Saturday, August 28, 2004

Sistani's triumph?

(Guest-posted at Harry's Place and Normblog)

Jeff Weintraub, a social & political theorist, political sociologist, and democratic socialist living in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, writes with this analysis of the recent events in Iraq.

Sistani's triumph?

The Ayatollah Sistani may be a frail, elderly, and reclusive cleric. But he clearly has an exquisite sense of political timing, as well as remarkable skill in using his moral and religious authority to achieve precise political effects.

The solution to the crisis in Najaf that Sistani has just brokered may or may not fall apart, and its long-term effects are still uncertain. But what he's just accomplished, as well as the way he accomplished it, are pretty impressive. Some months ago, he outmaneuvered Bremer and the CPA over the question of how to organize the political transition in Iraq. (In the process, he demonstrated that he could get hundreds of thousands of people to march peacefully in the streets and--just as important--could also get them to go peacefully home again.) And now he appears to have outmaneuvered Muqtada al-Sadr (making skillful use of both the Americans and the Allawi government, but without getting directly entangled with either).

At its heart, the recent crisis in the cities of southern Iraq, centering on Najaf and the Shrine of Ali, has been the latest installment in a long-term power struggle within the Iraqi Shiite religious leadership, in which the Americans mostly play a secondary role. From the day that Saddam Hussein's regime lost Najaf, the crucial conflict there has been between Muqtada al-Sadr and the established Shia religious leadership, centered on Sistani. Essentially, Sistani and the Hawza have more authority (though Sadr has some charisma of his own, partly inherited from his father), while Sadr has more gunmen--and a lot more willingness to use them. Generally speaking, Sadr has shied away from directly defying Sistani's authority when Sistani has issued explicit public declarations (though he did try to drive Sistani out of Najaf by force in the confusion right after the fall of Saddam Hussein). Sistani and the Hawza, on the other hand, have generally shied away from directly confronting and condemning Sadr--partly, no doubt, to avoid a Shia civil war in Iraq, and partly, I suspect, because Sistani does not want to risk using his authority unless he feels pretty sure of success.

This is a struggle across Iraq as a whole (with reverberations in the wider Shiite world). But control of the key shrines in the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala has a special strategic importance. As a number of scholars have pointed out, this has to do not only with the symbolic and sacred significance of these places for Shiites, but also with their economic significance. Now that the Iraqi Ba'ath regime has fallen, millions of Shiite pilgrims from all over the world visit these shrines every year, and whoever controls them has control over the income from the shrines--which, in turn, can be put to a range of consequential uses (from funding networks of social services to arming gunmen).

In this connection, Sadr's problem was that, although he has considerable support in the Sadr City section of Baghdad and across southern Iraq, his support in Najaf and Karbala themselves (according to all serious analysts and observers I have read) is close to nil. However, once Sadr's gunment hijacked the Shrine of Ali a few months ago (something Sadr tried to do, unsuccessfully, a year ago), Sadr put his opponents in an apparently no-win situation--especially since Sistani, unlike Sadr, was reluctant to risk damage to the shrines or widespread destruction in the holy cities.

That set the stage for the most recent fighting. (The timing of its outbreak may have been at least partly accidental, but something like it was almost inevitable at some point.) By convenient coincidence, Sistani left Iraq for medical treatment in Britain, probably hoping that by the time he came back the Americans would have made mincemeat of Sadr and his "Mahdi Army," but at all events not wanting to be directly involved in the conflict. Within the past week, Sistani appears to have concluded that the conjunction of three crucial factors made this the ideal moment for him to intervene. First, it looked as though Sadr's fighters were on the ropes in Najaf, while local hostility to them had become intense, so Sadr was looking for a face-saving way out of the situation rather than risk an ignominious collapse. Second, the Americans and the Allawi government didn't want either to leave Sadr in control of the Shrine of Ali or to risk the potentially disastrous political costs of an armed assault on the Shrine. (I trust everyone remembers what happened to Indira Gandhi after she ordered the assault on the Sikh Golden Temple.) And third, the great bulk of Iraqi public opinion was simultaneously hostile to Sadr and to the Americans, wanted an end to the fighting in Najaf, and wanted to avoid an armed attack on the holy places.

So Sistani returned dramatically to Iraq and to Najaf, accompanied by thousands of peaceful marchers, and brokered a solution that gave all the major actors a less-than-catastrophic way out--while, at least on paper, giving Sistani all the crucial things that he wanted, and enhancing his own prestige and authority in the process. Sadr explicitly recognized Sistani's authority, peacefully gave up the Shrine of Ali, and agreed to have his militiamen leave the holy cities (and stay out). Sadr himself got to leave town without getting "martyred" or arrested--but, in fact, the Allawi government, the Americans, and Sistani himself also wanted to avoid this. And Sistani has gotten everyone to agree that ALL armed groups should leave the holy cities, with the significant exception of the Iraqi police. If this works--admittedly a big if--then this mollifies anti-American sentiment to a certain extent (since the US troops will also pull out), but also happens to be the best possible solution from the point of view of the Allawi government, the US, and Sistani himself.

All this strikes me as a good and promising outcome, since overall (given the available alternatives) a win for Sistani is a win for Iraq. The political weight of the Shia clergy in Iraq, combined with the weakness of effective secular non-authoritarian political forces, is not ideal from my point of view. And no one should imagine that Sistani's perspective on the political role of religion resembles that of Thomas Jefferson (or even that his position is as "moderate" as that of the Ayatollah Abdel Majid al-Khoei, who was murdered by Sadr a year ago). But according to all the evidence I know about (and the consensus of all informed analysts I have read), he has consistently rejected the extreme theocratic line of Khomeini, Sadr, and the Iranian regime; he is committed to a peaceful political transition in Iraq, and to some sort of democratic representative regime; and (as he has just demonstrated again) he is a skillful political actor with very substantial clout. Iraq could do a lot worse right now, so let's hope his health holds up (and that no one manages to assassinate him).

At least, those are my immediate (non-expert) impressions.

Posted by Harry at August 28, 2004 02:54 PM | TrackBack

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