With the growth of Arbaeen come donations and business opportunities that give the ayatollahs revenue to rival that of the provincial government. Half an hour’s drive from the Hussein Shrine, one of the three major Shia shrines in southern Iraq, is a camp housing around 7,500 internally displaced people (IDPs), who abandoned their homes ahead of ISIS’s devastating march through northwestern Iraq two years ago. For a time, the shrines and the government shared the cost of supporting the province’s 200,000 IDPs, as Nisayf Jasim al-Khattaby, the president of Karbala’s provincial council, explained. But the burden has shifted dramatically. Whereas in 2015 the government provided IDPs across the province with medical care, housing, and water sanitation, “this year we were dependent on the donations of wealthy families and businessmen to support the IDPs because of the fall in the oil price” and the costs of fighting ISIS, al-Khattaby said. “Their support [now] comes under the management of the shrines.”
To cover the shortfall in the government’s budget, the shrines drew on gifts from around the world, donations from the ever-rising number of pilgrims, and a vast investment portfolio. “We have houses, with fans and air conditioning in the summer, and heaters in the winter. We have food,” said Shihab Jassam Mohammed, who fled Fallujah in January 2014 with 11 members of his family. “All is supplied by the shrines.”
Today, Iraqi Shiites dominate the country’s political, social, and economic spheres—an indirect result of the U.S. invasion in 2003, which unseated the Sunni dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Under Saddam, Shia clerics were suppressed, driven into exile, or imprisoned; in 1991, Saddam’s soldiers stormed and looted the Imam Hussein Shrine. As Shiites’ fortunes have risen, so, too, has the prominence of the three shrines.
Now, Shia clerics control the richest institutions in Iraq. Beyond supporting the region’s IDPs and running a vast network of charitable organizations, including schools, hospitals, and orphanages, the shrines have poured money into building infrastructure and investing in businesses. Shrine officials told me their printing presses produce the Iraqi Ministry of Education’s textbooks. A construction company, owned by the shrines, not only works on charitable projects, but paves roads and competes for contracts to build airports. In a concrete sense, the shrines have begun to assume the functions of the state.
Perhaps the clearest manifestation of the shrines’ ascendancy has been the formation of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a parallel army composed largely of Shia volunteers brought into the Iraqi military under a 2014 fatwa issued by 86-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the senior-most cleric in Shia Islam. Although Sistani does not directly control all of the approximately 40 units that constitute the PMF, each of the three shrines sponsors and manages its own unit. The Abbas Division, currently battling the Islamic State, is one such unit. Its commanders told me that it boasts over 5,000 infantrymen trained by Iraq’s special forces, and is supported by engineers, a logistical corps, armored units with over 80 tanks, and a reserve of approximately 44,000 trained personnel.