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Beyond Kingmaker: Moqtada al-Sadr and the Future of Iraq
Posted on Oct 24, 2010
By Scott Ritter
The 2008 fighting between the Iraqi army and the Mahdi Army widened the existing fissure between Maliki and Sadr, and prompted Sadr to change his approach toward politics in Iraq, shifting away from militant conflict and toward obtaining broad electoral legitimacy. While avoiding direct military confrontation with both the U.S. military and the Iraqi army, Sadr continued to condemn the ongoing U.S.-led occupation of Iraq as well as the government of Nouri al-Maliki, which Sadr characterized as an extension of the occupation. Sadr understood that if he were ever to be able to mount a successful challenge to an Iraqi government that derived its power from the U.S. occupation, he would have to do so from outside the existing political system. While he continued to participate within the Iraqi government by proxy, with his party holding enough seats in the Iraqi Parliament to influence legislation, Sadr himself withdrew to Iran, where he began intense religious studies at a Shiite seminary, or hawza, in the holy city of Qom. Sadr’s goal is to complete his studies and obtain the religious rank of ayatollah, thereby positioning himself to succeed the aging Ayatollah Ali Sistani as the senior-most Shiite religious authority, not only in Iraq but the entire Shiite world.
Sadr understands only too well the importance of religion in Iraq today, especially among the Shiites who make up some 60 percent of the population. While many in the West view Nouri al-Maliki and the Iraqi government he heads as the ultimate authority in Iraq, the reality is that nothing of significance emerges from that government, whether relating to security or Iraqi oil contracts, without the support and blessing of Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Sistani has long favored religious authorities taking a behind-the-scenes approach toward politics, known as “quietism.” This approach differs starkly from the active, often militant, approach taken by not only Moqtada al-Sadr, but also SCIRI, which under the leadership of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim was more sympathetic to the Vilayet i-Faqih (governance of the supreme jurisprudence) philosophies of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, a concept that Sistani remains vehemently opposed to.
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, whose father had been a senior Shiite leader, was positioning himself to be the heir apparent to Sistani. His death from cancer in 2009 created a huge leadership gap among not only SCIRI, but also the Iraqi Shiites. His son, Ammar al-Hakim, took over as the political head of SCIRI (renamed in 2007 as the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, or SIIC). Ammar, however, lacks both the personality and background of his father, and the influence of the SIIC has waned under his leadership. In 2009 SIIC joined with the Sadrists and others to create a coalition party, the National Iraqi Alliance. The National Iraqi Alliance was headed not by Ammar al-Hakim, but rather former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, who left the Dawa Party. Sadr, sequestered in Iran for his religious studies, did not directly participate in the National Iraqi Alliance, choosing to let his subordinates assume that role. In the March 2010 elections, the National Iraqi Alliance won 70 seats, making it a critical force in the creation of any coalition government which may yet emerge. It is this ability to influence the future course of political affairs in Iraq that has earned Moqtada al-Sadr the title of kingmaker. But such a notion is shortsighted. Sadr doesn’t simply want to influence Iraqi politics—he wants to dominate, and he will do so in a fashion that will make him more “king” than any prime minister the National Iraqi Alliance might assist in elevating to temporary political office.
The selection of Ibrahim Jaafari as the head of the National Iraqi Alliance reflects not only the declining political influence of Ammar al-Hakim and SIIC, but also the growing importance of religious-based political ideology in the future politics of Iraq. SIIC has gravitated away from the Iranian-influenced philosophy of “rule of the supreme jurisprudent,” and toward the quietism of Ali Sistani, diminishing its activism role. Jaafari, on the other hand, as the former head of the Dawa Party, continues to embrace a political ideology derived from the teachings of one of Dawa’s founders, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, who professed a philosophy known as Vilayet al-Ummah, or “governance of the people.” Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, the father-in-law of Moqtada al-Sadr, had initiated the exploration of “governance of the people” as a theological-political ideology, but had not finalized it prior to his execution at the hands of Saddam Hussein in 1980.
Despite his untimely death, the basic constructs of Baqir al-Sadr’s political theory were clear: The legitimacy of an Islamic government comes from the people, not the clerics. Islamic government represents the blending of the people, who are God’s trustees on earth, and the prophets, who are God’s witnesses. The lineage of those who bear witness to God’s word is, in the Shiite faith, traced from the Prophet, to the imams who constituted a direct continuation of the Prophet, and then to the Marja, or religious authorities. While the witness lineage remained intact, Islamic governance would be conducted under its sole auspices. However, since most Shiites believe that the line of the imams terminated during the time of the 12th imam, the concept of governance by those who bear direct witness to God’s word has likewise been broken. As such, according to Baqir al-Sadr, the role of governance has been divided so that the trustees of God’s word, i.e. the people, are directly responsible for government, while the witnesses, or Marja, would supervise the Muslim faith. As such, Baqir al-Sadr was a fervent believer in direct democratic elections of a government by the people to be governed. Baqir al-Sadr died before he could finish his concepts on the role of the Marja in “governance of the people,” but based upon his writings, it is believed that he viewed the Marja’s role as being limited to protecting any deviations from religious doctrine that would threaten the Muslim ideology.
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