Iraqi Shi’a leaders keep their eyes on a political prize

Iraq’s Shi’a majority are embroiled in a multidimensional struggle for the future of their country. As a community, the Shi’a are attempting to secure what they regard as their rightful place of overall leadership within Iraq’s political structure. About 60% of Iraq’s population are Shi’a but they constitute 75% of the country’s Arab population (20% of Iraq’s total population are Kurds). On the basis of demography, therefore, the Shi’a can be expected to dominate an open political process in Iraq. Although this quest for overall leadership pits the Shi’a against the Sunni Arabs, the concept of a zero-sum rivalry between the two is an oversimplification.

Initially trusting in the US commitment to establish democracy to bring Shi’a rule for the first time in Iraq’s history, some Shi’a now fear that the US could try to relegate them to the margins of Iraqi political life. This mistrust was engendered by what many Shi’a perceive was a US plot to install a pro-US exile and self-proclaimed "moderate Shi’a", Iyad Allawi, as prime minister at the time of the June 2004 handover of sovereignty.

As a former member of the Ba’ath Party, which was dominated by Sunni Muslims and repressed Iraq’s Shi’a, Allawi is viewed with suspicion by most of his coreligionists. Perhaps even more important, he is secular. By contrast, the key leaders and decision-makers in Iraq’s Shi’a community are Islamist and primarily (although not exclusively) clerics.

Shi’a clerics hold substantial political authority alongside their religious standing. This fact, however, should not preclude discussion of perhaps the most difficult struggle that the Shi’a face - the struggle within their own Islamist ranks, which may determine Iraq’s political future. This infighting among Shi’a Islamists does not exist in a vacuum, however, but is coloured by the other factors influencing Iraq’s politics: the continued US military presence; Allawi’s US-backed interim government; the position of other communities within Iraq (such as the Kurds); and the policies of neighbouring countries that stand to gain from influencing power struggles within Iraq.

Sadr and Sistani

The violence in the Shi’a clerical seat of Najaf in April and August reveals the emergence and divergence of two broad visions within the Shi’a Islamist camp. Competing for the allegiance of Iraq’s Shi’a are the tempered and measured strategy of the widely revered and religiously authoritative Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani; and the rejectionist, insurgent vision of the young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Sistani is the acknowledged marja taqlid, or the highest judicial authority, whose religious credentials are beyond question. His political judgment is widely respected, even though he was not politically active during the 1979-2003 regime of Saddam Hussein. He stands at the apex of a mainstream Shi’a Islamist coalition, the pillars of which are the two largest parties: the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and Hizb al-Dawa al-Islamiya (The Islamic Call Party). SCIRI is led by a cleric, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who assumed leadership of the party upon the death of his elder brother Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim in a major car bombing in Najaf on 19 August 2003. Hizb al-Dawa al-Islamiya, or at least its main faction, is led by Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who is currently serving in the Iraqi government as a deputy president.

Both parties - but particularly SCIRI - have close ties to Iran and both trace much of their ideology to the late leader of Iran’s revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who taught in Najaf after being exiled by the Shah in 1963. SCIRI was in fact created by Tehran in 1982 as a means of achieving greater control of and co-ordination among those Shi’a Islamist groups that opposed the regime of Saddam Hussein; Iran saw these groups as an additional weapon during its 1980-88 war with Iraq.

The Sistani-SCIRI-Dawa coalition offers a distinct, albeit in many ways risky, platform for rank-and-file Shi’a in Iraq. Its message is that the Shi’a community should co-operate with the interim government and the US-designed transition roadmap because of the promise of free elections. Elections for a National Assembly are to be held by January 2005; voting for a permanent government is scheduled to take place by December 2005.

In the view of the mainstream Shi’a coalition led by Sistani, the free elections contained in the US roadmap will deliver the long-awaited Shi’a rule,

if only because the Shi’a demographic majority is sufficiently overwhelming. The Shi’a coalition is suspicious of Allawi but it is willing to tolerate his interim government and its US backers as long as the promised free and fair elections are held. Should Allawi attempt to postpone or manipulate the elections, he would inevitably come into open conflict with this mainstream Shi’a coalition.

Moqtada al-Sadr is at odds with the mainstream Shi’a vision and draws his support primarily from Iraq’s poorer and less educated Shi’a. He is highly popular in Sadr City, the sprawling Shi’a slum of Baghdad that was renamed after the fall of Saddam in honour of his father, Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was killed by the Ba’athist regime in 1999. In Moqtada al-Sadr’s view, Iraq’s Shi’a will not achieve "deliverance" in the elections under the US-designed transition roadmap. He argues that Allawi and his associates, with the help of the US, will inevitably structure and control any elections to ensure their continued rule. In Sadr’s view, Allawi cannot be trusted at all and Sistani’s mainstream Shi’a coalition has been hoodwinked by the US into believing that Shi’a will achieve power through the elections, when in fact no such result will be allowed.

Sadr’s strategy, therefore, is to portray Sistani as too accommodating to Allawi and the US, while trying to topple Allawi and the interim government through violence and open challenge. In Sadr’s view, ordinary Shi’a will only be allowed to wield power if they seize power themselves.

Sadr claims he is willing to enter the political process. At first glance, his doing so might make sense. In the course of his insurgency, he has gained in popularity and has won over a substantial number of Shi’a, who believe that Sistani has been too pliant, willing to accept the promises of the US and Allawi.

However, it is difficult to see what combination of factors would assure Moqtada al-Sadr that the January 2005 elections will proceed in a free and fair manner without manipulation by Allawi to keep himself in power. So Sadr will probably flirt with participation in the political process while retaining his militia as a guarantee of continued influence. Sadr’s suspicions are so deep that further surges of violence by his militia in Najaf and other cities in southern Iraq are highly likely.

Sadr’s views give him common cause with insurgents in Iraq’s Sunni community, although there is no evidence that there is operational co-ordination between the two. Many Sunnis regard the elections as a US plot to end their rule and transfer power to the Shi’a majority. It is unlikely, therefore, that free and fair elections would end the insurgency in the ‘Sunni Triangle’ in central Iraq.

The role of Iran and other neighbours

Iran looms as an influential player in any scenario involving Iraq’s Shi’a community. An Iraqi government of mainstream Shi’a Islamists could provide Tehran with strategic depth and leverage over the US on other issues, such as Iran’s nuclear programme. Iran is widely reported to have been funding and advising mainstream Shi’a parties since the fall of Saddam in 2003.

The Iranian government was initially quite sceptical of Moqtada al-Sadr, viewing him as a hothead who could provoke the US to implement measures preventing Shi’a rule. However, Iran has revised this view somewhat after Sadr emerged apparently unscathed from successive confrontations with the US that have boosted his popularity. Iran is increasingly working with Sadr, not only to build ties to him should he prevail in Iraq’s internal power struggles but also to moderate his strategy.

Any gains made by Iran would be to the detriment of Iraq’s Sunni Arab-dominated neighbours to the west and south, particularly Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. These countries fear that Shi’a rule in Iraq would strengthen Iran and embolden Shi’a communities in the rest of the Arab world. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are particularly nervous because they contain significant Shi’a minorities that have, at times, been restive.

Possible outcomes

As discussed, the Shi’a followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, as well as the Sunni Arab insurgents, believe that the planned elections in Iraq would be detrimental to their interests. These factions will probably continue to challenge the government of Iyad Allawi and his US backers as the elections approach. The Sunni parties will almost certainly lose these elections and the insurgency in central Iraq will probably continue.

Sadr and Sistani’s futures are intertwined. If elections are held and Shi’a Islamist candidates do well enough to dominate a new government, Iraq’s Shi’a community may accept the results as legitimate and support any administration formed after the elections. This would put Moqtada al-Sadr in a difficult position because his popularity is based on his view that the US and Allawi will stop at nothing to retain their places in power.

If Sadr’s suspicions are shown to be groundless, he could lose popularity and influence rapidly. On the other hand, if Allawi and other non-Islamist Shi’a prevail in the elections or dominate a future government, Sadr’s view would be largely validated among his supporters and other Iraqi Shi’a; as a result, he could succeed Sistani as the leading guide of Shi’a political strategy. Sadr would probably argue that the election process was manipulated and he would continue his insurgency until either Allawi (or a similar post-election figure) were toppled or until his forces were defeated militarily. If events cause Sadr’s views to filter into mainstream Shi’a thinking, a military solution to the problem of a Sadr-led insurgency is difficult to foresee.

Kenneth Katzman is a senior analyst on terrorism and Middle East issues at the Congressional Research Service in Washington.

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