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Who controls the Iraqi Shia?

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Article by LS member Lupin3
It is a common criticism by many both to the right and left that the consequent empowering of the Iraqi Shia by the war in Iraq is in Iran's interests, and indeed that Iran will control their Iraqi brethren in order to subvert any real movement towards democracy there.  Dalek, as an example, has called the Iraqi government a puppet, controlled by string pullers (where the strings are Shia extremists) in Iran. 

[NB - dalek is a regular commenter on LS who generally disagrees with the politics of the site - ED]

It is worth noting he believes this government will fall without US support - one might wonder why, if it is already under the sway of Iran?  If the government serves Iran's purposes, then it seems unlikely to need Coalition aid to maintain stability.  Conversely, if such aid is required does this not suggest a certain antagonism between the popularly elected government in Iraq and the Shia extremists attempting to control it?

But I think Dalek, and so many others who glibly offer up this kind of criticism, fail to differentiate between the actual religio-political traditions at work in Iraq's various Shia communities - just as he accuses neocons of having done by labeling"the people of Islam as "islamofascist."  (For the record, I do not consider myself a neocon and have labeled primarily the former Ba'athist regime of Iraq as being Islamofascist, and to a lesser extent the political urges within radical Islamist movements such as al Qaeda, and the Taliban.)

But who are these Shia extremists, and whose views do they represent?  An academic question perhaps, when we are all so familiar with al-Sadr's Mahdi militia and to a lesser extent, with Dawa's Badr Brigades.  Particularly al-Sadr's militia is popularly thought to be the militant wing of widespread sentiment amidst the Shia community - that he represents rather more forcefully what is generally accepted by Shia throughout Iraq.  Yet, al-Sadr's political organization, the National Independent Cadres and Elites - with it's sickly ironic acronym "NICE" - never received more than 1% of the popular vote, and in the most recent elections lost what few seats it maintained in parliament.  Many of Sadr's supporters instead defected to an organization run by al-Sadr's rival, Azziz al-Hakim, and provided religious legitimacy by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

It is true that the Sadrist Movement, al-Sadr's political front within the UIA, represents al-Sadr's views generally and is the second most powerful group within UIA, but it alone represents less than a quarter of UIA's overall seats within parliament and has therefore very little political discretion on it's own.  It is hardly in a position to "control" anything in Iraq, beyond the influence it maintains by chairing the Ministries of Agriculture, Health, or Tourism and Antiquities.  But is the Sadrist Movement itself controlled by Iran?

While al-Sadr is widely considered a "nationalist," there is evidence to suggest Iran has had a great deal of influence over his organization.  Michael Rubin, writing at the American Enterprise Institute, suggests that Tehran has largely underwritten the Mahdi militia, in an April, 2004 article (perhaps not so) coincidentally entitled "The Puppetmasters."  Perhaps just as importantly, al-Sadr takes his spiritual advice from Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri.  His family, like al-Sistani's before him, left Iran to teach in Iraq.  Unlike al-Sistani, however, al-Haeri was forced by Saddam to flee to Iran for his endorsement of armed opposition against the Fascists.  He now resides in Qom, the spiritual center of Iran.  Importantly, al-Sistani still resides in Iraq's spiritual center, Najaf.  In early August, 2004 al-Sistani was flown to London for medical treatment.  Later that month al-Sadr moved against Najaf, ostensibly in response to the Coalition attempt to arrest him for the murder of Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khoei - al-Sistani's predecessor.  When al-Sistani returned a cease-fire was immediately brokered, with both Coalition and Sadrists agreeing to leave the city.  By September that same year, al-Haeri publicly dissociated himself from al-Sadr and condemned the tactics he used, saying his call to armed resistance was no longer relevant with the fall of the Ba'athist regime.

Clearly, the move against Najaf was also an attempt to secure the holy city from al-Sistani's influence, who favors non-violent political solutions to Iraq's crisis.  Moreover, al-Sistani's approval of the political process which al-Sadr had condemned puts them at political, as well as spiritual, opposition.  The depth of this opposition should be measured in the ways in which they each have oriented themselves to the role of religion in Iraq's governance.  Whereas al-Sadr has sought to establish Khomeini's interpretation of Velayat-i Faqih with the direct rule of the Islamic courts, al-Sistani has publicly contradicted Khomeini's interpretation, stating that Islamic courts rule on Islamic law, and the government's courts rule on secular law.  Thus, the most influential member of the largest Iraqi Shia political bloc opposes not only the Khomeinist mullahcracy, but also endorses the newly democratic political process within Iraq even when it does not meet his criteria for sharia law, as exemplified by his opposition to the (relatively) neutral tone toward Islam in the Iraqi constitution.

There are critics of the influence of Iran's mullahs on the internal politics of Iraq who see in al-Haeri's distancing himself from al-Sadr an attempt to obfuscate Iran's concern that Najaf will once again become the spiritual center of all Shia.  They see in al-Sadr's militia an attempt not just to resist the Coalition, but to disrupt the (there's that article again!) pro-democratic forces within Shia Islam which, in fact, resist Khomeini's vision of an Islamic state.  If this is true, however, we must conclude from the failure of the Sadrist Movement to co-op or oust al-Sistani's influence, and al-Sadr's continued movement away from overt militia action against the Coalition and opposing Shia factions, that overt Iranian influence is waning.

Click here to see this article in the original discussion thread, or if you want to comment on it - ED.
Created by youngmarxist
Last modified 2007-01-24 08:25 PM

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