Iraqi Ulama Facing Tough Task

October 16, 2003 - 0:0
TEHRAN (Mehr Mehr Agency) – Followers of the radical Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Monday evening launched a gun battle with supporters of major cleric Ayatollah Ali Hussein Sistani in a struggle to gain control of the shrines of Imam Abbas (AS) and Imam Hussein (AS) in the holy city of Karbala.

The armed clash which reportedly left 18 wounded and one killed started when Sistani’s supporters tried to prevent the followers of al-Sadr from entering the sites. Calm was restored in Karbala later on Tuesday after the militia – better known as the Army of Mahdi -- withdrew from the holy sites.

Following the fighting, al-Sadr in a press conference in Najaf on Tuesday highlighted his vision for Iraq.

He said he had formed a new government in the country, and that the government would start work after winning the public support in a referendum. The cleric also pledged the Iraqis to express support for his government by peaceful rallies.

Al-Sadr whose speech was directly broadcast through several Arabic TV channels, further called for announcing a timetable for the U.S.-British-led troops to withdraw from the country.

He said the occupation troops must immediately leave Iraq, a constitution be drawn and presidential elections held.

The Najaf press conference was not that significant to surprise the Shiites as they had already been shocked over the Monday fighting between the followers of Sistani and al-Sadr as what was seen by many as a plot to create a split inside Iraq’s Shiite community.

Al-Sadr who attracted world public opinion by forming the Mahdi Army in July will undoubtedly exacerbate instability in Iraq as a result of his extremist mentality and his lack of a clear political strategy.

His hard-line positions that hit the headlines immediately after the April murder of Abdul Majid al-Khoei have cast doubts over Iraq’s future.

Al-Sadr is now trying to stand against major clerics such as Ayatollah Sistani, Ayatollah Seyyed Saeid al-Hakim, Hojjatoleslam Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and Ayatollah Mohammad Bahr al-Ulum.

He opposes the presence of U.S.-British-led occupation troops in Iraq, as might be the position of other Iraqi religious and political personalities. Yet, he is strongly against the Iraqi Governing Council. Many Iraqi figures are already worried that the radical positions of this young cleric are very likely to trigger internal conflicts in the country given the critical state of the affairs.

Ayatollah Sistani has taken Iraq’s conditions into consideration to call for avoiding any armed confrontation between the Shiites and the occupation troops. He never considers armed confrontation with the U.S.-British-led troops to the benefit of the Shiites, believing that what the Iraqis should do under the prevailing conditions is to peacefully protest against the occupation forces. This is while al-Sadr is trying to undermine the influence of the Iraqi religious and political figures such as Ayatollah Sistani, Ayatollah Sabzevari, Hojjatoleslam al-Hakim and Ayatollah Bahr al-Ulum. He is in fact trying to establish himself as a political and religious leader.

It is natural that certain neighbors of Iraq welcome the policies and activities of al-Sadr. However, one should be wary of the real motivations behind this. Al-Sadr’s advocates might want to foment internal disputes among the Iraqi Shiites that could even be extended to Iran. They will fervently support the policies of al-Sadr because those policies will eventually undermine the authority of the Shiites in Iraq. And any anticipated internal dispute among the Shiites will strengthen other minorities in the country.

Therefore, it is necessary that the Iraqi religious leaders consider the prevailing conditions in the country and try to avoid disputes that could weaken the position of the Shiites. They should also try to adopt a joint policy and prevent any likely confrontation among the Shiites.