rocked by intra-Shi'ite
violence By Khalid Waleed
Clashes between supporters of two
prominent Shi'ite clerics in Iraq have spread from
Nasiriya in the southern province of Dhi Kar to
other parts of the country, as Baghdad struggles
to calm tensions between them.
began on February 17, when a recently-opened
office of Shi'ite cleric Mahmoud al-Hasani
al-Sarkhi was set on fire. The office was located
in a part of Dhi Kar dominated by followers of the
country's most revered Shi'ite scholar, Grand
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
The violence has
escalated since them, with attacks on individuals
as well as buildings.
In the most recent
incident, a car belonging to Sheikh Ahmed
al-Ansari, Sistani's envoy in the southern Maysan
targeted by a bomb last
week. On April 3, an explosive device was planted
outside the house of Sistani representative Sheikh
Hasan al-Khamasi in Hilla, 100 kilometers south of
Other figures close to Sistani
have been attacked in Baghdad, Karbala, Muthanna,
Babil, Qadisiyya, Najaf, Dhi Qar and Basra.
Meanwhile, Sarkhi's offices in Karbala,
Najaf, Qadisiyya, and Basra have been bombed, and
other centers in Maysan, Dhi Qar, Babil and
Muthanna set on fire.
a spokesman for Sarkhi, claimed that Sistani's
followers had been rabble-rousing against the
"The first fire in our Nasiriya
office was started by Sistani's followers, who
were incited by their clerics in the [Dhi Qar]
province," he said.
Yaseri said Sistani
supporters were trying to push Sarkhi allies out
in the province. "They don't want us there,
because the number of our followers is increasing
rapidly, and they are afraid of losing supporters
to our cause."
Sources close to Sistani
denied the accusations, noting that he was highly
respected by the country's religious figures.
"Each cleric has his own followers - that
is not in dispute," Habib al-Khatib, a Sistani
representatives, told the Institute for War and
Peace Reporting (IWPR), adding that the ayatollah
had ordered his followers to pursue
"reconciliation with others" and to refrain from
violence against fellow Iraqis.
Sistani have in the past disagreed on ideological
matters, with the former supporting armed struggle
against American troops when they were still
present in Iraq, and opposing both past
governments and elections. Sistani has taken a
more moderate position, encouraging his followers
to work towards full sovereignty by peaceful
The core of the dispute, however,
comes down to which of them is the more eminent
position, and undoubted influence, as the senior
Shi'ite figure in Iraq, Sarkhi has claimed he is
the higher authority.
Sarkhi has spoken
out against Iranian influence in Iraq, and played
up his own Iraqi origins in contrast to Sistani's
roots in Iran.
For his part, Sistani is
thought to be concerned about Sarkhi's apparent
attempt to portray himself as something akin to a
Sarkhi has never given an
interview and remains distant even from his
followers. This echoes a Shi'ite prophecy that
their redeemer is in hiding and will emerge from
seclusion one day to dominate the entire world.
"We have tried to reach out to him, speak
to him, and find out what his views are in the
hope of solving this dispute," Ghaith al-Tememi,
head of the Religious Rapprochement Center, which
attempts to bring diverse religious groups
together, said. "But his representatives have told
me it is not possible [to meet him], even for
Sarkhi's representatives denied
that he saw himself as a Shi'ite saviour,
explaining that his apparent aloofness was due to
his busy schedule.
The clashes between the
two groupings have alarmed the Iraqi government -
itself dominated by Shi'ite politicians - and it
has ordered efforts to work towards resolving the
conflict and preventing it from spreading further.
Baghdad is keenly aware of the difficulty
of trying to contain sectarian violence, and will
remember the trouble caused by armed followers of
another Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who fought
both American and Iraqi troops in the years
following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Amer al-Khozaei, head of the National
Reconciliation Committee, one of the institutions
called upon to ease tensions, said his
organisation was talking to both sides and trying
to find a solution.
acknowledged that it was proving difficult to make
"Although we've taken early
action to contain this crisis, it is no easy
mission," he said. "The two sides share the same
residential areas, and there are large numbers of
Osama Murtadha, an expert on Iraqi
communities and politics, said that disagreement
was a normal part of any healthy society, but that
many Iraqis - particularly the less educated among
them - did not understand this.
hear their leaders disagreeing, they think they
should do the same as a way of expressing loyalty
to those leaders," he said. "It is the duty of
those leaders not to highlight their differences,
in order to prevent people losing their lives."
Khalid Waleed is an IWPR-trained
journalist. Ali al-Allaq, a freelance
reporter in southern Iraq, and Emad
al-Shara, a local editor in Baghdad,