Shia shrines are Iran’s gates for influence in Iraq

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Ali Fazli

Ali Fazli

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi

Brigadier General Qassam Soleimani

Brigadier General Qassam Soleimani

IRGC – Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

IRGC – Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

In September, a senior Iranian commander made an unannounced visit to one of Shia Islam’s holiest sites in the southern Iraqi city of Karbala.

Hassan Pelarak, a top officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s (IRGC’s) elite Quds Force, had recently been sanctioned by the US for weapons smuggling. He was checking in on a construction project led by a firm he owns together with other IRGC members, a foundation linked to Iran’s supreme leader that is also under US sanctions.

The vast, $600 million expansion at the Imam Hussein shrine, which is revered as the place of martyrdom of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, will swell the capacity of what is already the world’s largest annual pilgrimage, dwarfing the hajj to Saudi Arabia’s Mecca. It is the biggest development at the shrine in 300 years.

An Iraqi worker at the site sent Reuters pictures of Pelarak, wearing a hard hat and sporting a blue surgical mask, having his temperature taken before entering. The visit, confirmed by an Iraqi employee of the foundation, was not reported by Iranian or Iraqi media. But his visit was not unusual. Pelarak and other Guards commanders overseeing the project freely drop in, workers say, and are given quick tours by the exclusively Iranian companies and engineers they have been contracted to carry out the work.

Qassem Soleimani, the late Quds Force commander who spearheaded Iran’s military and political strategy across the region, was filmed touring the project in 2018, 18 months before he was killed by a US drone strike. His successor, Esmail Qaani, made an unannounced visit to the shrine two weeks after Pelarak, said an Iranian source in Karbala.

Day and night, Iranian labourers fill in a 40-metre deep, 50,000-square-metre crater next to the shrine with steel girders and cement brought from Iran. The multi-storey buildings they are erecting will contain ablution stations, a museum and a library. Millions of predominantly Shia pilgrims from across the Islamic world will access the Hussein shrine via a large road tunnel.

It is one of the largest of the multi-million dollar projects that the IRGC-owned Kawthar foundation is leading to develop religious tourism in Iraq and Syria with more in the pipeline.

Iran’s close involvement in religious tourism is bringing Tehran soft power and cementing a presence in Iraqi religious centres that are the nexus of Shia regional influence.

Control of shrine development also deepens trade ties and is a target of potential economic opportunity for Iran: Religious tourism is worth billions of dollars a year in Iraq, the second-largest earner of revenue for the country after the oil sector.

“Iran has long penetrated the Iraqi deep state,” said Bangen Rekani, a former Iraqi housing minister with knowledge of the projects. Increasingly, he said, “Iranians use their soft power and religious ties, which can be more important than political ties.”

Iraq’s government grants religious projects special privileges, including tax exemptions on imports of Iranian cement, steel and other materials. According to multiple sources, many of these goods are brought into Iraq ostensibly for shrine development but are then sold elsewhere in the country.

The development of Shia shrines is being spearheaded by Iran’s Holy Shrines Reconstruction Headquarters, a body set up by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and run by the IRGC’s appointees.

In March, Washington sanctioned the headquarters and Kawthar, its Iraq-based engineering wing. Pelarak was among officials targeted. The Americans alleged the Headquarters and Kawthar were involved in “lethal aid” to proxy militias in Iraq and Syria, intelligence activities and money laundering.

Khamenei has condemned US sanctions as an attempt to destroy Iran’s economy and overthrow its ruling system.

A spokesman for the Hussein shrine, Afdhal al-Shami, told Reuters that Iran’s involvement was needed because “Iraq’s economy is such that we can’t undertake a project like this on our own.”

“Iranians love the shrines. When this money comes in from Iranian donors, through an official body, that’s a psychological boost and good publicity at home and abroad for the Iranian government,” he said in an interview.

Facing challenges

Iran built power in Iraq after the 2003 US invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and brought rule by Iraq’s Shia majority, especially parties supported by Tehran. The IRGC grew a military-business empire in Iran, then expanded their influence across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. They created a corridor to support militia allies across the region and dominate land borders, over-ground trade and expand their presence at Shia holy places.

But now the Islamic Republic’s attempts to expand influence in Iraq are facing new challenges. Iran is distracted by the coronavirus pandemic at home and dissent against the political parties and militant groups it backs in Iraq and Lebanon. Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has supported calls for political reform and long opposed foreign interference, including that of Iran. The United States and its allies are trying to roll back Iranian influence with sanctions, assassinations of military commanders and a new alliance between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. For the first time in years, an Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, has sided with the United States. Kadhimi’s appointment was opposed by Iran-aligned militia groups.

Pelarak’s September visit to Karbala was the latest sign that despite US pressure on the IRGC’s activities in Iraq, the Guards press on with Kawthar’s work.

The US Treasury’s sanctions in March said Kawthar “served as a base for Iranian intelligence activities in Iraq, including the shipment of weapons and ammunition to Iranian-backed terrorist militia groups.” An Iraqi customs official told Reuters Iran did not need Kawthar, an organisation focused on trade and soft power, to transfer weapons. “There are other ways of doing that as “ their proxy militias control the borders from the Kurdish north to the south of Iraq,” he said.

Kawthar carries out shrine development on behalf of the Holy Shrines Reconstruction Headquarters using a number of specialised Iranian companies. Kawthar is owned by Pelarak and at least two other Guards-linked officials, including a Quds Force commander based in the southern Iraqi holy city of Najaf, according to the US Treasury.

Iraqi traders and officials described how during Iran’s economic downturn Kawthar has become more important because of its grip on development of religious sites.

“Iran had its eye on shrines since the fall of the (Iraqi) regime in 2003,” said Dhiaa al-Asadi, a former lawmaker close to Najaf-born Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The Hussein shrine, visited by up to 50 million pilgrims each year, is housed within a vast, golden-domed mosque decorated with ornate entrances, wooden gates and glass, “all from Iran,” according to former Iraqi housing minister Rekani and several other government sources. “Down to the mirrors in the shrines, it’s all Iranian,” Rekani said.

The faithful eat for free in adjoined dining halls and pray on carpets while drilling and other sounds of upkeep punctuate an otherwise quiet reverence.

A Reuters reporter visited a Karbala hotel leased out by the Hussein shrine to host engineers working on the project. Iranian workers occupy two more hotels in the city and temporary cabins next to Kawthar’s nondescript offices, which overlook the shrine expansion project.

There, Iranian workers wearing the overalls of the companies contracted by Kawthar toil next to health and safety signs in Persian. The engineers in hard hats are often graduates of Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, according to an Iraqi contractor working with Kawthar. The university is on Western sanctions lists for alleged involvement in nuclear weapons research. Iran’s science minister has said its activities have nothing to do with atomic weapons research.

The construction site, half empty about a year ago, has quickly been filled with the skeletons of buildings. Pelarak signed a nearly $650 million contract in 2015 with the Hussein shrine for Kawthar to build the extension, named the Sahn al-Aqila Zeinab, the Courtyard of Zeinab, Hussein’s sister.

The Headquarters lists at least 17 projects it is overseeing at important shrines in Najaf, Karbala, Baghdad and the northern city of Samarra. These contracts are often years-long and worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

In Najaf, Kawthar and the Headquarters have repaired the Imam Ali shrine’s golden dome and facade, and are carrying out a $500 million infrastructure expansion there too. In Baghdad, they have built ornate windows at the shrines of two Shia imams and have been repairing a minaret that is leaning because of swelling groundwater, according to a shrine official. The Headquarters is also working on an expansion of the al-Askari shrine in Samarra. This shrine was bombed by Sunni extremists in 2006, setting off some of Iraq’s most violent sectarian bloodshed.

Pelarak is eyeing more work. He told Iran’s semi-official news agency Fars in August he hoped to carry out an expansion at another site in Karbala, the Imam Abbas shrine, part of a plan “agreed by Iraq’s housing ministry” but not yet requested by the shrine. A spokesman for Iraq’s housing ministry said he couldn’t comment because, “there is no accurate information available on this.” The shrine didn’t comment.

Several Iranian firms carry out the work, serving as contractors.

An Iraqi government official said Kawthar’s activities and finances are not shared with any Iraqi government departments.

A spokesman for the Iraqi state body that administers Shia religious sites said: “We can’t discuss any topics related to the work of Iranian companies because we do not intervene or have specific details on their activities. They work in holy cities but other than that we don’t know anything.”

Buying up properties

The Iraqi state funds the initial buying up of private and public land at the sites through budget allocations to Shia religious authorities, which make the purchase, said Rekani, the former housing minister.

For the Sahn al-Aqila, part of the Karbala project, religious authorities paid some $170 million to buy at least 300 properties, according to shrine officials. The Hussein and adjacent Abbas shrines plan to take over more land nearby, the officials said.

Mohammed Musawi, who used to live where the Sahn al-Aqila is being built and owned two hotels there, said the demolition of his properties brought a handsome fee but erased his business and a generations-old family property.

The shrine paid Musawi and his six siblings nearly $1 million for their property. He now runs a corner shop and relies heavily on the pilgrimage business.

After land acquisition, shrine projects are then fully funded by Iran “ostensibly from donations by devout Iranian Shias and through charities linked to Shia shrine organisations,” officials at the Hussein shrine said. An Iranian employee of Kawthar, who declined to be named, said much of the money came from Iranian state coffers, but he didn’t know what proportion. A project costing in excess of $600 million “can’t just come from donations, you need a state behind that,” he reasoned. Other Iranian and Iraqi sources supported this view.

Shrine projects get special status under Iraqi law, meaning they are overseen by the shrine organisations, not by the state. There are customs exemptions for all materials coming from Iran for religious, donor-funded projects.

The Iraqi customs official and an Iraqi contractor said Kawthar is also involved in other infrastructure projects, including energy. Among these projects, according to the contractor, is a power plant in Basra. The power plant project was led by an Iranian energy company called Mapna, which has also been sanctioned by the United States. Mapna is building power plants in Najaf and Baghdad, as well as one of Karbala’s largest hotels, a Reuters review of official filings found. Mapna did not respond to a request for comment.

Long game

Workers in Karbala say they see evidence that US sanctions are hurting Iran, and Kawthar. The Iranian Kawthar employee told Reuters he used to take home $1,100 a month, paid in the stable Iraqi dinar, but since the sanctions kicked in, he gets only around $200 because he is now paid in the weak Iranian rial. Work on the site for local Iraqis has all but dried up.

For the Islamic Republic, its involvement in Iraq’s Shia shrines is a long game. It brings an enduring presence in Shia centres of power, where Iran hopes to influence the succession of Iraq’s most powerful Shia cleric, Sistani. IRGC guards are regularly in Najaf, where Sistani is based.

Sistani’s edicts sent Shia Iraqis to the polls for the first time in their lives in 2005, created an amalgam of Shia paramilitaries to fight ISIS in 2014, and toppled an Iraqi government last year. Sistani stands against Iranian and other foreign interference in Iraq, and opposes the theocratic model of rule by Khamenei. The Iranian pick to succeed the 90-year-old Sistani died in 2018 in a setback to the Islamic Republic’s plans for Iraq.

Though Iranian influence is resented by large sections of Iraq’s Shia population, religious ties run deep. The pilgrimage to commemorate Hussein, slain in battle in the year 680, is closely associated with the martyrdom of today. Next to images of Hussein on Iraqi highways are posters of Shia militiamen killed fighting ISIS, which counted Shia Muslims among its most bitter enemies and considered them heretics. Next to them are pictures of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the godfather of those militia groups, killed alongside Soleimani in a US drone strike in January.

Abu Mahdi and Soleimani featured this year on a banner at one stall next to the Hussein shrine offering pilgrims free tea and juice, run by Kawthar employees. Just next to the stall were the flags of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF(, the state paramilitary grouping dominated by Iran-aligned fighters. At Baghdad’s Kadhimiya shrine, one donation box is for the Forces.

Iran uses its presence to project regional strength to Sunni Muslim rival Saudi Arabia and bolster its legitimacy at home as a defender of Shia holy places, said Iraqi officials and Iran experts. Saudi officials did not comment for this article.

“Iran wants economic, religious and political influence. The best place to do that is Kerbala and Najaf,” said Mohammed Sahib al-Daraji, a lawmaker on Iraq’s finance committee. “Iran is weakened, but it’s stronger than America in Iraq.”

Ordinary Iraqis say they find themselves once more in the middle of the contest between Iran and America. The Iraqi engineering graduate, who looks older than his 30 years and wears a frayed baseball cap, resents that the only work he’s ever found in his hometown is run by the IRGC. But he also resents that when US sanctions kicked in, that work began to dry up.

He spends most days looking for menial jobs. When he’s bored, he borrows for his bus fare and travels to Baghdad with other out-of-work engineers to hold protests demanding jobs and railing against Iraq’s ruling elite – and Iran.

“I’m now working a few days here and there on the shrine project, whenever I can get it,” the worker said. “They’ve reduced my pay by half. But I’ll work for the Iranians if it puts bread on the table… what else is there?”

Source » thearabweekly

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