In the post-Saddam power vacuum, Iraq’s Shiite clerics are throwing elbows for influence and political power. Who are the most important clerics, and what does each want from a new Iraqi government?
Muqtada al-Sadr is the 30-year-old son of Mohammed al-Sadr, a prominent Shiite cleric and opposition leader who was assassinated in 1999. Not yet an official religious scholar, al-Sadr Jr. is still a student at Najaf’s influential Kawza Seminary, but the young leader has already parlayed his political skills and family name into a position of power there. Al-Sadr controls one of Kawza’s most powerful factions; his followers are numerous in Najaf, Nasiriya, Karbala, and “Sadr City”—the massive Shiite slum in Eastern Baghdad that’s named after his dad. Muqtada also runs the Sadr Foundation, which provides social services to Najaf residents.
Al-Sadr opposes the U.S. presence in Iraq and wants the country to be an “Islamic nation.” However, instead of fighting the American presence head-on, al-Sadr and his followers have been quietly and quickly aggregating power throughout Iraq, hoping to gain so much control that they cannot be ignored. Although he has urged his followers not to “shed blood” while protesting the U.S. presence, his tone is anything but conciliatory; in a speech witnessed by a New York Times reporter, al-Sadr said, “Anyone supported by the United States is cursed by us.”
Mohammad Bakr al-Hakim is the 63-year-old religious leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an opposition group that was based in Iran during Hussein’s rule. Al-Hakim has less popular support than al-Sadr but more political capital. He commands a well-armed militia, the Badr Brigades, that is subsidized by Iran. And his party, SCIRI, has a seat in the Iraqi National Congress, which works closely with the American government. Mohammad’s brother, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, is SCIRI’s chief political operative and hopes to parlay SCIRI’s INC seat into a prominent position in the next Iraqi government. But until his May 10 return to Basra, Mohammad Bakr al-Hakim had not been in Iraq since 1980, and rivals in Najaf and other Iraqi cities have expressed doubts about his independence from Iran and his ability to connect with Iraqis.
Al-Hakim has publicly said he wants a unified Iraq under a “banner of Islam” but told The New Yorker in February that he does not want to “copy Iran’s revolution.” Although he was tentatively courted by Americans because he opposed Saddam, al-Hakim now wants the Americans out of Iraq as soon as possible and says he will not accept a “forced government.”
Ali al-Sistani, 72, is the official religious leader of Iraqi Shiites and the most respected scholar in the holy city of Najaf. Like al-Sadr, al-Sistani controls a powerful faction at the Kawza Seminary, but because he believes that religion and politics shouldn’t mix, he does not manage a political power base like al-Sadr’s or al-Hakim’s. Nevertheless, many imams throughout Iraq, especially the more moderate ones, are considered loyal to al-Sistani. (And despite his apolitical bent, al-Sistani does permit these local religious leaders to help organize social services.)
Al-Sistani and al-Sadr are no longer on speaking terms. The split began when a group of men claiming to be al-Sadr’s followers surrounded al-Sistani’s house after the April 10 murder of moderate cleric Abdel Majid al-Khoei (see below). The current al-Sadr’s father, who urged religious intervention and rebellion in Baathist Iraq, was consistently at odds with al-Sistani, who preferred a passive approach.
Al-Sistani has been loath to appear in public since the end of the war. Because he prefers to stay out of the political sphere, al-Sistani isn’t looking to help America build a new Iraq with a strict divide between mosque and state. In fact, he’d rather not be involved with the United States at all. But local clerics and international commentators alike have taken his silence as an implicit rejection of an Islamic theocracy.
Kadhem al-Husseini al-Haeri is an elder Iraqi-born mullah who has resided in the holy Iranian city of Qum since 1973. He is a respected cleric and a challenger for al-Sistani’s role as the scholarly heavy-hitter of the Shiite leadership, although his departure from Iraq leads some to doubt his loyalties. Nevertheless, al-Sadr claims he looks to al-Haeri for guidance, and the older man’s religious authority lends credence to the young al-Sadr’s efforts to rally Shiites behind him. Al-Sadr has also said that he will only cooperate with al-Hakim if al-Hakim accepts al-Haeri’s religious authority.
Al-Haeri advocates a restrictive, Iranian-style religious government in Iraq. He issued a widely read fatwa last month instructing Iraqi clerics to “raise people’s awareness of Great Satan’s plans and of the means to abort them.”
Abdel Majid al-Khoei was an influential cleric who lived in exile in London until the start of the war. With funds from the U.S. government, which saw him as the great moderate hope among Shiite clerics, al-Khoei returned to Najaf on April 3, ready to re-assert his power. Shortly thereafter, al-Khoei began squabbling with al-Sadr. When al-Khoei visited the holy Imam Ali shrine in Najaf on April 10, he was accompanied by the Baathist cleric who was the caretaker of the shrine. This act of reconciliation backfired, as al-Khoei’s entourage was attacked by a mob claiming to support al-Sadr. Al-Khoei was killed, and his murder set off a chain reaction that led to the current icy stand-off between al-Sadr and al-Sistani. Al-Sadr claims the killers were not his supporters, but Newsweek reported that he was untroubled by al-Khoei’s demise.
Mohammed al-Fartusi is a key al-Sadr loyalist now asserting power in Eastern Baghdad. The Hikmat Mosque imam was briefly detained by U.S. forces soon after they captured the capital for reasons that were not disclosed. Fartusi claims to control various al-Sadr sympathizers who run hospitals, neighborhoods, and important mosques throughout Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. The Los Angeles Times reported that while addressing a large, cheering crowd a few weeks ago, he said, “We prefer the law of heaven, the law of God, rather than the law of man.”