August 17, 2004


The Real Battle of Najaf: for the Shiite Soul (Bartle Breese Bull, August 13, 2004, LA Times)

While Muqtada Sadr, Iraq's young Shiite firebrand, leads his insurrection from the holy city of Najaf, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani — the spiritual leader of Iraq's 15 million Shiite Muslims — sits silently in London, recovering from heart surgery. We are watching two battles for Najaf: the physical fight raging between Sadr's Mahdi militia and the U.S. military, and a subtler struggle for influence within Iraq's Shiite majority — a struggle that is in many ways a battle for the future of the country.

Najaf, as the resting place of Imam Ali, the founder of the Shiite branch of Islam, is the holiest city on Earth for the world's 200 million Shiite Muslims. The leaders of the city's clerical community are the natural leaders of the global Shiite community, whose members everywhere aspire to be buried in the cemetery where so much of the fighting is taking place. The spiritual prestige of these leaders produces enormous temporal power as well, and it is this political standing that Sadr seeks to usurp.

Sistani is the most senior of Najaf's four grand ayatollahs, and doubts about his health have highlighted the issue of who will replace him in the religious realm. Regardless of timing, any spiritual successor to Sistani could come only from among the other three. All three, like Sistani, eschew the sort of direct political rule exercised by the mullahs of Iran. All are in their 70s.

The only native Iraqi among them is Mohammed Said Hakim. Some observers believe he would lean toward the policies of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite political group that is run by his cousin and that has historical ties to Iran. The council allied itself with the U.S.-led coalition during the war and has been relatively cooperative with the occupation since then.

Bashir Najafi, a Pakistani who has been in Iraq most of his life, has been an outspoken critic of the occupation and, as the most radical and anti-American of Sistani's potential successors, could be expected to take a more activist line.

The third grand ayatollah is Mohammed Ishaq Fayyad, who, of the three, is the most committed opponent of Iran-style clerical rule.

No front-runner has emerged, and nobody knows for how many weeks or decades Sistani will survive the three blocked arteries that caused his trip to London.

What is certain, however, is that the conditions feeding the rage of the urban poor who currently dominate Iraqi Shiite politics will not disappear in the near future. Iraq's slums are some of the most demoralizing places on Earth — places like Sadr City in Baghdad, an urban wilderness of cinderblock and wire where families live nine to a room and sewage and engine oil bake in the gutters. There are no jobs and seemingly no prospects of them. The feeling of impotence is pervasive.

After 30 years of Sunni apartheid under Saddam Hussein, Shiites are impatient for change. They were betrayed by the British in 1930, with the arrival of a foreign prince who ruled through the Sunni minority. They were betrayed by the United States in 1991, when they followed George H.W. Bush's exhortations and rose against Hussein, only to be crushed. They form 60% of Iraq's population and have waited centuries to run their own affairs. They cannot understand why Hussein's fall has brought so little improvement to their lot.

Sadr draws his support largely from the disaffected male youth of Iraq's Shiite slums. Even though he is identified as a cleric, the power he wields does not derive from religious authority.

The bitter lesson, for folks like al-Sadr, of the End of History is that radicals can't bring economic and political progress while such progress, which is what people really desire, destroys radicalism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 17, 2004 11:02 PM

A country -- if that's what it is -- that depends on the differing whims of three old guys is not going to be marching into the 21st century in step with those countries that don't depend on old fogies who've spent their whole lives squabbling about how many dervishes can dance on the head of a pin.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 18, 2004 2:02 PM