Iran is the main motivational force behind the political ambitions of fiery Shi’ite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, whose militants recently engaged U.S. and interim government forces in bloody battles in Najaf. Al Sadr, who lacks political stature, rebelled to ensure a place for himself in the new Iraq before the January elections. Indeed, through the fighting he escalated, his prestige rose, and the interim Iraqi government had to negotiate with him to end the fighting. Not bad for Iran’s main ally in Iraq.
Unlike the first Iraqi Shiite uprising last April, sparked when the Americans tried to arrest Al Sadr, this time Al Sadr himself started the rebellion in Najaf. He cleverly led the Americans into armed face-offs by threatening to attack oil installations and declaring sovereignty in three major southern districts: Al Basrah, Al Amarah, and Al Naseriyah.
In the first uprising the Americans underestimated the extent of Al Sadr’s support base. This time around the U.S. misread his inelegance. The Americans thought Al Sadr’s provocation was a good opportunity to get rid of him. They were wrong. Ayatollah Al Sistani, Iraq’s most respected religious leader, who sees Iran (via Al Sadr) as a threat to his religious authority, even willingly went on a three-week medical trip to London on the same day the Americans attacked Al Sadr’s Mahdi army. Analysts saw this trip as an implicit blessing on the U.S. move.
Al Sadr, however, turned the attack to his advantage. At the peak of the fighting, he gave a speech in the Holy Shrine in Najaf, wearing the white clothes of martyrdom, his hand wrapped in white bandage for injuries he sustained the during American attacks. He vowed to fight “until the last drop of his blood.” Thus, Al Sadr gained tremendous support—he was widely seen as a freedom fighter willing to die with his men to free the country and the holy sites from foreign occupation.
This explains why Al Sistani was extremely angry at the destruction in Najaf and intervened. He called on Iraqis to go to the holy city en mass to show that he was the one that still mattered most.
Nonetheless, Al Sadr’s political stature was bolstered while the interim government’s was weakened. Al Sadr established himself as a leader who can’t be marginalized in a new Iraq, even by Al Sistani.
This was a major objective of Iran, which is trying to make Al Sistani change his religious school of thought. Al Sistani, who had to coexist with Saddam Hussein, evolved the “Welih Al Jozeah” school of religious thought, wherein the ayatollah is only in charge of religious affairs. By contrast, in Iran the ayatollah is the supreme leader in both religious and state affairs—“Weliat Al Faqeh.”
Iran’s aim to create another Hezbolah movement in Iraq depends on its ability to make Al Sistani accept Al Sadr as his military arm, thus re-creating the unique relationship that exists between the Grand Ayatollah of Lebanon and his charismatic young leader Nasrallh, who functions as his military leader.
This end game is viewed as a threat by the U.S., which could face the same fate that Israel eventually faced in southern Lebanon. It is also seen as a threat by Arab regimes that have a long history of oppressing their Shiite populations. American success in preventing Iran from extending its influence in Iraq depends on the U.S.’ ability to muster the Arab regimes’ support for Iyad Allawi’s interim government.
Al Sadr’s threat to declare sovereignty in Iraq’s Shiite region compelled some Arab media to warn against increased civil unrest not only in Iraq, but also in Arab countries with Shiite populations like Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon as well as other Muslim countries like Pakistan. The London-based newspaper Al Sharq Al Awsat called this the threat of the “Shiite Crescent.”
The U.S. occupation of Iraq has already created increased tension between the Shiites and Sunnis, which in some cases has exploded into violence. In Yemen, where the Shiites are 30 percent of the population, an uprising led by the Shiite leader Hussein Al-Houthy, who has been fighting government forces since June, has claimed 900 lives and injured thousands of people.
Saudi Arabia’s Shiites (15 percent of the population) have a history of fighting with the government. The most violent clash was in Nov. 1979, when the government killed dozens of Shiite civilians while crushing an uprising inspired by Ayatollah Seyed Al-Khamenei’s Islamic revolution in Iran. In the wake of Shiite empowerment in Iraq, the Saudi Shiites have submitted a statement called “Partners in Our Homeland” to Crown Prince Abdullah, with clear demands for their “legitimate rights.”
The conservative Iran of today, which emerged after the elections last February, is different from the Iran of moderate President Mohammed Khatami, who called for Shiite empowerment through stronger bonds with the Sunni majorities in Islamic and Arab countries. But conservatives encouraging Shiites to rebel for their rights have weakened Khatami.
This explains why Arab countries in general support Allawi, a secular Shiite. Arab regimes despise Tehran for encouraging Shiites to give up their national allegiances for a transnational Shiite loyalty to the Holy city of Kum—in Iran.
Jalal Ghazi monitors and translates Arab media for New California Media (a project of Pacific News Service) and LinkTV.