DAMASCUS - The saddest news coming from Iraq is the decision of the Grand
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to cease all political activity and restrict himself
to his religious duties in Shi'ite Islam. He said this weekend: "I will not be
a political leader anymore. I am only happy to receive questions about
If Sistani lives up to his word, this means silencing the loudest - and only -
remaining voice of reason and moderation in Iraqi politics. This is the same
man who used his paramount influence to silence the guns of two Shi'ite
insurgencies in 2004. He then
wisely ordered his supporters to vote in last years national elections,
claiming that it was a "religious duty" to join the political process and
jump-start democratic life in Iraq.
This same wise man, who is a democrat at heart, insisted that women, too, must
have their say in politics and that they should vote in elections. If their
husbands, brothers or fathers forbade them from voting, then it was their right
(as authorized by Sistani)
to say no and to head to the ballots without approval (something frowned on
among conservative Muslims).
Never supportive of the US occupation of Iraq, he nevertheless decided to
cooperate honorably with the Americans (in anticipation of their eventual
withdrawal), knowing that violence would not defeat them or make them go away.
Honorable cooperation, to a Gandhian leader like Sistani, was certainly more
rewarding - and less costly - than a military insurgency. His political
endorsement was all that was needed for any politician to win the parliamentary
elections of 2005 and 2006, and he is considered the guiding force behind the
broad coalition of religious Shi'ites known as the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA)
that has been in power for the past two years.
Recently, however, Sistani has been both angry and disappointed at the UIA for
failing to bring law, order and security to Iraq. He is appalled by the rising
power of Shi'ite militias in the streets of Baghdad.
In July alone, more than 3,000 Iraqis were killed by rival militias from the
Sunni and Shi'ite communities. A report released by the Pentagon on Friday
showed that the real problem in Iraq is no longer an armed al-Qaeda- and
Ba'athist-led insurgency fighting the Americans and the Iraqi government. It is
now Iraqi Sunnis fighting against Iraqi Shi'ites - meaning, Iraq is now in
The Pentagon report noted that the attacks had risen to 792 per week and
casualties were almost 150 Iraqis killed per day. Such startling facts are
troubling for someone like Sistani, who hates violence and has repeatedly
called for it to stop.
But his calls are falling on deaf ears. The biggest example was when fighting
broke out on August 28 between Iraqi soldiers and the supporters of Shi'ite
leader Muqtada al-Sadr in Diwaniyya, 160 kilometers south of Baghdad. Sistani
called for calm. Nobody listened to him, and as a result 73 people were killed.
The other reason Sistani has decided to retreat from political life is that he
is being greatly overshadowed by the younger, more populist Muqtada, who is 42
years his junior. Hailing from a strong dynastic family that once worked in
opposition to Saddam Hussein, Muqtada rose to fame after the US invasion of
2003 as a loud anti-American leader.
He created a militia of his own, the Mehdi Army, and waged war on the Americans
and the pro-US cabinet of prime minister Iyad Allawi in 2004. Under Sistani's
mediation, the conflict came to an end and Muqtada was allowed to live in
peace, while a warrant for his arrest was dropped.
Muqtada has since entered the political process with astounding success and
holds 30 seats in parliament, as well as four portfolios held by his supporters
in the cabinet of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Muqtada meets his supporters every day and distributes favors to all those
around him. He operates a strong charity network, cares for the families of
those who are wounded or killed in combat, and has build a name for himself as
an uncorrupted leader who lives a monastic life.
He uses - with great skill - the "patron-client" system of Arab politics,
offering the masses his protection in exchange for their allegiance. As a man
of religion who should appeal to all Shi'ites, and not only his supporters,
Sistani cannot do that.
When Iraqis come to Sistani telling them that a Sunni militant murdered one of
their family, the grand cleric tells them to go to the police. Muqtada,
however, promises revenge. He then sends out his own militiamen to avenge the
killing, further endearing him to the masses.
Sistani is well connected to the older generation of upper-middle-class Iraqis
in the Shi'ite community. He also has friends and followers among the rich
urban elite. He is well connected to Iran.
Muqtada, however, is popular in the slums of Baghdad and among the unemployed
youth who see salvation in Muqtada and the Mehdi Army. The reason is simple:
when lawlessness prevails, the masses search for people who can protect them.
In a country like Iraq, Sistani means guidance, while Muqtada means protection.
Life to the Iraqis is more important than wisdom.
The Independent quoted one of his aids when asked whether Sistani could prevent
civil war in Iraq: "Honestly, I think not. He is very angry, very
disappointed." He was further quoted saying: "He [Sistani] asked the
politicians to ask the Americans to make a timetable for leaving [Iraq] but
they disappointed him." He added: "After the war, the politicians were visiting
him every month. If they wanted to do something, they visited him. But no one
has visited him for two or three months. He is very angry that this is
happening now. He sees this as very bad."
Saddam dreaded Sistani because the cleric had backed a Shi'ite rebellion
against him in 1991. Inasmuch as he would have loved to assassinate Sistani,
Saddam could not do that because this would have created certain civil war in
Ba'athist Iraq. This was something Saddam could not afford, coming out of eight
years of the Iran-Iraq War and the fiasco of invading Kuwait and then being
defeated by the Americans in 1991.
Nor could Saddam make Sistani disappear in the way Libyan leader Muammar
al-Gaddafi did to Imam Musa al-Sadr, another Shi'ite cleric, in 1978. Instead,
Saddam put Sistani under house arrest, shut down his mosque and forbade him
The Shi'ite leader remained in seclusion until Saddam was toppled in March
2003. He has since reinforced his authority over Shi'ites throughout the
region, sending emissaries to Iran to meet with the clergy, and relying on
state-of-the-art technology to market his leadership through the Internet.
This is mainly done through a multi-language website called Sistani.org, which
attracts more than 3 million people from Iran alone every month. Sistani
receives hundreds of visitors at his home in Najaf every day, but does not go
out, rarely gives interviews and rarely poses for the cameras. His office is
Internet-wired and his aides are often on Google, surfing the 'Net to brief him
on the latest updates taking place around the world.
Still, however, the difference between Muqtada and Sistani is great. Although
Sistani's "honorable cooperation" is no longer popular among grassroot
Shi'ites, he is still looked up to as an ultimate authority on religious
affairs, even by Muqtada.
Muqtada does not match him in religious legitimacy, although some of his
supporters have recently started to call him "Sayyed Muqtada" to give him an
honorary religious title. He remains, however, a nobody in religious affairs,
while Sistani is the supreme master, not only in Iraq but throughout the Muslim
Sistani is one of the brains of Shi'ite Islam, matched only by the Iranian
Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, the other grand
ayatollah of Iranian politics who had been the chosen successor to the Islamic
Republic's founder Ruhollah Khomeini.
Sistani, who is an Iranian living in Iraq, was seen by Iraqis as a foreigner
because he speaks Arabic with a Persian accent, and does not even hold an Iraqi
passport. When people say, however, that Sistani is a follower of Iran, this is
not very correct. The truth is that Iran follows Sistani, because of his
paramount standing as a religious authority on Shi'ite Islam.
Sistani and Muqtada stand on different ground when it comes to Iran and the
status of the Shi'ite community in Iraq.
Muqtada is greatly opposed to creating an autonomous Shi'ite district in
southern Iraq, something that has been lobbied for by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim of
the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Hakim is a creation of Iran
and an ally of Sistani. His family is also the historical contender to Shi'ite
leadership in Iraq against the family of Muqtada.
The young Muqtada believes in a united and Arabist Iraq. He pays little more
than lip service to the mullahs of Tehran, arguing that they should not
interfere in domestic politics. Both men have an ultimate goal of creating an
Iran-style theocracy in Iraq. Sistani wants it influenced and controlled by
Iran, while Muqtada wants it to be independent from Tehran. This brings the two
men further apart when added to how they view the US occupation of Iraq. While
both may be equally opposed to it, each deals with this occupation in a very
Historically, one must remember that it was Sistani who saved Muqtada from the
hangman's noose in 2004. Muqtada went to war in April 2004 and Sistani ordered
a ceasefire that went into effect in May. That August, however, Sistani went to
London for surgery and before reaching Heathrow Airport, fighting had resumed
between the Americans and the Sadrists.
Some speculated that Sistani's journey to London at such a time was deliberate:
a green light to the Americans to launch a full assault on Muqtada. If the
Americans won, then Sistani would have rid himself of a noisy challenger in
Shi'ite politics. If they lost (which was impossible) then he would get rid of
What happened was a different story. During Sistani's absence, more fighting
broke out. On his return, when Muqtada and his men were stranded in combat,
Sistani stepped in at the last moment to end the crisis. He secured another
ceasefire, a pardon for Muqtada, and his continuation in the political life of
Sistani was sending Muqtada a message: "I saved you in a minute, and if I wish,
I can also destroy you in a minute. Do not get too strong or overambitious. I
am No 1 in the Shi'ite community of Iraq."
This message reached Muqtada loud and clear in 2004. Fate - and US mishandling
of Iraq - which leaves no room for "honorable cooperation" anymore, played
directly into the hands of Muqtada, making him "No 1" in the Shi'ite community
Postscript: This author submitted a question by e-mail to Sistani.org,
asking the ayatollah whether, if history repeats itself, he would step in to
save Muqtada again, the way he did in 2004. In other words, did he regret his
"wisdom" in 2004? To date, there has been no answer.