Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Guest Post - Who's Killing The Clerics Of Najaf?

Eric Martin is one of the smartest Foreign Policy writers in blogtopia, so when a report on a string of murders in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf came up on our radar, we asked him to analyze the implications. Below is his answer.

The situation in Najaf for Iraq's premier Grand Ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani,
has been growing rather precarious as of late:

Four aides to Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have been killed in Al-Najaf over the past two months, raising many questions as to the safety of Iraq's supreme Shi'ite leader and the motives of the perpetrators of the attacks.

According to media reports, aides to Iraq's three other grand ayatollahs have also been threatened. "The assassination operations are organized and big resources are allocated [to carry them out], which makes it difficult to accuse any local side of being behind" the attacks, the assistant director of the office of Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum, Muwaffaq Ali, told the London-based "Al-Hayat" this week.
This is a story that I have been attempting to track over at my other blogospheric venues, but it is an opaque tale of shifting political intrigue that defies easy analysis. For example, it is still unclear which party (or parties) has been behind this series of assassinations, and to what purpose (or purposes). The first two or three killings were thought to be the work of Moqtada al-Sadr's forces - which is completely plausible in at least one of those cases (especially given the history between Sadr's forces and the target in the third killing). But this is speculation, and by no means a given. Such uncertainty is quite remarkable given the stakes involved (and the fact
that, generally speaking, parties seeking to send a message in such a manner want the targeted group to know who the sender was).

Responsibility has yet to be determined in connection with the most recent attack as well - and we should not discount the strong possibility that there were different forces behind the multiple killings (with more than one faction attempting to intimidate Sistani at different times). There are many parties that have an incentive to try to squeeze the Grand Ayatollah, and the article linked to above runs through the usual suspects:
The fact that Iraq's most senior Shi'ite religious leaders have been critical of the government and its failures is reason enough for certain parties to target them.

Al-Sistani has gone to great lengths to distance himself from Iraqi politics in the post-Hussein era, and is rarely seen in public. However, Iraq's Shi'ite leaders visit him regularly to inform him of changing political events and to seek his blessing for their programs and positions. For one to be able to say that al-Sistani "blesses" a political plan or program brings immense credibility to the project at hand.

...In recent months, however, the representatives of senior ayatollahs who often convey the positions of the ayatollahs through their Friday Prayer sermons have criticized Iraq's Shi'ite leaders, questioning their commitment to the Iraqi people. [...]

Other possible perpetrators are Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, or loyalists/breakaway supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr. The Shi'ite cleric has riled Al-Najaf's clergy over the past 4 1/2 years because of his behavior and threats -- both direct and indirect -- against the Al-Najaf hierarchy.

Iran is another likely suspect in the targeting of Al-Najaf's senior religious leaders for a number of reasons, such as al-Sistani's unwillingness to assert himself into the political process, following the Vilayat-i faqih model of Iran's clerical government, or the cleric's criticism of foreign interference in Iraq.

There is also the age-old rivalry between Qom and Al-Najaf as the center of Shi'ite Islam. Should Al-Najaf return to its standing as the center of Shi'ism, Iran's influence, both political and religious, will be tremendously reduced. Already, Qom has arguably lost millions of dollars due to the reopening and expansion of Shi'ite seminaries in Iraq since the fall of the Hussein regime, not to mention tourist dollars.

Moreover, the criticism of senior ayatollahs of Iraqi political developments and the direction in which the country is heading is troublesome for Iran, which continues to work to spread its influence across southern Iraq.
While Cernig and I have gone back and forth on the expected longevity of the united Shiite alliance (Cernig predicting fracture, and myself putting faith in Sistani's ability to hold the UIA together in furtherance of his goal for Shiite political dominance in Iraq), I have willingly conceded that it is only a matter of time before Cernig's prediction of schism comes to fruition. It has always been a question of "when" not "if."

By all appearances, Cernig's moment of vindication is nearing. Fighting between the rival Shiite sects (particularly the Sadrist Current and ISCI (formerly SCIRI also called SIIC)) is heating up in major ways. In recent days, two ISCI governors were killed (likely by Sadr's Mahdi Army). In oil-rich Basra, ISCI and Sadr have been stepping up the fighting in anticipation of the British withdrawal (with Fadhila providing a third party to the fight) .

Actually, the announced British withdrawal might have provided the spark, and a sense of urgency, to the heightened competition between Sadr and ISCI - a conflict that will eventually usher in the demise of the UIA. Adding to the incentive for clashes between Sadr and ISCI created by the desire to fill the power vacuum to be left behind by the departing British forces, the recent political maneuvers undertaken by ISCI's Shiite ally, the Dawa Party of Prime Minister Maliki, have spurred on tensions. ISCI and Dawa recently announced that they would be forming a new coalition with the two main Kurdish parties. Actually, this is the same coalition that was previously in existence, only now the Sunnis have dropped out and the Sadrist Current has been excluded.

While Maliki has previously resisted US pressure to isolate Sadr (with Sistani pushing strongly against such a move), it appears that Maliki and Dawa might have finally made their decision (not a certainty though). ISCI, for its part, has long been pushing in this direction. Sadr can read the handwriting on the wall.

Which brings us back, full circle, to the most recent killing of one of Sistani's aides. At the time of the announcement of the new Sadr-less coalition, I wondered:
Speaking of which, whither that certain Grand Ayatollah Sistani and his famous reluctance to abide by any political proposals that would result in dividing the UIA coalition? In the past, he has emerged from his secluded redoubt in Najaf to scuttle similar attempts to parse the UIA and exclude certain irritants.
A recent article indicates that Sistani isn't biting his tongue any longer:
In tandem with Sadr’s statements, al-Quds al-'Arabi reported that Ayatollah Sistani, the highest Shi'a cleric in Iraq, has similarly expressed his disapproval of the demarche of the government and its Shi'a parties. According to the paper, the Shi'a cleric said “they have filled my heart with puss,” in reference to ruling establishment in Iraq. Sistani’s words, however, were not made in a public statement, therefore, their veracity cannot be ascertained. The Pan-Arab Paper (which usually toes an Arab nationalist line, and was known for taking up pro-Saddam postures in the past) quoted sources “close to Ayatollah Sistani” who were present during his outburst.

Particularly, the paper added, the Ayatollah attacked “those who wore my robe, and controlled the government and the parliament,” which is a clear reference to al-Hakeem’s SIIC (which declared Sistani its highest reference earlier this year) and his allies in the Da'wa party.
With this in mind, it would appear that ISCI (also designated as "SIIC") has stronger motives to try to silence Sistani at this point in time. And yet, it could have been Sadr (again?) but Sistani and Sadr seem to be pushing in the same direction on this, so that explanation seems less credible. For now.

Eric Martin blogs at TIA and at American Footprints. This is his first guest post for The Newshoggers but we hope it won't be his last.