Friday, August 27, 2004

Najaf realpolitik 

One thing no one can deny the Grand Ayatollah Sistani - he's a smart man. Sistani returns from his surgery in Great Britain just at a time when al Sadr's Mahdi army is facing annihilation in his home town of Najaf, steps in to broker a peace deal between al Sadr and Iraqi government, and in a space of a few hours he demonstrates to everyone who's really in charge in the south. You might recall that Sistani left for London the day after al Sadr restarted his Shia uprising.

A mere coincidence or a clever plan? The upstart al Sadr's radical and largely uncontrollable forces have been significantly degraded over three weeks of fighting, with the dirty work being all done by the "infidel" Americans; al Sadr himself has been humbled and put in place; the provisional Iraqi government is grateful for this respectable way out; and the Shias are ecstatic that peace has finally returned to Najaf.

Surely the Shia establishment in Iraq could not be that Machiavellian?

Update: The question whether Sistani purposefully bloodied al Sadr's nose with the American fist becomes even more interesting when you throw Iran into the equation.

Al Sadr likes to play the chauvinistic Arab card, being an Iraqi-born Shia as opposed to Sistani, who like many other prominent Shia clerics in Iraq actually hails from Iran, yet it's al Sadr who has recently visited Iran, and seems to enjoy the support of the mullahs form Tehran (more here) - despite their denials.

Sistani, for his foreign origins, is said to represent a different strain of Shiism: "The Persian-born ayatollah represents the conservative and mainstream of Iraqi Shias - rejecting the model of Iranian-style theocracy in favour of a separation between religion and politics." (more on Sistani's political views here).

There's certainly no love lost between the two: "In April 2003, just after the fall of the regime, club-wielding members of the Sadr Group besieged Ayatollah Sistani's house, demanding that he leave the country and that he recognise Moqtada Sadr as a marja." Amir Taheri writes that Sistani in turn, has been starting to cause troubles inside Iran:
"By the end of June [2004] Ayatollah Sistani had named representatives in 67 Iranian towns and cities, including the capital Tehran. At the same time a stream of visitors from Iran, including many clerics, are received by the ayatollah in his mud-brick home in downtown Najaf each day. Ayatollah Sistani's Persian-language Web site is attracting more than three millions visitors each month from Iran.

" 'Today, Sistani is probably the most influential Shi'ite [religious] leader in the world,' says Sabah Zangeneh, who was Tehran's ambassador to the Organization of Islamic Conference until last year. 'Many Iranians see in him a revival of the mainstream Shi'ite theology.'

"Many clerics agree. 'It is now clear to most Shi'ites that Khomeinism is a political ideology and a deviation [from the faith],' says Ayatollah Mahmoud Qomi-Tabatabi. 'Those who represent authentic Shi'ism cannot speak out in Iran. This is why the Najaf clergy, especially Sistani, are emerging as a pole of attraction for Iranians'."
It's starting to look like Sistani might have used the American fist not only to bloody al Sadr's nose, but also - indirectly - touch up the Iranian hard-line mullahs. Rafsanjani & Co are claiming the recent events in Najaf as a major victory for Shiism against the United States, but their self-congratulatory orations might just be hiding a much more interesting reality.

Something that bears close watching in the future.


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