Basra, the Reluctant Seat of "Shiastan"

by Reidar Visser
published in MER242

On December 24, 2005, an Iraqi writing under the signature “Hammad” published a remarkable message on a website devoted to southern Iraqi affairs:

In the name of God the merciful and compassionate: To the activists of the world, to the United Nations: Look at the south, look at the richest area in the world in terms of oil, agriculture, culture and science…. [But] look at us, and you will find cities destroyed as if they were Sumerian ruins…. The age of the tyrant Saddam came to an end and everything was going to change…. But nothing changed…. The people of the south are marginalized and have no representation in government…. When we turn to the government they tell us the Iraqi government is a spoils system and the south will obtain its share through the Shi‘i parties! Sir, the majority of the leaders of the Shi‘i parties are from the middle Euphrates area and Baghdad. They give all the positions to people from those areas and don’t give a fig about the south. [1]

Hammad’s brief appeal evokes three bones of deep contention among the Iraqi Shi‘a. He speaks of a “southern” Iraq limited to the triangle of Basra, ‘Amara and Nasiriyya, and thus separate from the Shi‘i heartland in the center of the country. He decries the continued exclusion of this area in Iraqi and Shi‘i party politics in the post-Saddam era. Finally, he mentions the concentration inside this triangle of nearly 99 percent of the oil often described as the “Shi‘i oil” of Iraq. The internal friction and disagreement over such issues show that talk of a “Shi‘i crescent” dipping through Iraq is more a fearful prophecy—perhaps a specialized version of the “clash of civilizations” thesis—than an empirically grounded analysis. The notion of a “Shiastan” in what is now central and southern Iraq postulates a motive of pan-Shi‘ism that is simply absent (and sometimes even abhorred) in large sections of the Iraqi Shi‘i community.

Regional Cells

There is nothing new in the Shi‘a of Basra being at odds with their co-religionists in central Iraq, particularly those in Baghdad and the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala’. Tensions pitting south and center against each other date back to the foundation of Shi‘i Islamist movements in the 1960s. In that period, students and older laymen in Basra fronted moves to curb the influence of clerics within the burgeoning Da‘wa current, to the point where some contemporary analysts read the struggle as a battle between Basra and Najaf. These tensions lingered throughout the 1970s—when the Basrawi Da‘wa cells remained organizationally independent for long periods—and came to a head in the early 1980s. The lay Da‘wa leadership in Iraq had been gradually decimated by the regime’s security forces, and, in 1980, at an early stage of the Iran-Iraq war, Tehran-based clerical leaders in exile availed themselves of the opportunity to recoup influence within the movement, successfully defeating the “Basra line” that had formed the core of internal opposition. [2]

Shortly afterwards, the Basra branch formally disassociated itself from the mother party, or rather sought to replace it by giving itself a variant name: the Islamic Da‘wa instead of the Islamic Da‘wa Party. Islamic Da‘wa soon disintegrated, and many of its adherents found refuge in Iran, the very Islamic republic that they had frequently criticized in their quarrels with other Da‘wa members who had been more sympathetic to the idea of clerical dominance in Islamist politics. However, tensions related to regional loyalties persisted within the Iraqi Islamist movement. One exile recounts the mechanisms at work in the 1980s:

One day I asked a leader who had been expelled from the leadership of one of the [Shi‘i] parties why he had moved [from Iran] to London and why he was disinclined to work for party X. He answered me with a single word—janubiyyatuhu (his southernness). He was from one of the southern cities of Iraq, and, whatever his personal qualities, the party leadership did not want to transform him into a leader because they wanted to give preferential treatment to those from Najaf and Karbala’—and considered all the rest worthless regardless of what they did. [3]

During the run-up to the 2003 invasion, the Basrawi current within Da‘wa reasserted itself, now under the name of Harakat al-Da‘wa (the Da‘wa Movement). Under the leadership of ‘Izz al-Din Salim, this current went on to participate in the December 2002 London conference of the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein—one of the few Da‘wa branches to do so—as well as in the Iraqi Governing Council appointed by L. Paul Bremer to be the “Iraqi face” of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Then, in May 2004, Salim was assassinated. The success of the party he left behind was limited in the two national elections of January and December 2005, but the fact that some Shi‘i Islamists of Basra chose to run separately from the United Iraqi Alliance that sought to unite all the Shi‘i parties (including the main Da‘wa group then headed by Ibrahim al-Jaafari) served as a reminder of a certain zest for independence. [4] In local elections in Basra, the Da‘wa Movement managed to pick up three seats.

Up until 2004, the Basrawi particularism within the Iraqi Shi‘i Islamist movement had mostly expressed itself in impeccably universalistic language. The “Basra line” was an attempt by Basrawis to gain control of the entire Da‘wa organization, rather than a breakaway movement that intended to withdraw from national politics to concentrate on purely local affairs. The conflict with the rest of Da‘wa was mainly over recruitment patterns rather than ideology, and those ideological issues that at times had accompanied the quarrels between Basra and Najaf would later emerge with equal force within the main faction of Da‘wa. If anything, especially in the early days, many adherents of the Basra line leaned toward currents that looked beyond Shi‘ism. Such a key figure as ‘Arif al-Basri was involved with Sunni Islamist parties at one point. On the eve of his arrest in 1974, he was intending to go to al-Azhar in Egypt to complete his studies. [5] Nor can the party splits satisfactorily be explained by the oft-cited notion of Basra as more pro-Arab, anti-Iranian and opposed to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s doctrine of velayat-e faqih (rule of clerics through the supreme jurisprudent), where other groups were attracted to the tenets of the Islamic Revolution. In the 1980s, ‘Izz al-Din Salim mixed the old Da‘wa theme of inter-sectarian dialogue and outreach beyond the Shi‘i world (to Sunni areas such as Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories) with enthusiasm for Khomeini’s Shi‘i principles of government. A decade later, he went on to become personally close to the Hakim family, whose Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) adopted a more sectarian, pan-Shi‘i stance. [6] On the pattern of the competing Baath parties of Syria and Iraq, the “southern” branches inside Da‘wa were primarily regional cells vying for leadership of a larger movement rather than clearly defined and discrete ideological alternatives.

Visions of Autonomy

Shi‘i attachment to Iraqi nationalism is often underestimated. The Shi‘a of the south may have had altercations with their brethren in the shrine cities further north, but due to the long-standing ties between the Ottoman provinces of Basra and Baghdad (whose oft-cited “separation” from 1884 to 1914 was preceded by long periods of union), the concept of “Iraq” was as widespread in Basra in the early twentieth century as it was in Najaf (and, for that matter, in Tikrit). There was a separatist movement in Basra in the 1920s, but this was directed mainly by Sunni, Christian and Jewish merchants, whose non-religious political program aimed at transforming Basra into a cosmopolitan, mercantile Gulf republic. [7]

That separatist movement ultimately collapsed. But after the ouster of the Baathist regime in 2003, there have been signs of similar political projects in Basra, this time with input from both secularists and Islamists, and framed within a federal system that would guarantee the overall territorial integrity of Iraq. The first glimmers of this movement appeared in early 2004. Inspired by the then popular scheme of converting Iraq’s existing 18 governorates into federal entities, Basra governor Wa’il ‘Abd al-Latif outlined a vision in which Basra would become another Dubai -- not necessarily by laying special claim to the enormous revenues from the Basra oilfields, but by exploiting its location at the head of the Gulf to grow into a futuristic trade entrepot. [8] Then, in March 2004, Iraqi politicians adopted the Transitional Administrative Law with provisions for creating federal entities made up of a maximum of three existing governorates. Tribal figures in neighboring Maysan and Dhi Qar provinces soon expressed interest in joining Basra in a “southern region” (iqlim al-janub). This slight reformulation of the initial scheme also received support in Basra, but it never completely supplanted ‘Abd al-Latif’s original idea. [9]

Interestingly, both of these trends perdured after Islamist leaders came to power in the south, and the two gradually merged into something that also appealed to the Basra cells of the pre-war Islamist opposition movement. An Islamist takeover occurred in Basra in late August 2004, when Hasan al-Rashid of SCIRI replaced ‘Abd al-Latif, who had been appointed to a ministerial post in Baghdad. In a newspaper interview shortly afterwards, the new Basra governor reiterated his predecessor’s idea that the United Arab Emirates was a suitable model for Basra. Significantly, he now also alluded to the mechanisms for oil revenue distribution inside the UAE and suggested that Basra should achieve a position like that of Abu Dhabi (which hands over only half of its oil income to the federal government). [10] Other figures in the local assembly, including members of the Tanzim al-Iraq branch of the Da‘wa Party (a very recent splinter group from the main branch, launched by exiles in Europe and Iran circa 2002) [11] came out in defense of the project, issuing a collective statement that referred to the right of any three governorates to combine into a federal entity. [12] In October, visiting journalists from Baghdad reported widespread popular support for the idea of a small-scale federal entity, and Basra’s biggest newspaper, al-Manara, published a passionate editorial complaining that even under the new regime (with many Shi‘a in leading positions), southerners were still treated “as if they were strangers from Senegal” when visiting Baghdad. [13]

With the elections in January 2005, a new provincial government incorporating still another Islamist faction came to power in Basra. That faction was the local branch of the Fadhila party, composed of former followers of Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, murdered by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1999, who are now adherents of the Najaf cleric Muhammad al-Ya‘qoubi and have broken with the main Sadrist trend led by Muqtada al-Sadr. Fadhila, considered a more “native” force than the formerly exiled SCIRI and mainline Da‘wa parties, joined with the Da‘wa Movement and the secular Wifaq movement to form a coalition that sidelined SCIRI in Basra politics. Nevertheless, this coalition pressed on with the previous local government’s campaign for a three-governorate federal entity in the far south. [14] The secular wing of the movement was especially articulate in the first half of 2005, convening a handful of federalism conferences, but independent Islamists also made their contribution through vociferous dissatisfaction with discrimination against “southerners” inside the national Shi‘i electoral alliance. [15]

Importantly, the movement for a small southern entity detached from the wider Shi‘i areas remained alive after the adoption in October 2005 of the new Iraqi constitution, which places no upper limit on the size of federal entities. The southern regionalists have explicitly opposed growing calls from Shi‘a in other parts of Iraq for a much larger federal entity with a purely sectarian basis. [16] More than anything, the leading role of the Da‘wa Movement in agitation for a federal entity in Basra bespeaks continuity with pre-war southern particularism within the Shi‘i Islamist movements. In late May 2006, the Movement’s council leader, Muhammad Sa‘dun al-‘Abbadi, berated the central government for paying no attention to the city that “singlehandedly fills the coffers of the Iraqi central bank.” [17]

Radical Alternatives

Not every Islamist in Basra is interested in regionalism. In August 2005, a Basra newspaper casually reported that a “procession led by clerics and a large number of citizens” had taken to the streets of the city to declare allegiance to the “guardian and prophet of the Mahdi, Ahmad al-Hasan” and that those who did not join their cause would be in “revolt against the rule of the Commander of the Faithful, ‘Ali bin Abi Talib.” Two photographs showing a small gathering of people marching through Basra accompanied the report. [18]

This procession was not the launch of Ahmad al-Hasan’s radical agenda. His “uprising” dates back to shortly before the start of the Iraq war in 2003. Gradually, he attracted a small number of followers among religious students and others in the south of Iraq, especially in Basra, Maysan and Dhi Qar provinces. His basic message is that he is the representative of the Mahdi—the Messiah-like figure for whose appearance all Shi‘a yearn—and therefore possesses “divine authority” (wilaya ilahiyya) and can overrule the traditional Shi‘i clergy on any issue of jurisprudence. He dismisses the concept of legal interpretation (ijtihad), and demands that, in legal questions where the Qur’an is ambiguous, the faithful should refer to him as the sole source of emulation. He employs several Shi‘i traditions concerning the coming of the Mahdi to buttress his claims, among them prophecies that an “Ahmad from Basra” will appear shortly before the Mahdi himself. Ahmad al-Hasan also says he is “the Yemeni” described by many Islamic sources as a sign of the Mahdi’s imminent emergence. (As Basra is distant from Yemen, he offers the explanation that “the Tihama—the southern coastal plain along the Red Sea coast of the Arabian Peninsula—is part of the Hijaz and also part of the Yemen; hence, all Arabs are Yemenis.”) Other signs reported by Hasan as evidence of forthcoming apocalypse include the appearance of the forces of evil in the shape of al-dajjal—the diabolical deceiver of Islamic eschatology—who, he proclaims, is present in Iraq in various incarnations, including the US military forces as well as the leading Shi‘i clergy. [19]

The idea of territoriality in Hasan’s writings is intriguing. Some of his messages are directed specifically at “Iraq,” and others at “Iran, the land of the Rayy.” [20] He has issued a separate demand to Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor as Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, to surrender the reins of power in Tehran, and many messages are clearly geared toward a Shi‘i audience, with separate addresses specifically directed at religious students in Najaf and Qom. But Hasan’s purview is far wider than any “Shiite crescent.” In a call to world powers, he demands the immediate withdrawal of US and allied forces from “Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Qatar, Najd, Hijaz and all Muslim lands.” [21] He bemoans Wahhabism as a devious foreign implant in Muslim society, artificially propped up by British imperial power in the early twentieth century and by the United States since the 1980s. [22] And in a recent statement, he appeals to spiritual leaders of “all the three religions”—Islam, Christianity and Judaism—thereby stressing the universalistic tendency of his message. [23] Territorial control of limited geographical zones and the liberation of “Shi‘i” territory seem to have no place in Hasan’s agenda.

Hasan is an extremist, and his group is a tiny one. But his views are nevertheless important, because he operates on the same continuum as more influential figures like Mahmoud al-Hasani and Muqtada al-Sadr. (It is no coincidence that the majority of his public affrays—they often take the form of theological duels known as munazarat—have been with Sadrist followers. [24]) In contrast to Hasan, Sadr and Hasani have not yet burned their bridges to orthodox Shi‘ism, and they continue to employ the terminology of the traditional clerical establishment. But their followers are clearly playing with Mahdism (and are allowed to do so), and Ahmad al-Hasan is therefore significant as a Shi‘i who has proceeded much further down this road—and as a leader within the broader Mahdist current in contemporary Iraq whose importance abruptly came to light during the violent confrontation between rebels and government forces at Najaf in late January 2007. [25] Crucially, on the specific issue of territoriality, the ultra-radical Hasan has more in common with the traditional Shi‘i clergy than with the “crescent” theorists, in that he has proclaimed to be a leader not only for the Shi‘a, but for all Muslims. It was ecumenical considerations that, in the 1920s, led the conservative Basra cleric Mahdi al-Qazwini to condemn as too sectarian the practice of chest beating during Muharram celebrations, and that in recent years have prompted Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali al-Sistani to protest just as loudly during Israeli military operations in the (largely Sunni Muslim) West Bank as in (Shi‘i) southern Lebanon. [26]

The Sectarian Challenge

Since the summer of 2005, local regionalists and pan-Islamist Shi‘i thinkers of Basra have been facing a serious challenge: a bid by Shi‘i leaders of central Iraq to create a Shi‘i federal super-region stretching from the Gulf to Baghdad that would absorb Basra and its oil wealth. In contrast to the “southern region” project, this scheme—known as the “region of the center and the south” (iqlim al-wasat wa al-janub)—is explicitly linked to sectarian identity. The key argument in the accompanying propaganda is that establishing a federal entity would create safety for the Shi‘a and protect them from attacks by Sunni terrorists. In contrast to the local projects in the south of Iraq, it has a certain “crescent” dimension: The former leader of SCIRI, Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, was one of the first and few Shi‘i intellectuals to write in distinctly pan-Shi‘i terms, with his vision of a unified Shi‘i empire—Iran and Iraq are explicitly mentioned—controlled by a single jurisprudent (faqih) in a federal system. [27] For a long time, it was mainly SCIRI’s pro-Iranian leadership that fronted the sectarian federalist demand, but after the Samarra’ incident in February 2006, there are signs that an increasing number of independent Shi‘i members of Parliament as well as some adherents of the Tanzim al-Iraq branch of the Da‘wa are waxing sympathetic to the idea of a single Shi‘i region, although as late as September 2006, at the time of the introduction of the SCIRI-sponsored bill for the implementation of federalism, internal disagreements on the issue resurfaced in the Shi‘i camp. [28]

Nothing even remotely resembling the SCIRI aspiration has been seen in Iraq since medieval times. True, there was an attempt in 1927 to launch a Shi‘i separatist movement, but it instantly foundered due to lack of support by the higher clergy. [29] An attempt in the seventeenth century by a local ruler in Basra called Afrasiyab to establish an anti-Ottoman emirate was inter-religious and not sectarian in character; in territorial extent, it also more resembled today’s small-scale non-sectarian regionalist project. [30] Probably the closest historical parallel would be the short-lived tribal Mazyadid emirate, which in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries ruled Hilla and regions south and also achieved a degree of control in Basra before it collapsed. [31] But if there is a lack of precedent for regional identity congruent with the proposed scheme (vide the long-winded “center and south” epithet), a motley crew of other powerful horses are today pulling the sectarian federalism project forward, giving it a status quite out of proportion to its stature in Shi‘i intellectual history. Iran has no doubt given its green light (the visits by SCIRI leader ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Hakim to Tehran shortly before the summer 2005 launch and the August 2006 upsurge of Shi‘i federalism propaganda seem particularly suggestive in this regard). Sunni extremists and al-Qaeda supporters are probably delighted that their efforts to tear the Iraqi social fabric apart are beginning to pay off. Arab and international media—and prophets of doom generally—are attracted to the project because of the dramatic headlines it can deliver. Even some within the Democratic Party have eyed it as a distinctive “alternative” approach to the Iraq situation. [32]

To Basra regionalists, the “region of the center and the south” project represents a frontal attack. It has awakened fissures within the Shi‘i Islamist movement that emerged between Najaf and Basra as early as the 1960s, and it challenges the concept of a “southern” regional identity based on collective historical experience instead of sect. Today, this confrontation can be seen in the raw power struggle for control of Basra, where the regionalist Fadhila party has faced off since May 2006 against the central government of Nouri al-Maliki, and where the pro-sectarian SCIRI are clearly hoping to regain lost control. The composition of the United Iraqi Alliance contingent in the new committee for revising the Iraqi constitution forms yet another act of internal Shi‘i marginalization of the south, whose three governorates are represented only by two members from Nasiriyya—both thought to have SCIRI sympathies. And the law for the formation of federal regions passed in October 2006 will make it relatively easy for external forces to interfere in the local federalization process, because the mechanisms that decide which particular federal scheme gets voted on in a referendum will accept initiatives by relatively small (and thus pliable) factions—one third of local council members, or a tenth of the electorate. [33]

Still, even with these strong pressures in the direction of territorial sectarianism, signs of local resistance remain. Exhausted by experimentation with regional schemes, many Shi‘i citizens of Basra today simply favor the restoration of a central Baghdad government that can deliver security and services. Others still cling to the “southern region” project, despite a potentially fateful lack of progress in recruiting support among the secularists, Sunnis and Christians of Basra. [34] Even the wild pan-Islamism of Ahmad al-Hasan survives. In the long run, these alternative visions may not derail the sectarian scheme and its powerful sponsors, but they will certainly delay it. In fact, they might prompt experienced actors like Iran, which probably takes a more nuanced view of the Iraqi scene than do many Western analysts, to distribute their bets more evenly, on a wider range of players on the Iraqi scene. [35] In spite of extreme pressures from an increasingly violent political environment, projects like these will carry on an intellectual heritage that discourages many Shi‘a from thinking about their religious community in terms of crescents, rectangles or, indeed, any kind of cartographical projection.


[1] Posted December 24, 2005 at, and accessed on February 18, 2006. The link is now defunct.
[2] On regional tensions inside the Da‘wa, see Salah Khurasan, Hizb al-da‘wa al-islamiyya: haqa’iq wa watha’iq (Damascus: al-Mu’assasa al-‘Arabiyya lil-Dirasat wa al-Buhuth al-Istratijiyya, 1999), pp. 122, 368-371, 387, 412, 423; ‘Adil Ra’uf, Hizb al-da‘wa al-islamiyya: al-masira wa al-fikr al-haraki (Beirut: Markaz al-Dirasat al-Istratijiyya wa al-Buhuth wa al-Tawthiq, 1999) pp. 42-43; Faleh A. Jabar, The Shi‘ite Movement in Iraq (London: Saqi, 2003), pp. 257-258.
[3] Mahmoud al-Amir, “Al-i’tilaf al-‘iraqi al-muwahhad fi rub‘ qarn,”, November 21, 2005.
[4] Interviews conducted in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion confirmed the association of the Haraka with regional currents in Basra. See International Crisis Group, Iraq’s Shiites Under Occupation (Amman/Brussels, September 2003), p. 12.
[5] Khurasan, p. 185.
[6] ‘Izz al-Din Salim, Khatt al-Imam al-Khumayni (Tehran, 1982), particularly pp. 27-31 and 64-76.
[7] On the struggle between separatist and Iraqi nationalist forces in Basra in the twentieth century, see Reidar Visser, Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2006).
[8] Gulf News, February 24, 2004; Ulrich Ladurner, “Die Schöne und ihre Wunden,” Die Zeit, March 18, 2004.
[9] Interview with ‘Ali Hamid al-Nouri, July 14, 2005, posted at; al-Ittihad, July 28, 2004; al-Zaman, July 28, 2004.
[10] Al-Manara, September 2, 2004.
[11] For a short while, this branch was known as Hizb al-Da‘wa Tanzim Urubba. Their London fax number was used later in 2002 on letterhead from the Tanzim al-Iraq branch, where a post office box address in Qom, Iran, also appeared. Due to its choice of name, some Western analysts have tended to associate this branch with the elusive “domestic Da‘wa” of which there was much talk prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Yet its leadership, at least, is just as émigré as that of the main branch associated with Nouri al-Maliki and Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
[12] Al-Manara, October 10, 2004. In these oil-related developments, there seems to be some convergence of the position of the Basra factions of SCIRI and Da‘wa (Tanzim al-Iraq), and the stand of ‘Adil ‘Abd al-Mahdi of SCIRI’s central leadership during the February 2004 Transitional Administrative Law negotiations, as recounted in Larry Diamond, Squandered Victory (New York: Owl Books, 2005), p. 173. Within the Da‘wa current, the Tanzim al-Iraq branch has been the object of the most specific accusations of Iranian support. See, for instance, Rory Stewart, The Prince of the Marshes (Orlando: Harcourt, 2006), pp. 237, 245; and International Crisis Group, op cit, p. 12. An “Iran factor” might perhaps be discerned in these demands. On the other hand, both ‘Abd al-Latif’s precursor movement and Fadhila’s more recent federal project have firmer links to “domestic” Iraqi politics.
[13] Al-Mada, October 16, 2004; al-Manara, October 3, 2004.
[14] Knight Ridder, May 24, 2005.
[15] Al-Hayat, March 14, 2005; al-Bayan, April 14, 2005; al-Mashriq, April 23, 2005; al-Mu’tamar, May 4, 2005.
[16] The contrasts between the two competing projects were discussed in a meeting between Basra governor Muhammad al-Wa’ili and tribal sheikhs in early 2006. Government of Iraq, Office of the Prime Minister, Reports on the Activities of the Governors, April 4, 2006. The alternative of Basra as a stand-alone federal entity has also resurfaced. Al-Manara, October 14, 2006.
[17] Fadhila press release, dated May 31, 2006. On its website, the Da‘wa Movement also published a spirited article defending the idea of converting Iraq’s existing governorates into federal entities. See Nizar Haydar, “al-‘Iraq al-fidirali,” June 12, 2005, accessible online at The anti-SCIRI position of the Da‘wa Movement in Basra is interesting in light of the relatively close ties between the Hakim family and ‘Izz al-Din Salim. In fact, Salim had been one of the few Shi‘i leaders to toy with the idea of federalism as a mechanism for advancing specifically sectarian aims prior to 2003, but the stance taken by his party in Basra suggests that regional loyalties ultimately proved stronger for the movement as a whole. See “Hiwar ma‘a al-shahid ‘Izz al-Din Salim hawla al-fidiraliyya fi al-‘Iraq,” a pre-2003 interview (no exact date given) reproduced at
[18] Al-Manara, August 2, 2005.
[19] Based on texts from the original Ahmad al-Hasan website,, accessed on August 2, 2005, now defunct. Some but not all texts are now available from his new site, at http:// Key documents include “Bayan al-thawra,” dated December 12, 2003; “Ila al-dajjal al-akbar,” dated May 23, 2004; “Mukhtasar al-sira al-dhatiyya lil-Sayyid Ahmad al-Hasan” and “Al-Yamani al-maw‘ud Ahmad al-Hasan wasiyy wa rasul al-Imam al-Mahdi” (both undated).
[20] Hasan, calls 2 and 3, December 2003. Rayy is a city in northern Iran associated with some of the prophecies concerning the appearance of the Mahdi.
[21] Hasan, unnumbered call, December 2003.
[22] Letter from Ahmad al-Hasan, February 22, 2006, accessible at
[23] Letter from Ahmad al-Hasan, November 2005, accessible at
[24] Hasan and his followers sometimes strayed from their revolutionary anti-establishment path and quoted the late cleric Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr as an authority, for instance in questions concerning jihad. See an undated letter from the Nasiriyya office of Ahmad al-Hasan to As‘ad al-Nasiri, accessible at
[25] For a while, Iraqi authorities claimed that Ahmad al-Hasan was directly involved, although they later changed their account and came instead to focus on Dhia’ ‘Abd al-Zahra from the middle Euphrates area. There is conspicuous ideological overlap between these two Mahdist groups’ ideologies, and only days prior to the armed confrontation, Ahmad al-Hasan followers in Najaf had been complaining about harassment by local authorities. Hence some kind of linkage, perhaps involving a split within a larger movement, cannot be excluded.
[26] For Qazwini, see Visser, Basra, the Failed Gulf State, p. 125; for Sistani, see bayans (pronouncements) issued by his office, dated April 9, 2002 and July 30, 2006.
[27] Reidar Visser, “Shi‘i Perspectives on a Federal Iraq,” in Daniel Heradstveit and Helge Hveem, eds. Oil in the Gulf: Obstacles to Democracy and Development (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 145-147.
[28] Al-Hayat, September 11, 2006; al-Sharq al-Awsat, September 24, 2006.
[29] Visser, Basra, the Failed Gulf State, pp. 121-125.
[30] For an overiew of the Afrasiyab period, see Stephen H. Longrigg, Four Centuries of Modern Iraq (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925), pp. 99-122.
[31] For the Mazyadids, see ‘Abd al-Jabbar Naji, al-Imara al-mazyadiyya (1970) and Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates (London: Longman, 1986), pp. 294-297.
[32] The contradictions and the anti-democratic import of this position are often overlooked. Iraq already has a constitutional and legal procedure for demarcating the units of its new federal system, and the emergence of three ethno-religious cantons (instead of, for instance, five non-sectarian entities) is by no means a foregone conclusion. But by constantly evoking the image of tripartite divisions, US politicians are actively interfering in this debate, consolidating the position of the forces that already enjoy the lion’s share of international media attention.
[33] See Reidar Visser, “Iraq Federalism Bill Adopted Amid Protests and Joint Shiite-Sunni Boycott,” October 12, 2006, accessible online at
[34] During the summer of 2006, tribal forces in Dhi Qar and Maysan voiced their support for the “southern region” project through meetings and demonstrations. Al-Zaman, August 5, 2006.
[35] For an interesting perspective on Iranian policy toward the Shi‘a of Iraq, see Peter Harling and Hamid Yasin, “Unité de façade des chiites irakiens,” Le Monde Diplomatique (September 2006).

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