Wednesday, April 04, 2007

If You'll Be My Bodyguard, I Can Be Your Long Lost Pal

I can call you Mookie, and Mookie when you call me you can call me Ali

Strange days indeed. The Jamestown Foundation's Babak Rahimi (via IraqSlogger's Emma Daly) has an intriguing report about the strengthening of ties between erstwhile rivals Moqtada al-Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

For those not following along with the intricacies of intra-Shiite power plays in post-invasion Iraq, a brief re-cap: Moqtada al-Sadr, whose credibility largely stems from his family's prestigious lineage and his father's defiance of Saddam more specifically (acts that resulted in his father's murder), has been able to emerge as one of the most popular and influential Shiite figures in post-invasion Iraq through a potent blend of rhetoric and actions. He has played up anti-occupation sentiment, espoused a fiery brand of populist/nationalist rhetoric and has delivered vital social services and security to impoverished Shiites through a vast, though largely decentralized, Mahdi Army militia/services network.

Sistani, on the other hand, is the highest ranking Shiite cleric in Iraq, whose age and theological expertise have earned him his position, as well as the respect and relative obedience of most Shiites. Unlike Sadr, Sistani is a quietest whose manner is rather understated. He tends to be reclusive, rarely appearing in public or addressing the masses ala Sadr. In fact, he rarely even directly issues statements, rather preferring to have his words passed on through intermediaries. He has been mostly tolerant of the occupation and has consistently preached restraint on the part of the Shiite population in the face of attacks by Sunni elements. Also, in contrast to Sadr's Iraqi chauvinism, Sistani is actually of Iranian descent.

An odd couple that makes Felix Unger and Oscar Madison seem like soul-mates.

The two figures and contrasting styles have been competing for Shiite hearts and minds in the vacuum left by Saddam's toppling. Despite Sistani's more impressive credentials, Sadr's brand of vigilante justice and machismo has been winning over many converts as a result of the relentless violence and lawlessness plaguing Iraq. From an article I cited in October:

Hundreds of thousands of people have turned away from al-Sistani to the far more aggressive al-Sadr. Sabah Ali...said that he had switched allegiance after the murder of his brother by Sunni gunmen. "I went to Sistani asking for revenge for my brother," he said. "They said go to the police, they couldn't do anything.

"But even if the police arrest them, they will release them for money, because the police are bad people. So I went to the al-Sadr office. I told them about the terrorists' family. They said, 'Don't worry, we'll get revenge for your brother'. Two days later, Sadr's people had killed nine of the terrorists, so I felt I had revenge for my brother. I believe Sadr is the only one protecting the Shia against the terrorists."

Judging by the trends, Sistani likely viewed it as in his interest to coopt Sadr rather than risk being further marginalized himself. Rahimi, agreeing with that general thesis, offers some suggestions on how this new found friendship might play out, and who it is that might be acting the part of matchmaker behind the scenes. In case you were wondering, it ain't Chuck Woolery:

Since 2004, however, an unlikely alliance has gradually taken form between the former adversaries, which is bound to reshape Iraqi Shiite politics in the years to come. By and large, the relationship between the two clerics has been one of asymmetrical partnership, in which al-Sistani plays the superior partner, guiding the younger and less experienced al-Sadr in his quest for becoming a legitimate leader of the Iraqi Shiite community. In doing so, al-Sistani has tried to tame al-Sadr by bringing him into the mainstream Najaf establishment in order to form a united Shiite front against extremist Sunnis and the United States. In return, al-Sadr, who lacks religious credentials, has been using al-Sistani's support to legitimize his religious authority and expand his influence in southern Iraq. The relationship is mutually opportunistic, but also pragmatic, since the two clerics have not been able to ignore each other. In broad terms, such an alliance signals two significant changes: first, a dramatic shift in the balance of power in Shiite Iraq in terms of the revival of the Hawza, as a cluster of seminaries and religious scholarly institutions in Najaf, and, second, an increase of tension between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq. Moreover, the growing alliance between al-Sadr and al-Sistani also underlines another vital feature tied to the Shiite ascendancy in Iraq: the rise of Iran as a regional power. Iran has been playing a crucial role in the shaping of Sadr-Sistani relations, since any alliance between Shiite leaders is intertwined with the Qom-Tehran nexus and Iranian politics in the greater Middle East.

Importantly, Sadr's friendship also ensures Sistani's access to the sizable Mahdi Army militia. The ability to utilize such an armed component is imperative, even for religious leaders, when trying to assert prerogatives and maintain a voice in the new Iraq. Without an armed wing capable of deterring potential rivals, and outright adversaries, even the words of a highly respected cleric can fall on deaf ears.

The loss of direct influence was a trend that had been continuing for some time for the Grand Ayatollah - culminating in Sistani at one point proclaiming that he was withdrawing from politics altogether due to his increasing irrelevance.

Rahimi continues: saw the Mahdi Army as a major asset in dealing with anti-Shiite Sunni groups and U.S. forces in Iraq.

This is undoubtedly true. By incorporating Sadr's Mahdi Army into the mainstream Shiite movement (as well as the Iraqi government and official security apparatus), Sistani has helped to forge a formidable, unified military front. Relatedly, Sistani's influence over Sadr has helped to cool tensions, somewhat, between Sadr's Mahdi group and SCIRI's own Badr Corp. militia. The ongoing fighting between these two Shiite groups has represented a potential spark to the powder keg of widespread intra Shiite violence.

Sistani's maneuvering does represent, though, something of a shift - at least in appearances - from Sistani's formerly quietest persona. Rather than calling for restraint and forbearance, Sistani is engaging the chess board in order to guarantee that the Shiites maintain a robust and influential military capability. Those two actions aren't necessarily at odds (wanting protection from Sunni militants and US influence is not the same as pursuing an aggressive sectarian agenda), but I'm sure Sistani realizes that fostering an enhanced and unified military capacity through the incorporation and implicit blessing of death squads and militias will likely lead to an exacerbation of sectarian tensions.

Security might be the goal, but the means adopted will have their own inevitable consequences.

There were other obvious benefits as well, both from the larger Shiite context and the more narrow perspective of Sistani's personal needs. Sistani leaned on Sadr to end his party's boycott of the Iraqi parliament - thus ensuring unity in the Shiite political realm (which results in majoritarian power).

Further, while SCIRI has long been close to Sistani, it doesn't hurt to have a spare militia around just in case there is any point of conflict between Sistani and SCIRI. Because such points of tension exist.

Both al-Sadr and al-Sistani share the common interest of protecting the Shiite community against the ongoing sectarian war and, simultaneously, promote a unified Iraq governed by a centralized government in Baghdad. In this sense, the two are against a federalist system of government, particularly the sectarian-provincial model of federalism advocated by [SCIRI's leader] Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. This common objective has brought them closer together, while facing opposition from pro-federal factions, such as the Iranian-backed SCIRI, which continue to push a sectarian agenda in the revised version of the constitution expected to be proposed by the constitutional committee in mid-May 2007.

Interestingly, Rahimi casts the Sistani-Iranian relationship along similar lines as the Sistani-Sadr relationship: borne out of necessity, and in the pursuit of broader Shiite objectives vis-a-vis those held by Sunni powers and, sometimes in concert, the United States.

Here the role of Iran in the making of such an alliance should not be ignored. Although al-Sadr and al-Sistani do not want Iranian influence in Iraq, they also realize that Tehran cannot simply be ignored. Both clerics recognize that Shiite empowerment in Iraq can only be ensured by Iranian support, and challenging Tehran could only lead to the consolidation of Sunni power, with the backing of the United States, in Iraq and the region. [...]

Like al-Sadr, al-Sistani considers the backing of Iran as something necessary in a period of foreign aggression (i.e. Israel and the United
States) and increasing anti-Shiite currents in the Sunni world.

The problem with this, though, is the fact that Tehran can play the same game - and the cooperation and confluence of interests may not be in our long term interests.

Iran, too, recognizes the influence of the Najaf Hawza and the Sadrists in Iraq, and continues to ride the rising tide of the Shiite revival. Tehran knows that al-Sadr and al-Sistani can play a major role in advancing Iran's interest in Iraq and the region in case the United States decides to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.

Kind of casts Sadr's recent dalliance in Iran in a slightly different light, no? Not necessarily a weakening of Sadr's position, but rather part of an ongoing process to forge a unified Iraqi Shiite-Iranian front that - if it can maintain that unity - will steer Iraq's future for some time. Maintaining that unity, however, is certainly not a given. As Rahimi points out, Sistani is not young, and when he dies, the ensuing vacuum could give rise to infighting and aggressive jockeying for coveted positions.

Despite this though, it becomes hard to imagine a scenario whereby the Shiite factionsfail to recognize that their enduring political, economic and military power remains dependent on their ability to maintain some overarching common purpose.

The effectiveness of Sistani's recent efforts at strengthening this coalition could result in the Iraqi Shiite leaders becoming further secure in their political and military power, and thus less likely to compromise - or rather to view compromise as a means to dilute their recent gains. Along these lines, Sistani has begun to reassert himself by proclaiming that the recent legislation aimed at repealing parts of the current de-Baathification law is a dead letter. Leon Panetta runs down the rest of the "political solution" inaction on the part of the Shiite led Iraqi government (via Hilzoy).

The continued failure to make progress on the reconciliation front will mean that the Sunnis will remain alienated, disempowered, anxious and violent. Without a political and economic solution capable of broaching the chasm between Shiite, Sunni and Kurd, there will not be peace and stability in Iraq. But, ironically, the prospect for such a solution might be made less likely by Sadr's recent merger with Sistani. It truly is a testament to the depth of the fissures in Iraq that the re-emergence of Sistani - long viewed as a positive influence in terms of stabilizing the conflict, calling for reconciliation and pushing for calm - could actually portend worse things to come.

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