Nicolas Pelham in the NYRB:
Yet Sunni fears are not without basis. Ten days after Mosul’s capture, as ISISapproached Baghdad airport, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiite spiritual leader based in Iraq’s Shia shrine city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, issued a call for jihad against ISIS and its Sunni allies. In their panic, cloistered and quietist Shia clerics who for a decade had struck pacifist poses turned into militant mullahs. The night I arrived in Najaf, a Qatari Shiite preacher, Nazar al-Qatari, had put on military fatigues to rally worshipers after evening prayers. All were obliged, he cried, to fight for Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, against “the slayers of Imams Hasan and Hussein”—i.e., great imams of Shia history—and join in what the clerics have dubbed the hashad shaabi, or popular mobilization.
To ward off the threat to Baghdad from the Sunni north, Shiite volunteers converged on its streets from the south. Baghdad’s public space feels overwhelmingly Shiite. Leaders of Shiite militias who had previously denounced al-Sistani’s vacillation now celebrated his de facto legalization of the militias’ advance. Abu Jaafar Darraji, a senior commander from the Badr Organization, the largest and most openly pro-Iranian of the militias, told me that not even Khamenei’s predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had dared to declare such an open-ended jihad against a Sunni enemy. In the recruiting center he ran in Baghdad he had covered the walls with portraits of Ayatollah Khamenei and al-Sistani. The ones of al-Sistani had stencils of guns on them.
With a fresh supply of arms and training from Iran, Darraji claimed that his Badr militia could outgun the official Iraqi army and set up an alternative system of government. Pointing at Khamenei’s portrait, he said, “He’s the wali amr al-muslimeen, the legal ruler in all the Muslim lands.” Once the militia—the hashad—had accomplished its mission of vanquishing ISIS, it would, he said, be the Iraqi branch of Iran’s Basij, the zealous youth group of vigilantes Khomeini founded in 1979 to uphold his revolution and purge Iran of his enemies.
Iran’s presence, once a hidden force, has shed its camouflage. On billboards in the capital he struck with rockets during the war with Iraq of 1980–1988, Khomeini now can be seen holding a map of Iraq in his hand.