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The importance of the Iraqi Shi'a to US plans to form an Iraqi government

By Rodger Shanahan - posted Monday, 14 July 2003

The political campaign for the democratisation of Iraq has now commenced. Unlike the military operation, the political one will be a drawn-out affair, with opposition to United States political plans for the country coming from the very people they sought to liberate. A key element in the success or otherwise of the United States political plan for Iraq will be the attitude of the majority Shi'a population.

While it is early days, the initial indications are that, rather than accepting the coalition forces as liberators, many of the Shi'a wish the United States to depart quickly and leave the question of governance to the Iraqis to decide. This of course, may mean an Islamic form of government emerges that would be at odds with the United States' desires for a secular state. What is certain however, is that the Shi'a religious scholars ('ulama) have been vocal in their condemnation of American political designs for the country. This group presents a sectarian form of political leadership whose ideological motivation the United States has trouble in understanding, let alone effectively opposing.

The 'ulama are not clerics in the narrow Christian sense of the word. They are juristic scholars who, in the Shi'a tradition in particular, have the capacity to perform the role of community leaders as well as religious jurists, although for much of their history they have been ideologically disposed towards a quietist approach to the issue of political leadership. The contemporary activist stance of the Shi'a 'ulama exemplified in their role within both the Iranian government and in the Lebanese Hizbullah, has its intellectual origins in the Najafi centres of learning (hawzat 'ilmiyyah) in the 1950s and 1960s. In particular, Ayatollah Khumayni's book 'Khumayni and the Islamic State' (Al-Khumayni wa ad-Dawla al-Islamiyya) introduced the concept of governance of the religious jurist (wilayat al-faqih), which became the ideological foundation for the establishment of the theocracy in Iran following the 1979 revolution.


Although some Western observers fear an emergence of an Islamic state based on the concept of wilayat al-faqih within Iraq, this is hardly likely given that the conditions that existed in Iran were unique and unlikely to be repeated. As Hizbullah has found in Lebanon, wilayat al-faqih is not a concept that can be practically imposed on a multi-confessional state. That is not to say that the only Islamic alternative to a theocracy is a secular democracy. There are also 'ulama in Iraq who advocate the establishment of an Islamic political system with clerics in an advisory, rather than executive, role. The Christian tradition of the separation of church and state is not a feature of Islam, although there remains no set methodology by which the two are reconciled.

Whilst the attitude of the 'ulama to the future political structure of the country is vitally important, of more immediate concern to the United States is the attitude of the 'ulama to their presence as an occupying force. There are a number of senior 'ulama whose views will be critical in this regard. Within the hierarchy of Shi'a Islam jurisprudence, the most highly qualified jurists are referred to as 'sources of emulation' (maraji' al-taqlid), and have great influence over their followers in temporal matters. As a result, communal attitudes to coalition forces post-conflict will be heavily influenced by the most respected of the maraji'. There are generally considered to be three Shi'a scholars whose views are the most influential within the broader Shi'a community: Grand Ayatollahs Khamenei, Fadlallah and Sistani.

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah 'Ali Khamenei was the designated successor to Ayatollah Khumayni. Whilst Khamenei's scholarly credentials are not that of either Fadlallah or Sistani, his official position, control of the Iranian security forces and the allegiance shown to him by Lebanon's Hizbullah mark him as a figure of enormous importance to the future of Iraq. Given the history of Iraqi-Iranian relations, Khamenei was obviously opposed to the regime of Saddam Hussein, but has been equally opposed to American intervention to overthrow him, fearing the long-term consequences of a pro-US government as his neighbour. Many of his public sermons, as well as those of other influential ayatollahs within the Iranian government, have sought to portray United States actions with respect to Iraq as part of a wider US-Israeli conspiracy.

Another cleric who may influence communal attitudes to any occupying forces is Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah. He is an extremely influential scholar within Lebanon, and has a wide following amongst Shi'a outside the country. Some claim that he is particularly influential amongst Iraqi members of the Islamic Call Party (Hizb al-Da'wa al-Islamiyyah), a product of late 1950s Najafi activism and which advocates Islamic, as distinct from clerical, rule. Although based in Lebanon for nearly 40 years, Fadlallah's links with Iraq are significant. He was born in Najaf to Lebanese parents, and lived there until he was 31 years of age before moving to Lebanon. His attitude to both the Ba'thist regime and the coalition forces was declared publicly during Friday prayers on March 28 this year in Beirut. During his sermon, he denounced the coalition attack, saying that "…Shi'ites have always been against the oppression of internal dictators and the slavery of external occupiers..(the Iraqi Shi'a) should all take the same stand and be unified against occupation, for this..determines our destiny."

The last of the influential clerics, and the only one living within Iraq, is the highly regarded Grand Ayatollah 'Ali Sistani, who possesses impeccable scholarly credentials. He is not an advocate of clerical activism, preferring the traditional quietist approach to politics.

During the invasion, he issued a direction to his followers directing them not to interfere with the US-led invasion troops. This followed an earlier claim that Ayatollah Sistani had directed his supporters to stand together against any invasion. Whilst hailed as a significant victory for the United States in the hearts and minds campaign, the words used by Ayatollah Sistani should be carefully examined. If true, his call indicates that Sistani has chosen a form of neutrality for the Shi'a in the best interests for the survival of his community. Sistani did not provide any endorsement for the invasion despite the treatment accorded him by Saddam Hussein's regime during the past two decades. Ayatollah Sistani has so far refused to meet the American administration, and his subsequent pronouncements will be crucial in determining the attitude of a large part of the Shi'a community towards the occupying power.


Whilst the Grand Ayatollahs' pronouncements vis a vis the occupation forces will be crucial in the coming weeks and months, it appears that a younger generation of less-credentialled 'ulama are already actively seeking to shape the Shi'a community. Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khu'i, son of a noted scholar and advocate of a non-political role for the 'ulama, returned to Iraq from exile in England and was stabbed to death in the Imam 'Ali mosque in Najaf on 10 April. A more activist group, the Sadr Movement, led by the young scholar ('alim) Muqtada al-Sadr (son of the noted 'alim Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr) has come under suspicion for al-Khui's death, and is currently gaining widespread acceptance amongst the urban poor in particular. Whilst Muqtada is personally charismatic and has a loyal following, his relative youth (he is about 30) limits his scholarly reputation, and so the group has recognised Ayatollah Kazim al-Ha'iri (an Iraqi resident in the Iranian city of Qum) as their marji' in preference to the more widely accepted Grand Ayatollah 'Ali Sistani. Ayatollah al-Ha'iri's attitude to the United States can be gauged from his entreaty on April 8 that allegedly urged his followers in Iraq to "…raise people's awareness of the Great Satan's plans and of the means to abort them."

Iran has also sought to ensure that it is in a position to influence the attitude of any future Iraqi government towards the Shi'a community. Since 1980 Tehran has played host to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). The Chairman of SCIRI, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim has been an advocate of Ayatollah Khumayni's concept of wilayat al-faqih. Whilst al-Hakim welcomed US support for the toppling of the Iraqi regime, he has publicly opposed the formation of any US-led interim government, and he has sent only minor delegates to the second of the US-sponsored meetings to develop a way ahead for the governance of Iraq. SCIRI's position is that it is willing to work with the United States for the economic reconstruction of Iraq, but not on a political basis. SCIRI also has several thousand expatriate Iraqi soldiers organised as the Badr Corps under its command.

With President Bush having declared the end to major combat operations in Iraq, the attitude of the majority Shi'a to any extended period of military governance by the United States will determine to a large degree the success of the post-conflict operation. The Shi'a 'ulama are split between three methods of governance for the Shi'a: clerical rule in accordance with Khumayni's concept of wilayat al-faqih, a less public but more advisory role as advocated by the Islamic Da'wa Party, or a politically quiescent approach as advocated by Grand Ayatollah Sistani. One thing they are largely united on, however, is a rejection of the United States as a long-term occupation force. Although happy at the demise of Saddam Hussein's regime, leading Shi'a clerics both inside and outside Iraq are less well disposed to a post-conflict political role for the United States or its Iraqi exile allies. The United States should be prepared for resistance to their presence from many of the Iraqi Shi'a clerics, particularly the longer their forces remain in the country.

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This article was first published in The Diplomat, June-July 2003.

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About the Author

Lt Col Rodger Shanahan is a visiting fellow at the Research Institute of Asia and the Pacific, University of Sydney.

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