[Marxism] Shiite rivalry

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Dec 21 05:32:25 MST 2006

Shiite Clerics' Rivalry Deepens In Fragile Iraq

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 21, 2006; A01

BAGHDAD -- In the quest to create a new Iraq, two powerful clerics 
compete for domination, one from within the government, the other 
from its shadows.

Both wear the black turban signifying their descent from the prophet 
Muhammad. They have fought each other since the days their fathers 
vied to lead Iraq's majority Shiites. They hold no official 
positions, but their parties each control 30 seats in the parliament. 
And they both lead militias that are widely alleged to run death squads.

But in the view of the Bush administration, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim is a 
moderate and Moqtada al-Sadr is an extremist. As the U.S. president 
faces mounting pressure to reshape his Iraq policy, administration 
officials say they are pursuing a Hakim-led moderate coalition of 
Shiites, Sunnis and Kurdish parties in order to isolate extremists, 
in particular Sadr.

Hakim, who once verbally attacked U.S. policy, now senses a political 
opportunity and is softening his stance toward the Americans. Sadr's 
position is hardening. Young and aggressive, he has suspended his 
participation in Iraq's government and is intensifying his demands 
for U.S. troops to leave the country.

Their rivalry is rising as the moderating influence of Iraq's most 
revered Shiite figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is fading on the 
streets of Baghdad and is being replaced by allegiance to militant 
clerics such as Sadr, according to Iraqi officials and analysts.

They question whether Hakim can counter Sadr's growing street power 
without worsening the chaos. As President Bush ponders limited 
alternatives in forging a new approach in Iraq, some wonder whether 
the United States is overestimating Hakim's ability.

The U.S. embrace of Hakim "will deepen their rivalry," said Mahmoud 
Othman, an independent Kurdish legislator. "And it will deepen the 
rifts between the United States and the Sadrists."

Across Baghdad, as the fourth year of war nears an end, many Iraqis 
are asking one question: Can their prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a 
Shiite politician backed by Sadr, balance U.S. demands to distance 
himself from the cleric and move their country forward?
Competing Strategies

In Karrada, a mostly Shiite Baghdad neighborhood of large, tan houses 
owned by educated professionals and bureaucrats, the trim-bearded 
Hakim smiles from a large billboard in front of his headquarters.

The son of an ayatollah, Hakim wears the long, black robes of an 
Islamic scholar. He spent years in exile in Iran, where his political 
party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, was 
founded as an armed opposition group to President Saddam Hussein, who 
brutally oppressed Shiites.

Less than a mile away in a bustling, working-class section of 
Karrada, in a poster hanging in a grimy sidewalk restaurant, the 
thick-bearded Sadr weeps.

The son of Iraq's most respected populist cleric, who was 
assassinated by Hussein's government in 1999, Sadr remained in Iraq 
during the repression. He has stayed faithful to his father's vision, 
deriving his power from the seminary and the followers he has 
mobilized from Iraq's streets.

After the invasion, as a Shiite religious revival blossomed, Iraq's 
clerics saw themselves as the caretakers of the nation's Islamic 
identity. They were as concerned about American power and ambitions 
for Iraq as they were about the importation of a decadent Western 
culture. Many refused to deal with U.S. officials, preferring to 
preserve their status as outsiders, a tactic that reaps immense 
rewards today from a population that is increasingly disenchanted 
with the United States.

"There's no necessity to meet the Americans," said Beirut-based Hamid 
al-Khafaf, the chief spokesman for Sistani. He added that Sistani 
favored peaceful resistance to end the U.S. occupation.

Hakim and Sadr approached the Americans differently. Hakim joined the 
25-seat Iraqi Governing Council set up by the interim U.S. 
administration of L. Paul Bremer. Through his involvement in the 
government and his allegiance to Sistani, Hakim built up his power base.

Sadr went to war against U.S. forces, launching two major uprisings 
in the spring and summer of 2004 in the southern holy city of Najaf. 
Soon, Hakim and Sadr turned on each other. In Iraq's Shiite-dominated 
south, Sadr's militias have attacked the offices of Hakim's party, 
SCIRI, and fought with his forces.

Today, the control Hakim's armed wing, the Badr Organization, exerts 
over Karrada is dwindling. Since the February bombing of a Shiite 
shrine in Samarra, which triggered an ongoing cycle of revenge 
killings, Sadr's Mahdi Army has pushed into mixed Shiite and Sunni 
neighborhoods across Baghdad. In recent months, it has arrived in 
Karrada, its stated goal to protect Shiite brethren from Sunni Arab insurgents.
'Pouring Their Poison In'

Inside the Sayyed Idris mosque, a large shrine in Karrada with an 
ornate blue-and-yellow tiled minaret, Haji Abbas al-Zubaidi is a 
witness to this changing world.

For years, the picture of Hakim's white-bearded brother, Ayatollah 
Mohammed Bakir Hakim, who was killed by a car bomb in 2003, hung in 
the mosque's library along with images of Sistani and a collection of 
revered Shiite saints. Now, pictures of Sadr and his father hang 
along with them.

Baghdad's sectarian strife now rules Zubaidi's life. In recent weeks, 
car bombs and mass kidnappings have rocked his neighborhood. Zubaidi, 
who has lived in Karrada for 35 years, sees the Mahdi Army, not the 
Badr Organization, as his main source of protection. It has created 
"popular protection committees" that watch over blocks, as they do in 
the Mahdi Army's stronghold of Sadr City.

"The terrorists are pouring their poison into our neighborhood," said 
Zubaidi, slim with long, slender fingers and a narrow face, as he sat 
on a large red carpet inside the mosque. "The sons of Karrada who 
have joined the popular committees and the Mahdi Army are now 98 
percent in control. We have noticed that many of the attempts have 
been foiled."

Zubaidi and other educated Karrada residents continue to obey 
Sistani's pacifist vision and view him as their preeminent leader. 
But younger Shiites, while still revering Sistani, have switched 
their allegiances.

"We imitate and follow Sayyed Sistani," said Zubaidi, using an 
honorific for Sistani. "As for the field commanders and the young 
men, they are followers of Moqtada Sadr."

As the militancy grew, U.S. officials viewed Sistani as the most 
influential voice of moderation in Iraq. A gray-bearded, Iranian-born 
cleric in Najaf whose pronouncements carried the force of law, he 
stepped in with calming statements at momentous points in Iraq's 
post-invasion history. One Sistani appeal ended Sadr's last rebellion 
against U.S. forces.

But since the February bombing, Sistani's words have had little 
impact, Iraqi officials say. Shiite militias have attacked Sunni Arab 
mosques. Bodies of young Sunni men, blindfolded and tortured with 
drills, turn up daily in ditches and trash dumps. Sistani has made 
three fruitless statements to stop the killings.

"Now when you have daily mass killings, it makes such a call for 
restraint weak," said Ali Dabbagh, an Iraqi government spokesman with 
close ties to Sistani.

Sadr's Mahdi Army militia perpetrated many of the attacks, and 
Hakim's Badr Organization committed torture and other atrocities, 
U.S. and Iraqi officials say.
Rivals Sharply Divided

The rivalry between Sadr and Hakim has unfolded mostly on the 
political stage. The two leaders joined the alliance that produced 
the current government, but soon their visions diverged. This year, 
Sadr threw his support behind Maliki largely to stop Hakim's 
candidate, current vice president Adel Abdul Mahdi, from becoming 
prime minister.

Hakim and Sadr are also sharply divided over whether Iraq should 
split into autonomous regions. Hakim is pushing for a separate Shiite 
region in the south, but Sadr, who views himself as an Iraqi 
nationalist, wants to keep the country unified.

Senior Sadr officials have circulated a petition among national 
lawmakers demanding a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. They have 
managed to get 131 signatures, nearly half of the parliament, Othman said.

"Politically, we can make the occupation withdraw," said Mustafa 
Yacoubi, Sadr's top deputy and a cleric who wears a black turban.

Hakim, meanwhile, has shown his pragmatism, understanding that he 
needs U.S. troops and support to balance the growing power of Sadr. 
Last month, he met with Bush, an action that many observers saw as 
the U.S. hedging its gamble on the weak Maliki government. Bush also 
met with Iraq's Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, leader of the 
Iraqi Islamic Party. Hashemi is perceived by Washington as a 
moderate, although many Iraqis would disagree.

"Maliki is very worried about this turnabout," said Wamid Nadhmi, a 
political analyst in Baghdad. "This is because of his affiliation 
with Moqtada Sadr and the promotion that Mr. Bush is giving to Mr. 
Hakim. Maliki is seeing his political end, that they are trying to 
form a new government with the approval of the Americans."

U.S. pressure on Maliki to isolate Sadr is growing. American 
officials have declared Shiite militias -- particularly the Mahdi 
Army -- the most significant threat to Iraq's stability. Maliki has 
not cracked down on the militia of his political benefactor. He and 
his Shiite Islamic Dawa Party are also resisting U.S. attempts to 
build a moderate coalition.

In many circles, Iraqis question whether Hakim and other so-called 
moderates can curb the growing power of Sadr.

"I have serious doubts about Mr. Hakim's influence among the Shiites, 
and I have serious doubts of Hashemi becoming the leader of Sunnis," 
Nadhmi said.

It's a sentiment shared in Karrada. "Al-Hakim is not loved by the 
people," said Abdul Amir Ali, a burly Shiite shopkeeper. "People love 
the Islamic Dawa Party and Maliki because they don't have militias."

In the sidewalk restaurant where Sadr's poster hangs, its owner, Ali 
Hussein, points at clusters of young men nearby. They are all Mahdi 
Army, he said. And so is he.

Hakim, he said, made a fatal mistake by meeting Bush. In today's 
Iraq, credibility and power are measured by opposition to the United States.

"At this time, whoever has his hands with the Americans or Jews is 
not an Iraqi," said Hussein, as he chopped up cubes of lamb. "So how 
could Hakim put his hands with the Americans? There will be tensions 
because Sayyed Moqtada Sadr is a revolutionary man, like his father. 
Even if Hakim tries to come back to Sadr, Sadr will never receive his hand."

If the rift between Hakim and Sadr deepens, moderate Shiites fear, 
all Iraqis may suffer. "It should not leave any shadow on a fragile 
situation on Iraq," said Dabbagh, the government spokesman. "Iraq 
cannot absorb such a shock."

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