation and responded.’ He added he left his job in response to the call to fight. ‘Daesh… are on the wrong path of destruction. We will fight for victory or for martyrdom. I am 63 and in good health with god’s grace,’ said the Nasriya native with greying hair and stubble as he waited to be sent to fight ISIS in the country’s north. The mood, he added, was upbeat amid slogans hailing Hussain.

Al-Abbas Combat Division was named after Abbas ibn Ali, Imam Hussain’s half-brother, who was a revered warrior and the flagbearer in the Battle of Karbala. Abbas was known to have inherited his father Imam Ali’s warrior skills. Abbas had promised Ali he would protect Hussain.

Abbas was killed in the Battle of Karbala when he volunteered to fetch water for the children accompanying them as they cried out of thirst in the desert heat when Ummayad ruler Yazid’s forces cut off their water supply. He left their encampment with a water skin despite knowing the risk involved. As soon as he fetched the water, Yazid’s troops attacked him with swords and spears.

Imam Hussain and Abbas’s gallantry are legendary in Muslim lore. The naming of the division underscored this. Al-Abbas Combat Division was affiliated to Abbas’s shrine located next to Hussain’s mausoleum. Each major shrine in Iraq raised its own force. Shrines in Karbala and Najaf funded the Saraya al-Atabat and deployed them for their protection as well as to fight ISIS under the Hashd banner.

Syed Saduddin, the director of Imam Hussain shrine’s secretariate, said they were spoilt for choice while raising their Liwa Ali al-Akbar Brigade. ‘There are so many youths interested in joining the force… that authorities have had to put a bar on the number of volunteers who show up… the current number of [recruits in] a new batch is 6,400 but many more are eager to join.’ He said the shrine was spending a considerable part of its budget to support Liwa Ali al-Akbar. ‘We give salaries to the fighters and not the government.’

The ‘shrine militias’ were part of the Popular Mobilisation Forces but remained primarily answerable to Sistani. A US airstrike at a Saraya al-Atabat-guarded site suspected to be used for weapons storage by Iran-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah at the Karbala airport left guards and a civilian dead in March 2020. The strike came as a rude shock to Saraya al-Atabat as the network avoided any hostile approach or anti-US rhetoric.

Saraya al-Atabat’s personnel were strictly disallowed from working with foreign trainers. The network of around 15,000 personnel opposed the Iran-backed leadership of Hashd and since 2014 sought to remain autonomous. Apart from Firqat al-Abbas al-Qitaliyah and Liwa Ali al-Akbar, Firqat al-Imam Ali al-Qitaliyah, and Liwa Ansar al-Marjaiya were the other three brigades of the network.

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

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