April 10, 2008

Byzantium Revisited – More on Iraqi Politics

Grand Ayatollah al-Haj al-Sayid 'Ali al-Husayni al-SaystaniPlease read in conjunction with my earlier piece, Byzantine Politics - al-Maliki versus al-Sadr

There is a power struggle in Iraq's Shia community that is headed for a confrontation. The main players are:

- Grand Ayatollah al-Haj al-Sayid* 'Ali al-Husayni al-Saystani (photo at left, commonly rendered as al-Sistani), the senior Shia authority in the country and head of the hauza (religious school) in the holy city of al-Najaf.

- Al-Sayid 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (formerly Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq), member of one of Iraq's prominent religious families, many of whom were killed during the Saddam Husayn era. He assumed the leadership of the council upon the murder of his brother Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim. Among the suspects in that assassination are the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr. Interestingly, al-Hakim is married to a relative of al-Sadr

- Al-Sayid Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi Army, also a member of one of Iraq's prominent religious families, many of whom were killed during the Saddam Husayn era.

- Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, senior leader of the fundamentalist Dawa' party, and the only one in this group who is not a sayid.

Shrine of 'Ali ibn 'Ali Talib, al-NajafThe three sayids - al-Sistani, al-Hakim and al-Sadr - all have their main offices in the holy city of Najaf (al-najaf al-ashraf, "the noblest Najaf"). Najaf is holy to all Shia as it is the site of the tomb of 'Ali ibn 'Ali Talib, whom the Shia consider to be the rightful caliph (successor) and the first imam. Najaf is the center of Shia politics and likely the upcoming political battlefield in this inter-Shia power struggle.

What alliances are forming? Simply put, al-Sistani supports al-Maliki and the Iraqi government. Al-Sistani and al-Hakim have been working closely together since the murder of al-Hakim's brother in 2003. That leaves the odd man out as Muqtada al-Sadr.

Of course, al-Sadr brought much of this on himself. Soon after the American invasion, he maneuvered to set himself up as Iran's major ally in Iraq, angering both al-Sistani and al-Hakim. On more than one occasion, he challenged American forces and was bloodied each time, although in the eyes of his die-hard followers, mere survival meant victory.

Al-Maliki's move against al-Sadr in Basra, and continuing in Sadr City was the first move in the attempt to marginalize al-Sadr and his militia. Al-Maliki later issued an ultimatum to al-Sadr: disband the Mahdi Army or forfeit any future role in Iraqi politics. Of course, al-Maliki has to be willing and able to back that up.

Al-Sistani backed al-Maliki in this demand, putting al-Sadr in the unenviable position of defying the senior Shia religious authority in the country - there is only one grand ayatollah in Iraqi, that being al-Sistani. He has great moral authority in the Shia community. Al-Hakim, no friend of al-Sadr, whom he holds responsible (with some justification) for his brother's murder, will side with al-Sistani.

If al-Sadr refuses to comply, perhaps it will give the Iraqi government and American troops the justification needed to finally address the Muqtada al-Sadr issue once and for all. He will be playing right into the hands of al-Sistani, al-Hakim and al-Maliki.

Personal note: I am not a fan of Nuri al-Maliki, but I support his efforts to rid Iraq of this thug and his murderous Iranian trained, equipped and funded militia.

* Shia religious title indicating a male descendant of the prohet Muhammad. Sayids are entitled to wear the black turban.