Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 5   No. 6 Table of Contents
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June 2003 

dossier Dossier: Hezb al-Daawa al-Islamiyya
Islamic Call Party

by Mahan Abedin
Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Iranian politics, educated at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The downfall of Saddam Hussein has led to a proliferation of Shiite activism all over the southern and central regions of Iraq. While the Western media has focused a great deal of attention on the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the amorphous radical movement coalescing around the young Muqtada al-Sadr, the oldest organized Shiite political force in Iraq, Hezb al-Daawa al-Islamiyya (Islamic Call Party), has been largely ignored. If comparatively little is known about Al-Daawa in the West, this is in part because its leadership wants it that way. The organization's secretive structure made it Saddam Hussein's most fearsome opponent - its remarkable list of accomplishments includes at least seven attempts to assassinate the former Iraqi president and the near-fatal shooting of his son, Uday. The organization pioneered the use of suicide bombings and simultaneous terror attacks in the Middle East. US officials thought the movement had been largely eradicated inside Iraq - until it organized the first major anti-American demonstration in April.

For the United States, al-Daawa represents both peril and promise. During the early 1980s, when the United States backed Iraq's Baathist regime, the organization carried out deadly terror attacks on American targets overseas. On the other hand, in contrast to SCIRI, it has never advocated direct clerical control of the state and ostensibly advocates a pluralist democratic system. While the movement has refused to endorse American intervention in Iraq, it has also refused to subordinate itself to Iran.


Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr
Al-Daawa emerged in the aftermath of Iraq's 1958 "revolution," a tumultuous event that witnessed the execution of the royal family and the rise of a military junta headed by Abd al-Karim Qasim. In order to consolidate his authority within the new regime, Qasim reached out to the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), the best-organized political group in the country. The ICP, which repeatedly proved its worth to Qasim in bloody outbreaks of street fighting following the coup, was given a voice in the new regime and allowed to disseminate propaganda, which portrayed the Shiite religious establishment as a reactionary obstacle to modernization and economic progress.

Although the Shiite religious leadership (marja'iyya) had been politically quiescent since its revolt against the British in 1920, a group of religious figures in the southwestern city of Najaf, Jamaat al-Ulama (Association of Scholars), organized a campaign to counter the influence of atheist political forces. Qasim initially allowed Jamaat al-Ulama to freely publish leaflets and announcements, as well as a monthly political journal, al-Awa' (the Lights), so long as they restricted their attacks to the Communists. By the end of the decade, however, relations with the government had become strained and Jamaat al-Ulama sanctioned the establishment of an underground group, Hezb al-Daawa al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Call Party).

The spiritual leader of al-Daawa was the legendary Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, a prodigy (then in his early twenties) who had been writing and lecturing on Islamic history and doctrinal matters since the age of ten. In two highly influential works, Falsafatuna (Our Philosophy, 1958) and Iqtisaduna (Our Economics, 1961), Sadr refuted the argument that Islam lacked solutions to modern problems and introduced an Islamic theory of political economy. Grand Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim and other senior clergymen also influenced the party, though the religious establishment was careful to avoid taking overtly political stances. The operational leader of the party was Sheikh Arif al-Basri. It is important to draw some distinction between Daawa as an ideological movement and as an activist organization. The movement was marked by its progressive and inclusive ideology, which inevitably rendered it vulnerable to schisms and differentiation. The activist organization, meanwhile, was renowned for its tight discipline and fierce courage. It was this fierce activism that secured al-Daawa's reputation as the Baathist regime's most serious enemy. There is some evidence that al-Daawa as an activist organization learnt its skills and techniques from the Fadayeean-e-Eslam, a small Iranian Shiite extremist group that carried out a string of prominent assassinations in the 1950s and 1960s.[1] The distinction between the movement and the activist party was consolidated over time, as al-Daawa deployed increasingly violent methods against the Baath and its supporters.

Sadr envisioned al-Daawa indoctrinating a generation of revolutionaries who would one day seize power and establish a state that would implement Islamic law. While arguing the case for an Islamic polity aligned to the clergy, however, Sadr did not sanction clerical control of the state - the ulama's role in the Islamic state would be to oversee legislation and ensure their conformity with Islamic norms. Although this agenda was squarely unacceptable to secular political groups, it left room for collaboration with non-Shiites. Indeed, al-Daawa coordinated closely with Sunni Islamist organizations and boasted a modest Sunni membership (around 10% in 1980, according to al-Daawa's own claims). Al-Daawa activists did not confine their activities to Iraq only, but secretly formed branches in the Persian Gulf states and Lebanon; where Shiite minorities (and majorities in the case of Bahrain and Lebanon) endured varying degrees of oppression.

Al-Daawa grew rapidly in the mid-1960s, a tumultuous period of violent struggle among various secular political movements. The regime of Abd al-Salam Arif that took power in late 1963 enjoyed good relations with the Shiite religious establishment, which strongly backed the ouster of Qasim and supported Arif's crackdown on the Communists. As the government turned a blind eye toward Shiite political activities, al-Daawa organized clandestine study circles, primarily in the cities of Nasiriyah, Najaf and Karbala, which attracted a growing number of adherents. According to al-Daawa sources, the party distributed more than 1,500 copies of its underground journal at the University of Baghdad alone. A combination of clandestine techniques and the absence of a vigilant security/intelligence system in early 1960s Iraq ensured the party evaded censure and surveillance.

This "golden era" of modern Iraqi Shiite politics ended in 1968, when the Baath party took power. The new Iraqi regime shut down Risalat al-Islam, the only openly-published Shiite religious journal; closed a number of religious educational institutions, such as the Usul al-Din college in Baghdad; and issued a law requiring students at Shiite religious academies to join the armed forces.

In addition, the authorities began demanding that senior Shiite clergymen issue statements supporting government policies. When Grand Ayatollah Hakim refused to condemn the Shah of Iran over the Shatt al-Arab (Arvand Rood) dispute, the authorities arrested and tortured one of hs sons. Efforts by al-Daawa to organize protests resulted in increasingly harsh government crackdowns. Many suspected members of al-Daawa were arrested in 1972 and sentenced to short prison terms. In 1973, the organizer of a student procession in Karbala, Sahib Dakhiyl, died under torture. In 1974, the security forces detained around seventy-five al-Daawa party members and five leaders of the group (including Basri) were sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Court.

In early 1977, the Iraqi government took the bold step of banning the annual procession of Shiite worshipers from Najaf to Karbala that commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a four-day pilgrimage that traditionally draws tens of thousands of participants. When thirty thousand marchers defied the ban, Iraqi security forces arrested hundreds of people. Scores of party activists, including Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim (who would later found the SCIRI in 1982) were subsequently rounded up on suspicion of having organized the riots.

The Transformation

It is unclear at what specific point in time the party decided to engage in violence. True to its secretive and hermetic nature Hezb al-Daawa has not produced any definitive guide to its own history. Although it is believed to have been responsible for assassinations against low-ranking Baathist officials and minor acts of sabotage during the mid-1970s and was accused in official quarters of smuggling arms into the country, al-Daawa did not embark wholeheartedly on the path of armed struggle until after the 1979 Iranian revolution. The overthrow of the Shah demonstrated to Iraqi Shiites that even the most oppressive regime, backed by a powerful security apparatus, could be defeated if Islamic ideology was employed to mobilize the masses.

Emboldened by the events next door, Sadr made repeated statements of support for the Iranian revolution and issued a fatwa prohibiting Iraqi Shiites from joining the Baath party. The Iraqi government arrested hundreds of al-Daawa members in hopes of pressuring him to denounce the revolution and retract this fatwa, but to no avail. Sadr himself was put under house arrest.

Meanwhile, Iranian financial and military assistance enabled the party to resume sabotage operations against the regime - and on a much more lethal scale. In August 1979, al-Daawa scored a major success in killing the Baathist ideologue, Dr. Ghazi al-Hariri, by bombing Baghdad's Karama hospital. After assassinating a number of other senior, but low profile, Baathists, al-Daawa carried out a failed attempt to assassinate Tariq Aziz in April 1980. Within days, the regime executed Sadr and his sister, Bint al-Huda. After his murder, Sadr assumed a posthumously legendary reputation amongst Shiites all over the world.

Al-Daawa's military wing, now named Shahid al-Sadr (The Martyr al-Sadr), steadily increased the frequency and lethality of its assassinations and sabotage operations throughout the 1980s - both inside and outside Iraq. It staged a suicide bomb attack against the Iraqi embassy in Beirut in December 1981 that claimed the lives of 27 people. This attack has been described as the first major modern suicide bombing. In July 1982, it carried out a daring attempt to kill Saddam Hussein near the town of Dujayl, resulting in fierce gun battles between Baathist security personnel and al-Daawa fighters that left 150 dead. The following month, al-Daawa bombed the Ministry of Planning, causing extensive damage and casualties. In November 1983, al-Daawa suicide bombers struck the Defense Ministry and the headquarters of the Mukhaberat (secret police) in the Mansour district of Baghdad. In April 1987, scores of al-Daawa gunmen ambushed Saddam's motorcade in Mosul, claiming the lives of several senior bodyguards of the former Iraqi leader. In December 1996, al-Daawa assassins nearly succeeded in killing Saddam's eldest son, Uday.

Iraqi government officials and buildings were not the only targets of al-Daawa operatives. Encouraged by Iranian intelligence, al-Daawa struck at Iraq's Western and Arab allies in the war against Iran. In December 1983, al-Daawa bombed the French and US embassies in Kuwait, resulting in six deaths. In May 1985, an al-Daawa suicide bomber struck the motorcade of the Kuwaiti emir in a failed assassination attempt. The party would later claim that the perpetrators of these attacks were agents who had been "hijacked" by the intelligence directorate of Iran's revolutionary guards. In any case al-Daawa and its sympathizers make great efforts in distancing their movement and party from these violent acts against Western interests and traditional Arab oligarchies allied to Washington.

The Iraqi regime seized on the increasing levels of violence, complicated by the external war against Iran, to cripple the party. Membership of al-Daawa had been made punishable by death in March 1980. In that month alone some 96 members were executed by the regime. It is known that dozens of senior activists were executed between 1982-1984. This was a devastating blow to a party that boasted no more than a thousand activists inside the country. Iraqi Intelligence services also took the war against the party outside of Iraq's borders. Prominent activists in Iran were subject to regular assassination attempts. Moreover the Iraqi security establishment scored a major coup by assassinating Mahdi al-Hakim (son of the late Grand Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim) in Khartoum, in January 1988. The effective security measures help explain the gradual fizzling out of the armed campaign in the late 1980s.

Al-Daawa was also active on the political front throughout the 1980s. It joined the Damascus based National Democratic Front (NDF) shortly after its formation on 28 November 1980.[2] The party used its clout to rename the NDF as the Islamic National Front (INF), but its unwillingness to work closely with the ICP and other secular groups ensured the INF's early demise.

As of the late 1980s al-Daawa has made some efforts in boosting its political activism - as opposed to its secretive militarism. Apart from its modest Tehran office, the party maintained offices and personnel in some European capitals. With the exception of Syria and Lebanon, the party mostly shunned the Arab world.[3] The party is not known to have initiated any serious lobbying activities in the West, and its offices performed primarily logistical and spiritual tasks.


In 1982, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) was established in Tehran by Ayatollah Baqir al-Hakim, the son of the late Grand Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim. Hakim was known to have been a leading member of al-Daawa and was imprisoned for his clandestine activities in 1972, 1977 and 1979. Upon his release from prison in 1980, he fled to Iran and established an organization called Mojahedin fil Iraq, comprised mainly of former al-Daawa cadres. In 1981, the Mojahedin fil Iraq metamorphosed into the Office for the Islamic revolution in Iraq, which in turn became the SCIRI in November 1982. Unlike Sadr and most al-Daawa leaders, Hakim explicitly endorsed the concept of Velayat-e-Faghih (Guardianship of the Jursiconsult), which underpins the theocratic component of the Islamic Republic.

Unlike SCIRI, al-Daawa remained independent of the Iranian clerical establishment. In January 2000, Muhammad Mahdi Asefi was forced to resign as secretary-general of al-Daawa as a result of his attempts to fully subordinate the party to the Iranian leadership. Nonetheless, Asefi remains an influential figure in al-Daawa and, alongside Muhammad Ali Taskhiri and Kazem Haeri, represents a pro-Iranian triumvirate within al-Daawa's spiritual leadership.[4] However, it is unlikely that any of these men exert direct influence over the party's activists.

Despite its opposition to the principle of Velayat-e-Faghih, al-Daawa has historically maintained a close alliance with the much larger SCIRI. Many of SCIRI's present leaders received their political-ideological schooling in the clandestine study centers of Hezb al-Daawa. While there have been persistent reports of tensions between al-Daawa and SCIRI,[5] their close political and military co-operation continued during the 1990s, in part because Iran's mediating role has prevented the escalation of doctrinal and political disputes into open conflict.

The party has made some attempts to integrate itself with the wider opposition movement. It took a leading role in the Damascus based coordinating forum, the Joint Action Committee (JAC), and had one of its senior members, Jawad al-Maliki installed as the chairman of the JAC. The March 1991 conference of the JAC held in Beirut laid the foundation for the creation of the Iraqi National Congress in 1992. The party did not participate in the June 1992 Vienna conference that inaugurated the INC. However it did take part in the October 1992 Salahedin assembly. This ground breaking assembly held in Iraqi Kurdistan appointed a known al-Daawa sympathizer (if not a full member) Sayed Muhammad Bahr-ol-Oloom to a three man presidential council.[6] Al-Daawa withdrew from the INC in May 1995, citing its opposition to plans for a federal Iraq as the main reason behind its decision.

Although the organizational structure of the party is difficult to sketch, there have been three quasi-autonomous poles to its leadership. The Tehran branch, led by the head of the party's political bureau, Abu Bilal al-Adib, is naturally the most pro-Iranian and its elements are more sympathetic to the doctrine of Velayat-e-Faghih. The UK branch, headed by Ibrahim al-Jaafari (until his recent return to Iraq) is viewed as the most pragmatic, having maintained contacts with secular opposition forces and (unofficially) with Western governments. The Iraq branch, in which the organization's lay membership exercised more influence, has remained secretive and hermetic.

Al-Daawa and the Iraq War

Al-Daawa was officially opposed to the invasion of Iraq by American-led coalition forces. In June 2002, it joined the Coalition of Iraqi National Forces (CINF), which obliged its member organizations to support the overthrow of the Baathist regime without "foreign interference." The party did not participate in the December 2002 London conference, though a leader of the Ahlul Bayt World Assembly (ABWA) considered to be sympathetic to al-Daawa was appointed to the 65 member Follow up and Arrangement Committee.[7]

American-led efforts to prepare the groundwork for the invasion of Iraq compelled the party to establish contact with US officials for the first time in its history. Ibrahim al-Jaafari traveled to the United States and met with Zalmay Khalilzad in January 2003.[8] Khalilzad is alleged to have offered the party 5 seats on the follow up and arrangement committee, but this was flatly rejected.[9]

The toppling of the Baathist regime enabled al-Daawa to establish itself openly in the southern and central regions of the country. It was al-Daawa that organized the first demonstrations against the US presence in Nasiriyah. The meticulous planning that had underpinned those demonstrations indicates the party had maintained an active presence in certain regions of Shiite Iraq throughout the rule of Saddam Hussein. Several key al-Daawa leaders have since returned to Iraq, most notably Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Muhammad Baqir al-Nasiri, an influential ideologue previously based in Tehran.

Although the party has not been willing to officially cooperate with the American authorities, its leaders appear intent on avoiding actions that might sabotage the delicate transition to some form of representative government in Iraq. A member of its political bureau recently told Al-Hayat that his organization "does not see any interest in a US withdrawal from Iraq at this moment."[10] Nasiri has openly criticized those who have attempted to impose strict Islamic dress codes in Shiite areas.[11] There are also some indications that the party may be cooperating with the United States in rooting out armed resistance. A recent statement by an anti-American Iraqi nationalist group accused al-Daawa of treason for "informing the occupation forces about the resistance forces."[12]

Hezb al-Daawa has proved itself to be an adaptable and resilient ideological movement and activist network. Its main challenge will be transforming itself from a secretive cell-based organization into a popular political party.


  [1] The Fadayeean-e-Eslam, led by Mostafa Mir-Lowhee (Navab-e-Safavi), assassinated two of the late Shah's premiers, namely General Razm'ara in March 1951 and Hassan Ali Mansur in January 1965.
  [2] The main force behind the NDF, was the Iraqi Communist Party. The NDF also included the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Kurdistan Socialist Party of Iraq (KSPI).
  [3] Al-Daawa maintained an office and an extensive support network in Syria, led by Jawad al-Maliki.
  [4] Muhammad Ali Taskhiri, former head of the ABWA, currently leads the influential Organization of Islamic culture and Communication (OICC). Kazem Haeri is also affiliated to both the ABWA and OCIC.
  [5] The Intelligence Newsletter, 8 April 1999, reports on the arrest of senior members of al-Daawa by Iranian authorities on suspicion of involvement in a failed attempt to assassinate SCIRI leader Baqir al-Hakim.
  [6] Sayed Muhammad Bahr al-Oloom was officially affiliated to the Ahlul Bayt World Assembly.
  [7] The Ahlul Bayt World Assembly has its origins in Mahdi al-Hakim's Ahlul-Bayt charitable society. This organization was co-opted by the religious and propaganda organs of the Islamic Republic in the early 1980s. The ABWA is effectively a Shiite missionary organization tasked with propagating the Jaafari religion across the world.
  [8] Reuters, 10 January 2003.
  [9] The Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service, 29 January 2001.
  [10] Al-Hayat (London) , 24 June 2003.
  [11] Al-Zaman (London), 28 May 2003.
  [12] Al-Majd (Amman), 23 June 2003.

2003 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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