Sorting out Iraq’s Shiites

U.S. needs sect’s cooperation if it is to succeed in reconstruction

Ignoring the complexities of Iraq before ordering American forces into war, the Bush administration is now finding just how convoluted the political and social dynamics of Iraq really are.

• Abdul Majid al-Khoei

Son of a grand ayatollah and an influential cleric in his own right, he lived in exile in London until shortly after the U.S. invasion. With assistance from the United States, which saw al-Khoei as a political moderate, he returned to Najaf on April 3. He was murdered a week later at the Imam Ali shrine.

• Muhammad Bakr al Hakim

He returned to Najaf in May after two decades in exile in Iran. Al-Hakim spent most of his adult life opposing Saddam; as leader of the largest opposition group and as the son of a prominent and respected Shiite family, al-Hakim was poised to wield enormous power. Having just delivered a sermon Aug. 29 on the need for Iraqi unity, he was emerging from the shrine of Imam Ali when a massive car bomb went off. Al-Hakim and dozens of others were killed.

• Ali Sistani

At 75, he is one of five living grand ayatollahs and is the most widely followed Shiite leader in Iraq. Unlike al-Khoei and al-Hakim, Sistani follows the ancient Shiite view that government and religion should be separate, and he rarely makes political pronouncements. He has asked Iraqis not to take up arms against coalition soldiers, even as he has asked the occupying forces to get out of Iraq.

The well-known human mosaic of Arabs, ethnic Kurds, Turkomans, Assyrians and others; the religious configuration of Muslims and Christians; and the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims is almost simplistic. For each of these groups is then subdivided by its own internal forces. In none of them are the divisions more complicated than the Shiites, 60 percent of the population of Iraq. The United States cannot successfully pacify Iraq without first sorting out the Shiites.

In numerical terms, the Shiites are the major dissenting sect within the house of Islam. They emerged from a dispute among Muhammad’s closest companions at the time of his death in 632. At issue was who could claim to be the legitimate heir to the Prophet’s spiritual authority.

Split with Sunnis

On one side were those who held that any follower was eligible to don the mantle of the Prophet as long as he was accepted by the faithful as their leader. They later became the Sunnis. On the other side were those would become the Shiites, who argued that only Muhammad’s blood descendants possessed the wisdom and knowledge of the faith to serve as the legitimate leader of the Islamic community.

In 680, the opposing sides met on the flat, sun-baked plains of what is now southern Iraq. Hussein, Muhammad’s grandson, lost the battle at Karbala to the Ummayads, the family that held the leadership. Islam split between the orthodox Sunnis, led by the Ummayads, and the dissenting Shiites, the spiritual descendants of Hussein. Today the vast majority of Muslims worldwide are Sunnis. Shiites make up just 10 percent of the faith and are concentrated in Iran and southern Iraq — elements within the core of American vital interests in the Persian Gulf.

One of the distinctions that separates the Shiites from the Sunnis is an elaborate hierarchy of clerics that is currently producing much of the Iraqi Shiites’ political leadership. Through years of discipline and study, the gifted clerical student moves up the ladder of learning and prestige. The most gifted reaches the rank of ayatollah.

Leader and followers

The few and venerated clerics who claim that position act as spiritual guide to every aspect of life for a declared group of followers. (Sunnis, claiming a more direct relationship with God, have no such hierarchy.) In return, the followers of an individual Shiite cleric give him their obedience and financial support.

In completion of the circle drawn by leader and follower, the cleric intercedes with God in behalf of those who have chosen him as their guide. This relationship is a democratic one: An ayatollah leads only as long as the faithful choose to follow him. If his leadership becomes irrelevant to them, followers may withdraw their support and seek a new spiritual guide.

For hundreds of years, Shiite theology maintained a fire wall between the religious and the secular. According to theological opinions handed down by generations of ayatollahs, no devout Shiite was to profane himself by involvement in government. For that was the world of man, not God.

Yet Shiism carried a powerful social message for the economically and politically repressed. They, like Hussein, were martyrs to power structures dominated by Sunnis or by the upper classes of Shiite society. Then in the 1960s, an Iranian cleric living in exile in Najaf, Iraq, sent a thunderbolt through Shiite theology. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared that the religious and the secular could no longer be separated, for religion and politics are one.

Khomeini called the faithful to create a political system in which the most esteemed religious leader held ultimate authority to judge the policies and actions of a government built on Islam. Although Khomeini’s religious/political ideology helped topple the Shah of Iran and came to form the foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, not everyone agreed with him. Even at the height of the Khomeini years during the 1980s, well-established Shiite clerics in both Iran and Iraq opposed combining religion and politics.

In Iraq particularly, revolutionary Islam ran into the tribal system. Most of the Arab Shiites of southern Iraq had migrated into the Tigris Euphrates Valley from the Arabian peninsula in the late 19th century. These nomads were Sunnis when they arrived, but they were soon greeted by missionaries from the Shiite shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala.

To the Shiite establishment of these cities, the newly arrived tribes offered numbers to offset the power of the urban Sunnis of Baghdad who controlled the political and economic systems of what was then a part of the Ottoman empire. Directed by their sheikhs, the majority of tribal Arabs converted to Shiism, not for theological reasons, but to promote their own self-interest within the power structure. This alliance between the sheikhs of the tribes and the Shiite clerics of the shrine cities has affected Iraqi politics ever since.

History of conflict

After Iraq became a country in the early 1920s, the Sunni power structure of Baghdad moved against organized Shiism. Every government from the monarchy through Saddam Hussein decimated the clerical establishment in Najaf and Karbala. Restrictions on charities denied the clerics money they would have used to promote the faith and their own stature. Religious schools where clerics made their reputations were closed. And clerics whose family lineage ran back to Iran were deported on the pretext that they were “Persians.”

Now in U.S.-occupied Iraq, the multiple elements that make up the Shiite population are locked in combat to determine which group and which vision will drive Shiite politics in the new Iraq. The power game pits the traditional clerics against the revolutionary clerics and, to a lesser extent, clerics against sheikhs. As a result, the United States finds itself more of a spectator than a referee in the contest for possession of the Iraqi Shiites. In the beginning of this unfolding contest, the players on the field were three ayatollahs and an uncertain number of sheikhs.

By way of scholarship and prestige, the most influential cleric in Iraq is Ayatalloh Ali Sistani. He represents traditional Shiism, in which religion and politics remain on opposites sides of a wall dividing the realm of God from the realm of the state. Sistani has long walked a tightrope between religion and politics. Except for taking a stand against anarchy, he stayed out of the Shiite rebellion against Saddam Hussein that followed the 1991 Gulf War.

Since March, when the United States invaded Iraq, he has counseled his followers to resist calls for an Islamic government in Iraq and to exercise restraint in opposing the American occupation. To the benefit of the American mission in Iraq, Sistani continues to refuse to sanction guerrilla war against the occupiers. But since an ayatollah is both a leader and a follower, in the sense that his legitimacy depends on the numbers who accept him as a spiritual guide, there is no guarantee that he will be able to keep his devotees on a leash and at the sidelines of the American occupation.

Clerical families

Sistani’s opposition within the clerical hierarchy has come from two political clerics, Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khoei and Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al Hakim.

Ayatollah Khoei, like Sistani and Hakim, came from a distinguished clerical family. Among major Iraqi clerics, al-Khoei was the most public and vocal supporter of an American invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein. He also publicly acknowledged the need of an American presence in Iraq, at least in the short term. Returning to Najaf from exile in London in the early days of the American occupation, he was stabbed to death by a rival Shiite in the city’s major shrine. Because al-Khoei was the son of a famous and respected ayatollah and a member of a powerful clerical family, his organization remains in the game of Shiite politics.

And yet, Khoei never commanded the following of his rival, Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al Hakim, who spent 23 years in exile in Iran calling for the overthrow of Saddam and the establishment of an Islamic government in Iraq. Financed by the government of Tehran, he commanded his own militia, known as the Bakr Brigade. Even though Hakim’s calls for Islamic revolution and his ties to Iran made him suspect to the United States, the Bush administration reluctantly accepted Hakim as part of post-Saddam Iraq, partly because the occupation desperately needed his blessing.

Suppressing anti-Americanism among his followers, Hakim declared himself a supporter of a democratic, secular Iraq and allowed his brother to become part of the Provisional Governing Council. Then on Aug. 30, Hakim was killed in a devastating car bombing outside Ali’s shrine at Najaf. Whether Hakim was the victim of Sunnis or Shiite rivals, his death has created major problems for the American occupation.

Unanswered are the questions of whether Hakim’s brother will continue to sanction the Governing Council by staying part of it; whether the Bakr Brigade will be deployed as an independent militia protecting al Hakim’s followers; whether the ayatollah’s followers will blame the United States for his death, thereby becoming another group bitterly hostile to the American presence?

A rising political power

Left standing in the carnage of the political clerics is the most representative of revolutionary Islam — Moktarh al -Sadr, the 29-year-old scion of what is perhaps Iraq’s most famous religious family. Sadr, by way of age and religious training, possesses neither the religious title nor commands the respect of Sistani, Khoei or Hakim. Yet he is the rising political power in Shiite Iraq by way of lineage, passion and message. Drawing on the writings of martyred members of his family who died at the hands of Saddam Hussein, Sadr has turned Shiism’s central theme of social justice into political ideology.

Targeting the poor, particularly those in the Shiite slums of Baghdad, Sadr advocates turning Iraq into an Islamic state that will empower the poor by redistributing wealth and political power. Sadr is not only condemning the United States as the “infidel occupier of the soil of Iraq” but also is challenging the established clerical hierarchy. In flaming rhetoric, he attacks the whole theological position of Sistani and the traditionalists. On the darker side, he is suspected in the death of al-Khoie. Unless authentic benefits begin to quickly accrue to the poorest of the Shiites, Sadr is positioned to become the face and force of militant Islam in Iraq.

Finally in the Shiites’ equation, there are the tribal sheikhs. Each pursues his own vested interest in the Shiite power structure that historically has pitted rural Shiites against urban Shiites. In the amorphous situation that is now playing itself out in southern Iraq, each sheikh will maneuver to maximize the power of his own group. Here it is self-interest and family rivalries, not theology, that will drive alliances that either resist or cooperate with the American occupation.

To keep the American invasion and occupation of Iraq from degenerating into disaster, the United States must win the cooperation or at least the acquiescence of the Shiites. But like so much else in the Bush administration’s grand scheme that led to the war in Iraq, incorporating the Shiites into a stable, functioning government capable of ruling Iraq will be more difficult than the administration foresaw.

Before the war, the civilian leadership of the Pentagon and the neoconservatives inside and outside government predicted that the Shiites of Iraq would put kites in the sky to welcome their American liberators. Instead the Shiites have become the wild card of the troubled U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Atlanta author and journalist Sandra Mackey’s latest book is “The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein” (2002).

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Atlanta Journal-Constitution, USA
Sep. 12, 2003
Sandra Mackey

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday September 15, 2003.
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