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Beyond Kingmaker: Moqtada al-Sadr and the Future of Iraq
Posted on Oct 24, 2010
By Scott Ritter
While Sadr had served as an influential cleric in Baghdad during and after Saddam’s rule, his influence was limited to conventional political affairs, since he lacked the formal religious education necessary to issue fatwas, or religious edicts. Sadr has the benefit of learning from historical precedent in terms of how to pursue his religious training. When the Ayatollah Khomeini died in Iran, he chose as his successor Ali Khamenei, a Shiite cleric who lacked the formal religious training to legitimately serve as a Marja, or jurisprudent. As such, Khamenei’s role as “supreme jurisprudent” was significantly diminished, as was his viability as a political leader. Khamenei’s supporters rushed the Iranian leader through a crash course in Shiite theology, allowing Khamenei to assume the title of ayatollah, and with it the position of supreme jurisprudent. But many Shiite religious authorities do not recognize Khamenei’s position, and his effectiveness as a leader has suffered as a result.
Moqtada al-Sadr understands the importance of legitimacy when it comes to positioning himself as a religious authority capable of challenging Ali Sistani. The decision by Sadr to call for a “people’s referendum” following the inconclusive results of the March 2010 elections underscores the fact that he has embraced the “governance of the people” ideology of his father-in-law. As such, Sadr can afford to remain in Qom, deep in his studies, while the issues of governance are worked out by his “trustees,” in this case Ibrahim Jaafari and others. Sadr will continue to study in an effort to finish his father-in-law’s work, namely the matter of defining the role of the Marja in overseeing the state of religion in a government elected by the people. While normally the path to ayatollah rank is a long one, the fact that Sadr is working off a foundation of religious study inherited from his father-in-law will help to hasten the process. It also allows Sadr the flexibility to decide when he is ready to assume his role as a religious leader. Unlike political leaders, who are held hostage by events out of their control, Sadr alone will be able to pick the time of his emergence. There is little doubt that this emergence will be done in a manner and time that maximize the political benefit to Sadr.
Unlike Moqtada al-Sadr, who has cultivated an image as being in union with the people of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki has sought to foster the image of a law-and-order Iraqi politician. Backed up by American military, political and financial resources, Maliki was able to cobble together the illusion of a functioning government presiding over a stable nation. But this was only an illusion—the U.S.-led surge did little to resolve the underlying causes of the insurgency in Iraq, and the Iraqi government was beset with internal sectarian squabbles and rampant corruption that made the normal functions of governance impossible. In the Sunni-dominated regions of Iraq, the U.S. backed the formation of local Sunni militias, which, in exchange for a promise of greater political autonomy, agreed to assist the American military in the suppression of fundamentalist Islamic organizations such as Al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI). This empowerment of the Sunnis made the Shiite-dominated government of Maliki nervous, and the stability achieved by the U.S.-brokered security arrangement with the Sunnis began to unravel as Maliki demanded that the Sunni militias disband and security be turned over to the Shiite-dominated Iraqi security services.
It is this estrangement between Maliki and the Sunni that created the political opportunity for the re-emergence of Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who has allied with the disenfranchised Sunnis of Iraq. But both Maliki and Allawi are artificial constructs, neither deriving his position from the legitimate will of the Iraqi people. The reality is that the Iraqi democratic experiment, as manifested in the March 2010 elections, has failed. It is highly unlikely that a consensus-based unity government will be formed in the aftermath of the election, which saw no single party able to win enough seats to form a majority government.
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The inability of the Iraqi security forces to bring this violence under control (and there is no reason to be optimistic that they will ever be able to do so) is placing tremendous pressure on the United States. The deadline set by the Status of Forces Agreement signed between the United States and Iraq in December 2008 (during the Bush administration) requires all U.S. military forces to be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2011. While the level of violence is escalating in Iraq on a daily basis, it is unlikely that there will be any major outbreak of sectarian fighting until the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces has been accomplished. But Maliki and the United States are reaping what they sowed when they certified the surge of 2007 as a major success.
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