Sunday, April 08, 2007

Babak Rahimi on Iragi Shiite Leadership Dynamics

This scholarly analysis of Iraq's balance of power between the two principle Shiite alliances and how it has shifted during the last four years is the most informative reading I have found about what's happening with Iraqi leadership. No way will I try to summarize this paper. Too much information, too well organized to skip over any part. Dry reading but vitally important. And not pushing any particular agenda. Sorry, but this is must-read stuff for anyone who wants to keep informed.

Babak Rahimi received a PhD from the European University Institute, Florence, Italy. Rahimi has also studied at the University of Nottingham and London School of Economics and Political Science. He was a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace from 2005-06, where he conducted research on Ayatollah Ali Sistani and Shi'ite politics in post-Ba'athist Iraq. He is currently an assistant professor at the department of literature, program for the study of religion, University of California, San Diego.

Here are the ending paragraphs. What precedes is needed to grasp their full meaning. Scan and imagine you can "catch the drift" at your own peril. And know, too, that these issues are not -- repeat NOT -- under the control of US foreign or military policy. The future of Iran and how it relates with its neighbors is absolutely in the hands of the leadership discussed in this paper.

Therefore, what are the implications of a Muqtada-Sistani partnership? First, the US should be aware of the unpredictable politics of the Shi'ite community. The swing of alliances merits serious attention, despite the fact that sectarian identity will play a central role in intra-Shi'ite relations in years to come.

Second, the US should also recognize the enduring authority of the Najaf Hawza and its sphere of influence in Shi'ite Iraq. This influence is so significant that even the defiant Muqtada failed to challenge the establishment, let alone muster enough support to lead the Shi'ite community among the poor and the youth for his anti-occupation and nationalist image.

It was the common consensus in the academic and policy communities that after the Samarra bombing last year, Sistani had become a marginal figure. Despite his brief diminishing influence as a result of the rise of sectarian tensions, Sistani now appears to be back with even greater authority. He is supported by centuries of traditional authority and backed by an extensive financial and religious network that reaches beyond Iraq and Iran.

Both Tehran and Muqtada know that Sistani should not be ignored. The US should certainly do the same.

Here is a provocative quote from the opening page. Note the foundational differences between the two main players, Sistani and Muqtada. The article traces the development from this point to the "Muqtada-Sistani partnership" referred to above.
Much of the "heterodoxy" of the Sadrist movement lies in its early (2003-04) rejection of clerical monopoly, led by some young clerical students and followers of Muqtada who accused Sistani of transforming the shrine city of Najaf into a "sleeping house of learning". The heretical tendencies of the Sadrist movement entailed rejecting the religious authority of a living, high-ranking cleric in favor of the rulings of a deceased marja (religious scholar), a blasphemous idea according to the orthodox thinking that Sistani and his Hawza represent.

Yet there is also the factor of Arab nationalism. Ideologically, the Sadrists are Arab nationalists and resent the presence of any non-Arab cleric in Iraq, especially those of Iranian descent, such as Sistani, who have been residing in the shrine-cities for decades.

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