Tuesday, November 08, 2005


Sistani Politics

[Some background information on Sistani can be found in my blog “A Glimpse of Iraq”.]

Sistani’s Post-invasion Positions

Sistani’s positions on the most important issues facing this troubled country have been slightly more than ambiguous.

His first major political stand was a firm insistence on a democratic form of government. His resolute position and the impressive effect of those demonstrations that he incited, are now history.

His second major political stand was about Bremer’s Transitional Administrative Law (TAL). At the time the UN Security Council was drafting Resolution 1546 in June 2004 to lay the legal framework for the indigenous Iraq transition government, he wrote a firm letter to the UN Secretary General demanding TAL’s exclusion from that resolution. He was accommodated at the expense of infuriating the Kurds who were absolutely furious that the UN did not mention the TAL. It was hailed as a big victory for Sistani (by those always in a hurry to pass judgment).

But his greatest coup to my mind was his extremely successful mediation on the Sadr thing. Very quietly, he managed to quickly engineer what seemed to be a reasonable compromise. This was no small feat considering all the bad blood and the bombing of Najaf… everything was pointing to a bloody confrontation in which everybody stood to lose.

However, all these ‘strong’ points turned out later not to be so ‘puritan’ as they appeared to be at the time:

The Elections

Although TAL was not mentioned in that UN Resolution, in practice, Sistani was ignored. TAL remained effectively Iraq’s temporary constitution. The man not only did nothing, but actually endorsed the elections based entirely on TAL!

The Sectarian Slate

My personal disappointment with his Holiness was complete and when he endorsed the ‘Shiite’ slate during the elections of January 2005! That slate did not represent just the ‘Islamist’ religious parties and groups. It included a few ‘secular’ players, most notably the infamous Ahmed Chalabi, the neocon’s man in Iraq and a convicted felon.

There was no common program, no economic orientation, no clear vision of the country people were asked to vote for. There was even no common stance regarding the most volatile issues facing the country.

The slate was presented to the people as a ‘Shiite’ front, pure and simple! At a time when the country was facing so much sectarian stresses, that was wrong! It was part of the foul game of polarizing the elections, and therefore the country, along sectarian and ethnic lines. I believed then, and I still believe now, that that was a wicked scheme. Sistani endorsed it.

Not only that, but he allowed some of his senior associates to be included in that slate, contrary to his repeatedly declared position on this issue. Some of his ‘representatives’ became members of the National Assembly.

He has now changed his position again and decided not to allow them to take part in the coming elections, scheduled for the end of 2005. He has also declared, through a representative, not to give his blessing to any slate. However, this is too late. Those people have already entrenched and secured a powerful base.


For more than a year and a half after the invasion, Moqtada was more associated with the mostly ‘Sunni’ rejectionists of the invasion than with other religious Shiite groups. He made numerous contacts with ‘nationalist’ groups and forged alliances with some of them. He took a firm supportive stand with Fallujah during the April 2004 massacre.

His position culminated in his stand-off with the American army in Sadr City and Najaf. His newspaper was closed and a warrant for his arrest was issued. An armed conflict soon followed in the fall of 2004.

After Sistani’s intervention, the Najaf conflict was resolved. But what was surprising was that Moqtada literally turned ‘docile’ after that deal. He did not oppose the elections, as was expected of him. He grumbled about illegitimate elections being run under occupation… but he allowed his followers to participate in those elections. He was given a share of 21 seats (out of 275) in the National assembly.

Moqtada’s ambiguous stand regarding the referendum was also perplexing.

There was no more any mention of those criminal proceedings against him.

He has now formally joined the “religious Shiite” slate (now given the number 555). In effect, although undeclared yet, his new position is to be part of the political process.

What is more troubling for me is that, his Mehdi army has changed position on the ground regarding the sectarian issue. While in the early days, they were a force to combat sectarianism, they have become a ‘sectarian militia’.
This is an important development in the Sectarian Assault on Iraq. In several recent incidents in mixed areas east and south of Baghdad, the Mehdi Army has been a part in sectarian confrontations, on the side of the Badr Brigade. This is rather bewildering considering that only a few months ago there were bloody confrontations between the two.

To me all these changes indicate one thing: Sistani’s intervention in the Sadr affair was to forge a unity of the ‘Shiite’ front. Come to think of it, that shouldn’t be surprising. The man is the leader of the Shiite faith.

The Referendum on the Constitution

Friday, October 14, 2005, a day before the referendum: it was now official. During the Friday sermon, Sistani’s representative in Kerbala clearly and categorically stated the leading cleric’s position: he encourages all Iraqis to take part in the referendum. He advises them to say “yes” to the draft.

We had been hearing reports of his position for the past several days, but that somehow did not diminish my resentment: He knew that the country was deeply divided on that draft. He should not have taken that position. He could have encouraged people to vote, but should not have stated such a strong position in support of that draft, not if he wanted unity in the country.

I am afraid that, after this position, his break with large segments of the community… was final! That cannot be good for the country.

Sistani and the Political Arena

Most of Sistani’s power naturally comes from his seat, as I have outlined in other posts. Part of his ‘extra’ power stems from his declared position not to seek earthly power. He maintained categorically that the clergy should not have a say in how the government is run. He had also given his clergy followers strict orders not to meddle in government affairs. He completely rejects Khomeini's doctrine of “Wilayet al Faqeeh” – Rule of the Supreme Clergy.

This, to me at least, explains much! Many people (particularly local leaders in towns and in the countryside in the south and people who regard themselves as "secular Shiites") do not feel that their power (or prospect of power) is threatened by him. He has no militia to ‘help’ them run their lives, he does not infringe on their territory or power zone. Other religious Shiite movements such as SCIRI, Da’wa (who actually want a religious state) or Sadr's (who are seen to be simply after political and economic power) are regarded as a threat by many of these people.

I must say that those religious Shiite parties played that Sistani game rather well. They paid every possible respect to Sistani, they never crossed with him; they frequently consulted with him on some issues; and they got him to endorse every major political move they made. While safe from the American administration, having declared their total acceptance of the political process, they were able to keep their militias and they went on to control life on the ground. With money to spend, they could pay followers. In two years, those forces had almost total control of much of the south of Iraq. Seculars were left out dazed in the dust of their trail!

He remains a most important, even if slightly mysterious, player on the Iraqi political and religious arena. However, I can at the moment hear murmurs of discontent (and sometimes outright criticism) from ‘Shiite’ (including some religious) quarters; Moqtada’s people, the Mehdi army, being the most outspoken. His status in the eyes of many has been impaired. And this… is significant!

His latest positions may be seen as an effort to rectify that damage.

[An extended article about Sistani, which includes a translation of a critical poem by one of Moqtada’s followers, can be found at “Iraqi Articles”.]


With this post, I think I have fulfilled my promises to everybody, except myself!

In the early days of this blog, I promised myself to keep my posts short. By and large I think I managed to do that for more than a year. Now I find myself posting increasingly longer essays. I generally, like most people, find long articles boring. Much as I hate that, I don’t think I could have avoided it. Most of the issues I have been addressing lately are too complex for short posts.

The solution of dumping long articles in the new iraquna2 blog seems to be a good compromise.

Nobody seems to have anything to say on this one, Abu, so I suppose I better have a go before you start feeling all neglected and unloved.
I know we’re not allowed to subscribe to the simplified MSM formula on this Blog (wicked Sunni insurgents, formerly oppressed Shia good guys, etc) but I will anyway.
The received wisdom seems to be that the Shia-dominated Iraqi government welcomes the continued US military presence until such time as they can "stand up" and put down the Sunni insurrection. (Or maybe that should be "tolerates" rather than "welcomes?")
But isn’t it the case that a Shia sectarian regime is far less of a natural ally for any sort of permanent US footprint in Iraq than a secular government would be?
You don’t seem to have covered Sistani’s position on this: logically it seems to me that he might tolerate the infidel presence as a temporary convenience while the Sunni’s are put down, but he surely would be adamant about their eventual and total departure, wouldn’t he? What am I misunderstanding here?
Especially with the new evidence apparently now emerging, the reported Shia silence about what happened in Fallujah makes me feel slightly sick. If Sistani could fix the Najaf situation with just a wave of his wand, why couldn’t he do anything about Fallujah?

If the US bombs Iran today, tomorrow the resistance will get industrial anti-air weapons and anti-tank weapons and US casualties in Iraq will increase at least ten fold. There is nothing the US could do in response unless it invades and forces a regime change and occupation of Iran. Of course an invasion and occupation of Iran is just not possible, the US can just barely occupy Iraq. Iran today is in its dream situation there are 150,000 US hostages that make the US powerless with respect to Iran. Iran is in such a strong position today that Iran is suggesting that Israel resolve the Palestinian dispute by dissolving itself as a Zionist state before Iran even gets the bomb.

The US/Israel really should not want occupying troops there as long as the government is somehow managed to ensure that Iraq's military either never exists or will never be under anti-US/Israel control. But there is no way to ensure the control or absence of an Iraq military though without staying because any government that is satisfactory to them necessarily could not survive without their active protection.

The stalemate could end tomorrow if the US says that it lost and its project to permanently remove Iraq as a threat to Israel has failed. Once it says that, a normal Arab democracy (of course pro-Palestinian compared to the US/Israel and anti-Saudi, Kuwaiti and Jordanian compared to the US/Israel) can take the reins. For the US/Israel, that would be a disaster scenario. Iraq will be left pretty much as hostile to US/Israel as Hussein was, if not more, but under that disaster scenario at least the US hostages could leave and the US could threaten Iran again.

The Iraqi nationalist dream scenario would be a democratic version of Iraq under Hussein, with Sunnis having political power just in proportion to their numbers and individual Sunnis interacting and competing with individual Shiites and Christians, etc the same way they always have.

The Iraqi nationalist dream scenario sounds so reasonable but, alas, the Iraqi nationalists lost the war.

If Sistani was a nationalist, he'd end the stalemate by kicking the US out. But he's not so he's giving Iran its dream scenario and forcing the US/Israel to accept their fallback scenario but avoid their disaster scenario.

How long will this stalemate last? How will it end? Well, Iran cannot be kicked out. Iran being there is monetarily free, or better because oil gets more expensive when the situation flares up, which more than reimburses Iran for the costs of sustaining flare ups.

I can only guess that the US/Israel hope that the Iraqis will become so tired of war that they will accept pro-US/Israeli leadership as legitimate and worth fighting for. That's pretty crazy because Iran is in a perfect position to ensure that never happens.

If the US/Israel is smart they will be out before Iran is able to produce a bomb because at that point Iran does not need the hostages. Unfortunately, the US sees a window to give a try to installing pro-US/Israeli leadership with the option to abandon the project and remove the hostages if Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon becomes imminent. Inside of this window, a decision has been made that about 1,000 US soldiers per year and literally countless Iraq lives are a fair price to pay for what really is a hopeless gamble at creating the US/Israeli dream scenario.

Hello Abu Khaleel,
Being an atheist, I can't really put myself in the shoes of someone like Sistani. However, I imagine he has had enough 'politics' under Saddam and now the occupation to last him a dozen lifetimes.

His reserve really puts the embarrasing Iranian mullahs and their pupil(Ahmedinejad) to shame. Such fools put the entire notion that the 'rule of the jurisprudental' will lead to heaven on earth into disrepute.

Unfortunately, he is unable to give Iraq what it really needs-secular leadership.
The problem is who comes after he dies.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Listed on Blogwise