Siting the State: Intersections of space, religion, and political economy in Baghdad

This chapter is part of POMEPS Studies 35: Religion, Violence, and the State in Iraq. Download the full PDF here.

Omar Sirri, University of Toronto[1]

Al-Rahman Mosque and the Iraqi state

There is no front door into al-Rahman Mosque. Covering the entranceway is a sheet of plywood that blocks gusts of wind from blowing in. Fit for a building whose mammoth concrete structure sits unfinished, the mosque looks and feels like a construction site. Nine cranes adorn the mosque’s skyscape; gravel paves its service road. This exterior is what makes the main hall inside the mosque feel strange: it is fully functional, equipped with electricity, carpeting, and lighting. Eight stand-up heating and air conditioning units are evenly spread out around the room, and short scaffolding sits in the center of the space on which cameras sit to film Friday prayers.[2] How did these dissonant conditions transpire?

Al-Rahman Mosque is the defining landmark of Mansour district in West Baghdad. Its construction began in 1998, amid Saddam Hussein’s “faith campaign” that instrumentalized political Islam. After the concrete structure was largely built up, the regime abandoned construction of the mosque in 2002, directing its precarious resources elsewhere in the run up to the 2003 US- and UK-led invasion of the country. Iraq’s Ministry of Finance took formal control over al-Rahman Mosque after the fall of the regime. Since 2003, the Islamic Fadhila Party and its leaders have been the mosque’s de facto rulers. The Fadhila Party was formed that same year by Ayatollah Mohammed al-Ya‘qoubi after he split from Muqtada al-Sadr’s camp. Today the unfinished mosque remains more or less as it was when construction stopped 17 years ago – a partially-completed concrete shell. Yet followers of al-Ya‘qoubi have for years held weekly Friday prayers in the main hall of the mosque. This dual sense of abandonment and utility grounds the mosque’s political story. But more critically, the holy site is also an entry point into how private political-economic interests shape the very nature and function of Iraqi state institutions.

The history of al-Rahman Mosque stretches back to 1950s Baghdad and meanders through Iraq’s experiences in wars and sanctions from the 1980s through 2003. The mosque reveals contemporary political-economic transformations in Baghdad as well. These current conditions illuminate how the production of the “state effect” in Iraq – the mechanisms and practices of power that structure an entity we often call “the state” – is intimately tied to land, capital, and urban political economy.[3] This site-specific past and present draws attention to how private interests are simultaneously structuring public spaces and the Iraqi state.

Racing for capital: Histories of Baghdad’s present

The grounds of al-Rahman Mosque were once hallowed for a very different reason: The more than 43,000 square-meter plot of land was once home to Baghdad’s horse races. The racetrack was moved to the city’s outskirts in 1993 as Mansour cemented itself as an upper-middle class consumer hub. Mansour’s set of entertainment boulevards lined with shops and restaurants – like Rawad Street, 14 Ramadan Street, and the eponymously-named Mansour Street – was also infamous for being one of the preferred hangouts of Uday Hussein (and where gunmen attempted to assassinate him in 1996). The site’s previous life as a racetrack speaks to the history of Mansour as an entertainment center, and to the district’s wider political-economic past. On the site’s western border sits the Hunting Club, one of Baghdad’s most famous and prestigious private clubs. Running along its eastern border is Princesses Street, named after palaces built for two of Iraq’s former princesses (Badi‘a and Jalila, sisters of Abdullah, former Regent to King Faisal II) during the country’s Hashemite monarchy.

Al-Rahman Mosque embodies the 1990s political moment in which it was designed. The mosque’s main dome is surrounded by eight other domes. Each dome is surrounded by eight smaller domes. These “eights” represent the 8th of August 1988 – 8/8/88 – marking the end of the Iraq-Iran War, what Saddam Hussein called Iraq’s “victory” over Iran. Such politicized architecture was common during this period. For example, Um al-Qura Mosque, completed in 2001 and then known as Um al-Ma‘arak Mosque (the “mother of all battles”), was built to commemorate the 1991 Gulf War. Some of the minarets at Um al-Qura Mosque were built 37 metres high as a tribute to Saddam Hussein’s year of birth, 1937.[4]

Figure 1: Al-Rahman Mosque in the distance. Author photo, August 2018.

In 2003, five years after construction on al-Rahman Mosque began, and less than a year after construction was abandoned, militants seized control of the site and quickly looted it of its core materials. Under the cover of darkness, as multiple residents told me during fieldwork, the looters trucked away tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of building materials and metals like copper that were being used to build the mosque. In the early days of the occupation, Baghdadis chaotically ransacked government buildings, stealing things like office furniture and supplies as US forces stood idly by permitting and abetting the disorder.[5] But the mosque looting, widely known among residents of Mansour yet never reported on, was more organized and methodical, and consisted of stealing far more consequential materials than desks and vases.

This event also recalls the ways in which steadfast Iraqis fought to survive under withering sanctions: In the 1990s, it was common for Baghdadis to strip their own homes of valuable metals to sell on the black market in order to pay for basic foodstuffs.[6] In an important sense, then, the mosque’s looting in 2003 represents a critical continuity of Baghdad’s political economy precisely when Iraqis were living through one of the country’s most significant conjunctures or discontinuities. The intrinsic relationship between continuity and discontinuity in Baghdad’s political economy is partly grounded in people’s experiences living through more than a generation of precarity and insecurity, punctuated by moments of violence, war, and upheaval.[7]

State land, private interests, and bureaucratic artefacts

Al-Sharqiya News is one of Iraq’s most-watched channels, known for investigative reports that target Iraq’s political elite across the ideological and religious spectrum. In April 2015, al-Sharqiya journalists investigated al-Rahman Mosque’s post-2003 history.[8] The over 30-minute special on the mosque focused on Iraq’s Shi‘i religious endowment (al-waqf al-Shii) and the Fadhila Party in an attempt to discern who controlled and benefitted from the mosque. Notably, after 2003 Iraq’s Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs was formally supplanted by three “confessional offices of endowments” along the respective lines of Shi‘i, Sunni, and Christian minorities including Ezidi and Sabean Mandaean.[9] Leaders from the two Muslim endowments negotiated over who would own and control Baghdad’s “presidential” mosques and the lands on which they sit. Ownership over the four most prominent mosque sites in Baghdad would be split along sectarian lines: The Sunni endowment would control Nidaa Mosque in al-‘Adhamiya District (north Baghdad) and Um al-Qura mosque located towards the western limits of the city. The Shi‘i endowment would control al-Rahman Mosque, and the site of the grand mosque that was to be built on the grounds of the former Muthanna Airport, adjacent to Baghdad’s central train station.

As al-Sharqiya reported four years ago, a land title document from 2012 shows that the Shi‘i endowment owns the al-Rahman Mosque site. This official deed was issued by the Land Registration Department of the Ministry of Justice. That year, the Ministry of Justice was controlled by the Islamic Fadhila Party. The minister then was Hassan al-Shammari, a prominent member of the Fadhila Party. Al-Sharqiya’s report goes on to state that, in 2012, the head of the finance and administration department within the Shi‘i endowment was also a Fadhila party member. Late last year, as part of an investigation into the mosque site by the newspaper Baghdad Today, a second deed dated 2018 was published and spread among Iraqis on social media.[10] This more recent document repeats the site’s mundane details, including its 160-donum size, and states as matter of fact that it is wholly owned by the Shi‘i endowment. Three stamps from the Ministry of Justice and the Shi‘i endowment festoon the document’s official signatures.

Iraq’s political parties are embedded in the country’s state institutions. This entanglement highlights how Iraq’s political system known as muḥāssassa – apportioning government ministries and departments among ethnic and religious parties[11] – is reflected in the everyday distribution of ostensibly state-controlled resources. But zooming in on these relationships also uncovers the political-economic foundations undergirding religious forces and agendas. Understanding changes in the function of religious endowments after 2003 requires investigating the political economy of land control in Baghdad and beyond. State and city transformations are contingent on how political-economic elites and religious actors co-constitute their power and capital.

The political economy of land control

The Fadhila Party has been in control of the al-Rahman Mosque site since 2003. Minister of Interior police officers who guard the site include followers of Ayatollah al-Ya‘qoubi, though one guard/follower told me explicitly that this was not a condition of his deployment there.[12] In addition to refurbishing the main hall of the mosque, those controlling the site have also utilized the lands that surround the building itself. Some party loyalists and followers of al-Ya‘qoubi – whose photo is projected on a billboard at the secured entrance – live on-site in makeshift homes. While already widely reported, such a fact can be affectively confirmed: Walk along the northern edge of the property fronting Mansour Street at just the right time and day and the unmistakable smell of Iraqi okra (bāmīa) will waft over the high walls and captivate the senses. “There must be a whole family living inside here,” a friend insisted to me as we strolled down the sidewalk. “Only Iraqi women know how to cook okra – most men don’t know how and can’t even when they try.”[13] 

Those controlling the mosque site have in recent years opened a bustling business on the northeast corner of the land. At the intersection of Mansour Street and Princesses Street – directly in front of Rifat al-Chaderji’s profiled building that bears his family’s name – sits a large parking lot named the Garage of Guidance (garaj al-hidāya). With constant vehicle traffic in and out of the lot, about 1,000 cars might park there on an average day. Each driver will pay 3,000 Iraqi Dinar (IQD) to enter the lot (2.50 USD). Inside the garage, customers can also have their car washed at Hanover Station at the cost of 18,000 IQD (15 USD) for regular sedan owners, and 23,000 IQD (19 USD) for those with an SUV.[14] Conservative estimates suggest the Garage of Guidance generates 1-1.25 million USD annually. Because of their control of the site, those revenues are likely directed into Fadhila party coffers.

Figure 2: Night time at the Garage of Guidance and the Hanover Station car wash. Author photo, May 2019.

Tracing these financial windfalls shows how ordinary urban life structures and is structured by political-economic agendas and developments. Focusing on such forces illuminates the capillaries of private interests embedded into public institutions from the very moment of their (re)founding in 2003. Current events surrounding al-Rahman Mosque continue to show this. In 2018, Baghdad mayoralty’s urban planning committee considered a proposal to build a new and glitzy shopping mall on the vacant part of the land.[15] While a majority of the committee was receptive of the proposal, its status remains uncertain. Baghdad Today’s report from 2018 included documents detailing the initiation by the Shi‘i endowment of a bidding process for prospective investors interested in redeveloping the property.[16] The initial terms outlined include an annual land-lease rate of 25 billion IQD (20 million USD) as well as other financial commitments the lessee must deliver on.


An embodiment of the blurred lines between public and private actors and interests, the case of al-Rahman Mosque strikes at the heart of how the state has been “effected” in Iraq since 2003. Under the cover of positively remaking social and political life in the country, those with power and capital have injected their own interests into the marrow of Iraqi state institutions. Though hardly a brick has been added to the unfinished structure, al-Rahman Mosque represents transformations of city and state. Along with the shell that sits on it, the wider site’s past and present politics reveal how political-economic forces are deeply implicated in the shape, nature, and reach of state institutions. Any significant changes to al-Rahman Mosque and its surrounding land will be determined in large part by the financial interests of a select few who stand to gain a great deal more than most Iraqis have even the privilege to imagine.

[1] Thank you to Marc Lynch, David Siddhartha Patel, Nora Palandjian, and the POMEPS workshop participants for feedback and edits. I am grateful for thoughtful comments from Tamara Abu Nafiseh, Harith Hasan, José Ciro Martínez, Sherene Seikaly, and Kerem Ussakli, and for encouragement and assistance from Abu Rand and Ibn Nahar. Fieldwork was generously supported by the Arab Council for the Social Sciences (ACSS), the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto, the Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS), and the Social Science Research Council (SSRC).

[2] Fieldwork, Baghdad, December 2017.

[3] Timothy Mitchell, “The Limits of the State,” The American Political Science Review 85, no. 1 (1991): 77-96.

[4] Ewen MacAskill, “Mosque that thinks it’s a missile site,” The Guardian, 17 May 2002,

[5] HRW, “Liberation and Looting in Iraq,” Human Rights Watch, 13 April 2003, 

[6] Interview with Iraqi academic, Baghdad, February 2018. See also Nadje al-Ali, Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present (London: Zed Books, 2007), Chapter 5; Geoff Simons, The Scourging of Iraq: Sanctions, Law and Natural Justice (London: Macmillan Press, 1996), 132.

[7] For “punctuated” and its humanitarian other, see: Ilana Feldman, “Punctuated Humanitarianism: Palestinian Life between the Catastrophe and the Cruddy,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 48, no. 2 (2016): 372-376.

[8] SharqiyaTube, “الخلاصة خفايا ملف جامع الرحمن تكشف لاول مرة امام الراي العام,” Al-Sharqiya, 8 April 2015,

[9] Harith Hasan, “Religious Authority and the Politics of Islamic Endowments in Iraq,” Carnegie Middle East Center, 29 March 2019,

[10] Baghdad Today, “مقابل رشاوي.. الوقف الشيعي يقتطع ١٦٠ دونماً من قلب بغداد ل٤٩ عاماً (وثائق),” Baghdad Today, 21 December 2018,مقابل-رشاوى-الوقف-الشيعي.

[11] Toby Dodge, “Tracing the Rise of Sectarianism in Iraq after 2003,” LSE Middle East Centre, 13 September 2018,

[12] Fieldwork, Baghdad, January 2018.

[13] Fieldwork, Baghdad, May 2019.

[14] Fieldwork, Baghdad, July 2019.

[15] Fieldwork, Baghdad, October 2018.

[16] Baghdad Today, 2018.