Thursday, July 26, 2007

Runnin' Things...It Ain't All Gravy

You might think working for Iraq's senior Shiite religious authority - and understated powerbroker extraordinaire - would be a plum assignment. You would, however, be wrong:

A former aide to [Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani] was killed Thursday in a drive-by shooting in the holy city of Najaf south of Baghdad, security officials said.

Kazim Jabir al-Bidairi was shot dead by two gunmen in a car as he drove in the Wafa area of northern Najaf at 11:30 a.m., according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.[...]

The officials had no immediate word on the possible motive of the assailants, but al-Bidairi was the third person linked to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to be killed in two months.

Swopa, and his lidless eye, caught the two prior assassinations of Sistani-linked individuals. As with those two episodes, this incident seems like the handiwork of Sadr's forces (though that is by no means certain). So what to make of this emerging pattern, assuming it is in fact a result of Sadr-Sistani tensions?

On the one hand, it could signify a deepening schism between Sadr and Sistani - a possible preview to a putsch by Sadr in an effort to dominate the Shiite political/religious scene. This may or may not involve the eventual assassination of Sistani himself. All indications are that Sadr - the consummate Mr. Inside Out-ski - has been consolidating power and deftly positioning himself as the preeminent political force to be reckoned with.

Attempting to usurp Sistani, however, would be a maneuver fraught with danger and would undoubtedly result in massive intra-Shiite bloodletting. Because the costs are so high, and Sadr's position still so precarious (Sunni and US forces nearby), I tend to doubt such a play is in the works. But then, history is riddled with examples of costly overreaching by those lusting for power and suffering from hubris (see, ie, invading Russia). The familiar delusions of invulnerability and preordainment could be casting their spell as well.

There are, as usual, alternative explanations to consider. First, it should be noted that Sadr's forces had specific beef with al-Bidairi. From the article:

Al-Bidairi worked as a senior administrator at al-Sistani's office before August 2004, when he was given charge of a security force assigned to protect Najaf's Imam Ali shrine after months of fighting between U.S. troops and a Shiite militia loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Mahdi Army militiamen took refuge in the shrine during the final stages of the fighting.

A fire that destroyed al-Sadr's office near the Imam Ali shrine in August 2005 was blamed on that force and al-Bidairi was arrested by police for his alleged role. He was released several months ago as part of a deal with families of the fire's victims and has since started a business organizing visits by Iranian pilgrims to Najaf.

So this particular incident could have been simple payback. Along these lines, it's worth pointing out that al-Bidairi was no longer in the employ of Sistani when he was gunned down - so it might not have been such a direct swipe against Sistani.

Further, these skirmishes could be little more than politics by other means, so to speak. It would not be the first, and certainly not the last, time that "misunderstandings" between rival Shiite sects were cleared up violently. Keep in mind, two of the largest factions that actually share power in the Shiite coalition government (the Sadrists and SIIC) are periodically fighting throughout much of the Shiite south. That is an odd dynamic to say the least (must make for some awkward moments in parliament). As Sadr once said of these ongoing battles:

"What happened with the Badr organization [SIIC's militia] and the Mahdi Army in many parts of Iraq is the result of a sad misunderstanding," he said. " We have held discussions to stop this being repeated."

Thus, these particular assassinations could simply be the byproduct of the rotating mobile of Shiite political intrigue - discussions if you will. When you're jockeying for power, some riders inevitably get thrown from their horses. While this is the most likely explanation, the stakes involved makes this friction something worth keeping an eye on.

(hat tip to the friendly neighborhood hogger)

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