Who Will Stand for Iraq’s Shiites?

Fadil al-Rabeei, Al-Quds al-Arabi (Palestinian expatriate), London, England, Jan. 26, 2004

The shadows of demonstrators fall over a placard of the late Ayatollah Al-Hakim
Samawa, Iraq, Jan. 21, 2004: The shadows of protesters calling for elections fall on the image of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, killed in a suicide bombing in August 2003 (Photo: Mauricio Lima/AFP-Getty Images).
What are we to make of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s call for general elections, then his demand that the demonstrations he had called be stopped or, more accurately, suspended? At the height of debate over federalism (which the Kurds were first to propose on the floor of the Iraqi Governing Council), and at the height of discussions over the practical meaning of federal administration (as proposed by the Nov. 15 agreement between U.S. Presidential Envoy to Iraq L. Paul Bremer III and Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani), Al-Sistani broke his silence, startling the whole world by raising the subject of general elections. Many failed to predict how far he’d be able to push his demand. Would he carry on insisting? Would he back down?

The Americans were surprised by the astonishing speed with which Shiites and Iraqis in general aligned themselves with the demand. Until very recently, they had been content with what the mullahs in the Governing Council (especially Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim’s group and the Daawa party) told them when asked about [Al-Sistani’s] influence in Shiite circles, or whether he had any real influence in Iraq in general:

“Al-Sistani? Are you serious? He’s a simple man; not interested in politics. Moreover, he was Saddam Hussein’s lackey: it was he who issued fatwas for jihad against invading forces at the beginning of March 2003. A weak and unimportant man. We’re the ones that hold the power in this community, not Al-Sistani.”

Now, as events speed along, the Americans have discovered to what extent they were betrayed and deceived by this dishonest response. They see for themselves further evidence of the deception practised by the Iraqi opposition. “They have betrayed us, and not only that, but the one who holds power and influence is that self-same weak man, the simple man, the lackey of Saddam Hussein, known for his lack of interest in politics.”

Away from the lies the Iraqi opposition groups pour into the ears of the U.S. administration, the Americans in Iraq suffer from a complete and fundamental ignorance...[The Boston-based] Christian Science Monitor wrote an angry response to Al-Sistani’s call for general elections: “How can Al-Sistani call for elections when he himself is unelected?” If the Americans came to Iraq with this mindset, with this understanding of the Other’s culture and this capacity for fantasy and being misled, their dilemma will get worse.

What does Al-Sistani want? How far can he go in demanding elections? Why did he demand elections, then call on the Shiites to halt demonstrations against the occupation forces? I will go back to the point from which I began:

Remember that the call for general elections came at the height of the debate over Kurdish federalism. This means that the simple man, sitting on a simple mat in a simple house, who rarely shows interest in politics, finally decided to play the first of his cards to upset the table in the face of the boisterous players around him, thereby forcing the Governing Council and Bremer’s administration to rearrange their priorities. But…is the most pressing issue of the moment really organizing general elections? In reality, no one knows elections are impossible more than Al-Sistani himself. But, similarly, he knows that his call for elections is only the first shot from a gun full of ammunition. Shortly before the call for elections, and for the whole period following the fall of Baghdad, Al-Sistani looked around him and saw that he and the hawza [Shiite religious leadership] in Najaf were caught between two conflicting trends in the Shiite masses.

The first was an armed movement, set up by militias under Al-Hakim and the Daawa party. The second was a radical youth movement whose founders and members were the masses, most of them poor Shiites (especially marginalized youth living in the direst poverty in Baghdad) who followed their young leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, Al-Sistani’s rival and one of his boldest critics. This boldness became provocative when Al-Sadr the Younger called [Al-Sistani’s] hawza “the talking hawza,” a clear reference to the fact that, from a radical viewpoint, the hawza of Najaf is mute.

Caught between these two trends, the armed and the radical, Najaf watched in silence. It became clear early on that it would have to enter into the heart of a new kind of push-and-pull in the sect. This would reach a fever pitch in the controversy over Iran’s influence in supporting—covertly and openly—the growth and development of a moderate movement that cooperated and even collaborated with the occupation (Iraqi Minister of Oil Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum and some members of [Muhammad Baqer] al-Hakim al-Tabatabai’s group [the High Council for the Liberation of Iraq], for example).

Al-Sistani did what his predecessors did facing almost the same situation after Baghdad fell to the British in 1917. Just as Al-Sistani has, Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi al-Shirazi [the leading Iraqi cleric after World War I] witnessed the formation of a Shiite movement subservient to the English and supported and encouraged by Iran. Amazingly, it was a movement whose leaders—Ja’far Bahr al-Uloum and Kazim al-Tabatabai—hailed from the same Najaf families [as those leading the faction today]. They publicly called for direct British rule, preferring—as Al-Shirazi put it—the English “heathens” over submission to the Sunnis. There were also men from families from Karbala, such as Hadi al-Rafeei and Sadin al-Roda al-Husseinia, whose bitterness and hatred of the Sunnis reached a terrible point when they gathered the signatures of 21 religious figures to support the demand for direct British rule. These calls reached their peak as demand rose for the establishment of a Shiite state in cooperation with the British—all with more or less overt Iranian support.

The years 1919-21 deserve to be looked at again. Then, while Al-Shirazi watched over the struggles of the Shiites from his religious isolation in Samarra, the southern Shiite tribes in Basra and Diyuwana, especially the tribes of Aal Fatala, led by Abd al-Wahid al-Hajj Sukkar, and the nationalist Shiite leaders, led by Jaafar Abu al-Taman, rushed into conflict with the English, lighting the fuse of the revolution. Here too, there were two Shiite movements competing for control of Shiite policy.

When the revolution of 1920 broke out, Najaf didn’t mobilize a single citizen and was prevented from supporting the peasant revolution in Basra, unlike [the district of] Al-Kazimia in Baghdad, which witnessed revolutionary turmoil and angry demonstrations. The radical movement was led by Sheikh al-Jazairi and Sheikh al-Asfahani, who were quick to embarrass Najaf by issuing fatwas for jihad [against the occupiers]. Najaf found itself between these two conflicting trends: one armed and radical, the second subservient to Iran—and, on the fringes of both, groups collaborating with the British.

It was Al-Shirazi’s duty to resolve the struggles within the Shiite population and restore its unity. He decided to leave Samarra for Karbala. It was the appropriate stage from which to fire the first shot heralding the start of the battle over the direction of Iraq’s Shiites and regaining control of the situation. Al-Shirazi chose Karbala as a stage and adopted the slogan “An Arab king for Iraq.” The British were confused by this sudden demand and their disarray was only increased when the spark Al-Shirazi lit set Baghdad ablaze. It became clear that by means of this tactic, Najaf had not merely ended the conflict within the Shiite population and regained control over political decision-making but also took center stage as the Shiites’ standard-bearer, in place of the armed tribesman and the guardians of the holy places.

This is the historical lesson that Al-Sistani knows better than anyone else. Like his predecessor and fellow Iranian Ayatollah Al-Shirazi, he cannot act other than as an Iraqi citizen whose clerical status qualifies him to be the Shiite pope and to perform his spiritual duty in Najaf’s Vatican. Like Al-Shirazi, he must ignore references to his Iranian origins and behave like a true Arab. Mindful of this, Al-Sistani gave the Al-Rameetha and Al-Samaawa tribes, who visited him on Jan. 15, what can be taken as the strongest incitement to revolution: “The revolutionaries of 1920 revolted against the English occupier. We want you to be as they were. We want governance for you. We are at your service. Just as in the revolution of 1920, there must be a great role for you today.” In fact, he behaved like a spiritual adviser from the holy city. All he wanted was “that we [the clerics] may serve you and bring you power.” The grandsons of the sheikhs and heroes of 1920 heard from Al-Sistani what their grandfathers had heard from Al-Shirazi.

What many don’t realize is that Al-Sistani’s “revolution” was designed to resolve disputes among the Shiites, rather than to cause an early confrontation with the occupation forces. Interestingly, Al-Sadr realized the real meaning of Al-Sistani’s announcement better than anyone else. He understood it profoundly. Because of this, he responded noisily: “No to federalism.” We can see that the demonstrations in Baghdad from Jan. 15-20, apparently supportive of Al-Sistani’s call [for elections] and led by followers of Al-Sadr, raised the slogan of “No to federalism,” not “Yes to elections.” It’s a clear message: For Al-Sadr, the battle is over control of the Shiite decision-making process.

In a new round of confrontations with Najaf, the radical trend has stuck to its fundamental principles. It is against federalism and against a possible role for the United Nations, without [issuing] a clear approval of elections. We should remember here that Al-Sadr’s movement clashed violently with the hauza of Najaf in June 2003 and that Karbala was the scene of bloody confrontations between the followers of Al-Sistani and Al-Sadr. This time, the conflict was taken to the streets, and the initial battle was waged with a different kind of ammunition: voice against voice.

Al-Sistani received his young rival’s response in silence. He alone grasped the significance of the chants in the Baghdad demonstrations that, although they appeared to support him, were in fact against him. He was compelled to respond with a new surprise: “Stop the demonstrations.” The next day, while Shiites awaited an explanation for Al-Sistani’s decision to suspend the demonstrations (as his representative in Karbala put it: so the air could clear and the United Nations could make its position clear), Al-Sadr responded during Friday prayers at the Al-Kufa mosque: “We reject any role for the United Nations in the elections.”

It was a response to a response.

In the battle over the Shiite decision-making process, only the first round has ended. We must watch and wait.

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