In a recent interview, an influential Iraqi Shiite cleric and militia leader warned the United States to withdraw its troops from Iraq. The leader, Qais al-Khazali, represents a class of politician preachers who have come to dominate the political scene in post-2003 Iraq. The ascendancy of these clerics raises questions about the role of the Shiite religious establishment in contemporary Iraqi politics.
Shiites are Iraq’s largest ethno-sectarian group — and these Iraqis have a history of appealing to their religious leaders, known collectively as the marjayya, during political crises. Many observers mistakenly think Iraqi clerics are divorced from political involvement — which they see in stark contrast to Iran.
But since 2003, elite clerics have played a prominent public and political role in shaping the Iraqi state. They have been members of the constitutional writing committee and have held public office. When Iraq started holding elections in 2005, there were rumors of a marjayya-approved Shiite list. Most famously perhaps, the Shiite establishment is known for issuing a religiously binding call to arms in 2014 to fight the Islamic State.