Dr. Noorbaksh is an associate professor of International Affairs at the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology and a fellow at the Center for International Studies, University of St. Thomas, Houston.
Iraq is a country in which ethnicity plays a crucial role in politics. The two predominant sects of Islam, the Shiite and the Sunni, and the two major ethnic groups, the Arabs and the Kurds, have always been part of Iraq's national composition. Iraqi Sunnis dominated the politics of Iraq from the 1920s to the American invasion in 2003. Kurds, who are also found in Turkey, Iran and Syria, have succeeded for the first time in the modern history of the Middle East in playing a decisive role in the politics of Iraq and in their own self-rule.
The current geographic territory of Iraq is relatively consistent with the ancient terrain of Mesopotamia. The vast majority of the Iraqi population still lives in the fertile plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Ancient Mesopotamia not only offered to the world the prophet Abraham, the founder of the three monotheistic religions; it also became the birthplace of emerging civilizations under Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This cradle of civilization introduced the world to the first letter, the first written recorded law, the first epic poem, the first university, the first money and the first stringed musical instrument.
Iraq played a significant role in the rise of Islamic civilization and the golden age of Islam under Abbasid rule from A.D. 750. Baghdad became the center of a civilization that developed a new tradition in scientific and philosophical scholarship and became a bridge between ancient and modern worlds. Baghdad generated the golden age of Islamic civilization, which reached its apex between the ninth and the thirteenth centuries. "In 1184 there were 30 independent schools in Baghdad, in addition to an engineering school and three medical schools. Private and public libraries were established and contained tens of thousands of books and manuscripts. From this wellspring bloomed the multicultural, multiethnic mosaic of Islamic civilization fostered from intellectual diversity and cross-cultural synergy."1 Muslims in Mesopotamia created not only a civilization but a harmonious society with functioning institutions and a civil infrastructure. Baghdad was destroyed by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, putting an end to the monumental achievements of the Abbasid period. The sense of permanence and continuity was not regained when it became part of the Ottoman Empire.
With the empire's collapse following World War I, Mesopotamia was occupied by the British. On the eve of this occupation, Iraq consisted of three territories — Mosul, Baghdad and Basra — each administered and controlled independently. Although these territories had been part of the Ottoman Empire, their politics and economy were localized, and various tribes and ethnic groups had built distinctive social structures. Ottoman control was very weak, leading to a loose confederation of tribes, each acting as a small state. In the absence of a central authority, the tribes had established a framework for conflict resolution and resource management. A hierarchical structure based on a mode of subsistence economy had developed, putting camel-breeding tribes at the top of this hierarchy. The sheep-breeders, peasants and Arab marsh dwellers followed this social structure. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Ottomans tightened their loose control over the tribes in this region by imposing settlement policies and land-reform measures. These policies led naturally to a weakening of the tribes as a traditional source of power. Yet the tribes still played a crucial role in the sociopolitical and economic structures of these societies.
British colonial occupation of Mesopotamia after World War I led to the merging of these three territories under the unified nation of Iraq for the purpose of a common administration. The British restored most of the power of the tribal sheikhs and immediately revived the tribal structure, needing these leaders for local governance and tax collection. The sheikhs were given the power to control land, water distribution and law enforcement.
The oppressive nature of colonial occupation in addition to increased taxes — and the British reluctance to honor their commitment to end occupation — soon led to the revolt of 1920. The revolt brought together various tribes who valued the freedom that their lifestyle had offered them in these territories. The Shiite and Sunni tribesmen participated together in the war of liberation against the British occupation. The latter's tactic of blanket bombing of villages did not diminish the tenacity of resistance against the occupation. The British did not have any choice but to bring to power Faisal Ibn Hussein in 1921 in order to maintain control and influence. Iraq was ruled by a series of monarchs: Faisal I (1921-33), King Ghazi (1933-39), and Regent Abdullah bin Ali in the 1940s and early 1950s while King Faisal II (1939-58) was an infant. In 1936 and 1941, two military coups in Iraq heralded the first of such coups in Arab politics. Finally, in 1958, Abd al-Karim Qasim carried out a successful coup and ruled the country until 1963, when another military coup, led by Abd al-Salam Arif, toppled his regime. Arif was killed in a helicopter accident in 1966, and his brother succeeded him until 1968, when the Baath party took over the government in a military coup. This coup was supported by the United States because the Baathists were notorious for their brutality against communists in Iraq. The Baath and its government were under the control of Ahmad Hassan al-Baker and Saddam Hussein until 1979, when Saddam took over the government and the party through a bloodless coup. During all these years, the Shiites and the Kurds were excluded from government and occasionally were victims of the governments' brutal oppression. The Shiites paid a more severe price when, after the second Gulf War, the United States promised and then failed to support their uprising. While the Kurds benefited from the no-fly zone policy, the Shiites were exposed to Saddam's policy of suppression and elimination. Thousands of Iraqis fled to Iran, where many of them utilized the resources that the Iranian government provided them and organized opposition groups with the goal of toppling Saddam's government. The Dawa party of Nuri al-Maliki and Ibrahim Jafari and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) of the al-Hakim family were among them.
THE SUNNI TRIBES AND SADDAM
At least three quarters of Iraq's population belong to its tribal structure. Iraq is home to about 2,000 clans, which constitute the foundation of its 150 tribes.2 When the Baath party took over the country, it dismissed the role of the tribes in building a new political structure and processes in line with its ideology. For the new Baath regime, tribes were traditional institutions that did not have a role to play in building a modern country dominated by a one-party system and an ideology that had at its core Arab nationalism as defined by the founders of the Baath including Michal Aflaq. This attitude toward tribes was shared by the previous regimes, both monarchical and republican, from 1921 to 1958. However, under the Baath and Saddam, that attitude changed in the 1980s, when the government needed the tribes to mobilize for the war against Iran. Saddam resorted to traditional tribal values such as communal honor and gallantry to encourage support of the war. The tribes were portrayed as symbols of patriotism and bravery. Those who backed the regime benefited from the patronage of the Baath ruling elite for roads, electricity networks, water systems, health care and educational facilities in their communities. After the second Gulf War, Saddam relied more heavily on the Sunni tribes to secure the country and the tribal regions for the central government. Different regions of the country were allocated to different tribes for security in exchange for autonomy and financial reward. Shammar, Dulaym, Jubbur, al-Tikrit, Muntafiq, Anaza, Bani Lam, Al-bu Mohammad, al-Khazail, Anizah, Hushaim al-Agrah, Zubaydi, Ukaydat, Mulla, Saidat and Ubayd are the major tribes of Iraq today; most of them benefited from this new relationship with Saddam's government. Shammar, for example, is the largest tribal confederation, with close to 1.5 million people. It covers a vast territory from south of Baghdad to the Syrian border and was one of the most crucial allies for Saddam's regime. Al-Tikriti is the tribe of Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr and Saddam Hussein. Affiliated with the Abu Nasir tribe and including 350,000 members, it was also one of the beneficiaries of this new relationship with the Baath government in Baghdad.
Strengthening the power of the tribes under the vanguard of Saddam created tension between the Sunni and Shiite communities. The tribes gained cachet by supporting the Baath regime. Participation in the army, morever, was a vehicle for upward mobility in a country that was tremendously impoverished after the two wars in the 1980s and 1990s. Failure to support the government not only would have meant lost jobs and perks for their members, but also harsh punishment. In the Kurdish regions, eliminating uncooperative sheiks and splitting the tribes in order to weaken their power and influence were the norm. In the Shiite community, those unsupportive of war were abducted and eliminated.
The Iraqi government became more of a family enterprise through the support of the Sunni tribes in the late 1980s and 1990s. The security system was under the umbrella of the National Security Council, headed by Saddam himself. His son-in-law, Ali Hassan Majid, took over this function when he was absent. Later, Saddam's son Qusay was appointed to replace his father in the meetings he did not attend. Strengthening tribal power was part of a new initiative to restructure the relationship of clans and tribes with the central government for both the security of the regime and control of society. The two wars had drastically decreased Saddam's financial resources and increased opposition to his government by both the Shiite and the Kurds. Reliance on the tribes was a crucial component of the police state that Saddam had created. By giving the government an upper hand in controlling the citizenry and obtaining the loyalty of a substantial portion of the Iraqi population, it kept the regime intact and maintained a sense of security for the Baath government in Baghdad.
The revolt in 1920 involved the Shiites in the politics of opposition to the British occupation. The Shiite and Sunni religious leaders forged an alliance against British colonialism and the occupation of Iraq.3 Shiite religious leadership aroused both national and religious sentiments in mobilizing against colonial occupation. Ayatollah Shirazi, who had issued a fatwa (religious decree) during the Iranian Tobacco Uprising in 1895 (when the Qajar monarch Nasser al-Din Shah gave the exclusive rights for tobacco production and sales to the British firm Rejie), issued another fatwa in which he insisted on resistance to British occupation and the government of a non-Muslim ruler over the Muslim community.4 That was evidence of the influence of a Shiite religious leader beyond the border of one country. During the years after the war of resistance against British occupation, the Shiites were discriminated against in the politics of Iraq. The Sunni regimes under both monarchy and republic did not encourage Shiite participation in government. The Shiite community was occasionally exposed to suppression and brutality by rulers who were unwilling to accommodate the discontent of this minority. During these years, Shiites felt a sense of injustice and discrimination in the sociopolitical and economic life of Iraq.
In the 1970s, the Baath regime imposed severe restrictions on the Shiites inside Iraq. Shiite political organizations such as al-Dawa, which was established by a few Shiite intellectuals under the spiritual leadership of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, stepped up their activities against the Baath government.5 Shiite opposition to the Baath regime and demonstrations against government policies increased in 1977 as a result of the deeply rooted sense of grievance in the Shiite community.6 As the regime continued to close Shiite religious centers and put more restrictions on their activities and publications, the Shiites organized underground movements to resist government oppression.
The Iranian revolution of 1979 and the support that it spawned in Iraq among the Shiites put the Baath regime on alert. Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-1989), who was expelled from Iraq by the Baath regime in late 1978, began to openly criticize the Iraqi government after the revolution's success in February 1979. The new revolutionary zeal inside Iran had generated interest among a few at the top of Iranian politics in exporting the revolution to neighboring countries including Iraq. In July 1979, riots broke out in Najaf and Karbala as the Baath regime refused to grant permission to Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr to lead a delegation to Iran in order to congratulate Ayatollah Khomeini.7 When Al-Sadr sent him a congratulatory telegram, he was put under house arrest in Najaf. As the regime became more apprehensive of the Shiite community's reaction to alSadr's confinement, he was transferred to Baghdad under greater control and surveillance. The news of his transfer to Baghdad instigated renewed demonstrations in the south and in Baghdad. The Iraqi army quelled them, killing activists and arresting a few thousand. As the tension between the Shiite community and the regime escalated, the government imposed more severe restrictions on the Shiite organizations. Two failed assassination attempts by al-Dawa on Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and Minister of Culture Lateef Nasiif Jasim in April 1980 put the government and the Shiite community on a collision course.
As Saddam became the new president of Iraq in 1979, he became more apprehensive and unforgiving of the Shiite clergy, their organizations and their activities inside Iraq. The Iranian revolution and the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini had contributed enormously to Saddam's perception of a threat against his own regime. These fears drove him to attempt to eliminate the threat through the assassination and execution of Shiite activists, including Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and his sister, Bint al-Huda. Baqir Sadr was not only the spiritual founder of al-Dawa; he was a prominent and prolific Shiite scholar, well-respected in the seminaries inside and outside Iraq for his contribution to political jurisprudence and advocacy of the political engagement of the religious establishment. He wrote many books, the two most famous being Our Philosophy (Falsafatuna, 1958) and Our Economics (Iqtisaduna,1961). Clergy who were less active politically, such as Ali Sistani, escaped Saddam's persecution for the most part, but they did not totally escape his restrictions and surveillance. Sistani's mosque, Khadra, was shut down in 1994, and he was placed under house arrest.
During the first years of Saddam's direct reign, many Shiite opposition figures escaped to Iran. The new revolutionary government under Ayatollah Khomeini was eager to support the Shiite organizations in toppling Saddam's regime. In November 1982, Iran encouraged a few of the Iraqi opposition groups to establish the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) under the leadership of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim. This group and al-Dawa became the main Iraqi Shiite opposition in Iran to Saddam Hussein's regime. Both of these organizations and their supporters were involved in the March 1991 uprising against Saddam's regime after the crushing defeat of its forces in Kuwait. The uprising began in the south from Basra. The Shiite organizations were optimistic that the United States would commit itself to its promise of supporting their efforts. As the United States failed to do so, Saddam's Republican Guard and the Iraqi Army's mechanized divisions succeeded in launching an attack on March 6 and suppressed the revolt within a few days, killing thousands of Iraqi Shiites.
The American invasion of Iraq in March 2003 offered the Iraqi Shiites a historic opportunity to get involved in the politics of Iraq and use their power as the majority to affect the future politics of the country and control its government. The Shiite opposition forces, who had established their bases in Iran, returned to Iraq. These forces had organizations and influence inside Iraq, but needed a leader who could establish for them a link to the Shiite community at large and support their efforts, especially in mobilization and participation in post-occupation politics. The only remaining leader capable of bringing all Iraqis into the fold was Ayatollah Ali Sistani. He could deliver for a community that had been under-represented, isolated and discriminated against in the government and politics of Iraq from the time of the British occupation of the country.
SISTANI AND POST-OCCUPATION POLITICS
Ayatollah Sistani was born into a family of religious scholars in the Iranian holy city of Mashhad on August 4, 1930.8 His grandfather, Sayyid Ali Sistani, was a renowned scholar and teacher of Shiite jurisprudence in the Mashhad seminary (Howza). He held the position of Sheikh al-Islam under Shah Sultan Hussein of the Qajar dynasty (1781-1925) in the Sistan Province of Iran. His father, Sayyid Muhammad Baqir Sistani, was also a religious scholar from Sistan. Sistani began studying the Quran at the age of five under a woman mentor. When he was 11, he enrolled in a seminary and began the study of introductory books on jurisprudence, beginning the long journey of his education as a mujtahid (Shiite religious authority). In 1948, he moved to the city of Qum and participated in the Ayatollah Brujerdi's classes in order to advance his education in jurisprudence. Three years later, in 1951, Sistani emigrated to Najaf in order to continue his education.
In Najaf, Sistani was attracted to the teachings of Ayatollah Sayyid Abulqasim Khoi (1899-1992), a prominent religious scholar and mujtahid, one of the highest-ranking religious authorities in the world of Shiite Islam. Nearly a decade later, in the 1960s, he himself received his certification of ijtihad as a mujtahid, specializing in several areas including scholarship in the biographies of the narrators of tradition and sayings of the Prophet. He returned to Iran for a short period of time and went back to Iraq the next year, perhaps because he was persuaded by Ayatollah Khoi to return to Najaf. He was assigned to Ayatollah Khoi's Khadra Mosque in 1987, where Khoi had led prayers before him. This move was perhaps intended to groom Sistani for succession to Khoi. After Khoi's death in 1992, Sistani and Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, the father of Muqtada al-Sadr, remained the most-recognized mujtahids in Najaf. Al-Sadr and one of his sons were assassinated in 1998. It was well known that the assassination was executed by Saddam Hussein's agents, since al-Sadr had an extensive network of followers among the Shiites in Iraq. Sistani then rose to the status of eminent religious scholar, as a void had developed in seminary leadership in Najaf and the Shiite community as a whole.
With the breakdown of security in Iraq as a result of the American invasion in March 2003, two other influential Shiite clergymen were assassinated. One was Ayatollah Baqir al-Hakim (1939-2003), the son of the late Grand Ayatollah Muhsin Hakim and the leader of SCIRI. Hakim, who had returned to Iraq after two decades of exile in Iran, was killed in a massive bombing in Najaf in August 2003. The other was Abdul-Majid al-Khoi (1962-2003), the son of the late Grand Ayatollah Khoi, who had been assassinated in April. Although Abdul-Majid Khoi possessed fewer credentials as a leader than al-Hakim, he was close to Sistani and had sufficient influence among the Iraqi Shiites to affect the course of national politics. Their deaths left Sistani the unquestioned leader of the Iraqi Shiites, just as they for the first time in the modern history of Iraq, had a chance to shape the nation's politics.
After the American invasion, which began officially in March 2003, the United States established its occupation authority in Iraq. Jay Garner, the first American occupation authority, was replaced by Paul Bremer on May 6, 2003. Bremer led the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) that put together the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) that ruled Iraq from July 2003 to June 2004. The Iraqis' dissatisfaction with Bremer's mismanagement, the development of the perception within the new Iraqi political establishment that America planned to stay in Iraq for a long time, and the demand by ethnic and sectarian groups to be heard in the IGC and to be more involved in decision making, caused the religious establishment in Najaf great concern. With the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1511 on October 16, 2003, transferring sovereignty to Iraqis, the question of government and participation in the political process became imperative.
The Iraqi Shiites were facing a historical opportunity, and challenge, to transform Iraqi history in their own favor. In 1922, they boycotted the election under British occupation and the domination of the government apparatus by a Sunni monarchy. They also boycotted the constitution that was written with the aid of the British occupiers, leading to their total isolation from decision making and influence in politics and government for the remainder of the twentieth century. They became so isolated that the Sunni king, Faysal I, wrote in 1933 that "Shiite ulama have no connection with the government and are at present estranged from it, particularly in as much as they see the Sunni ulama in possession of funds and properties of which they are deprived, and envy, notably among the religious classes, is something well known." This experience was so powerful among the Shiites that it motivated them to mobilize from the early days of the American invasion, but not to oppose occupation directly.
Sistani's seclusion from politics, particularly in the 1990s and the decades of Baathist totalitarian rule, has added to the mystery of, and confusion over, his views on the relationship between religion and state. During these years, his bayan (communiqués) were directed primarily to Shiite communities outside Iraq and dealt mostly with religious questions remote from the scope of politics. In April 2002, he denounced Israel for its action against the Palestinians and the violation of their rights in the occupied territories, and similarly denounced the United States for supporting Israel and not opposing occupation. In his bayan, he demanded a united Muslim front against Israeli aggression. This political position was concerned chiefly with Muslim affairs outside Iraq, with international ramifications rather than domestic. His silence on the domestic politics of Iraq and the relationship between Islam and the state created a misperception, leading some to label him as "quietist" or indifferent to political questions in the realm of faith and society. In order to discredit him and question his credibility in leading the Shiite community in Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers coined another concept, "passive" and "active" marjaiyyah. Since his father was assassinated by the Baath regime, al-Sadr had accused other Shiite authorities in Iraq of acquiescing to Baath oppression and being too passive in their political stand against tyrannical rule.
With a close examination of his life, one can understand that Sistani is anything but passive or quietist when it comes to the current state of politics in Iraq. He had also previously revealed his views on politics, leadership and the state in distinctive ways. The Shiites in the Governing Council started a caucus called al-Bayt al-Shii (the Shia House) from the early days of the American invasion and occupation. The Shia House became a very important informal political group; many were invited to participate in its discourse, including secular Shiite politicians such as Iyad Allawi. The organizers of this informal forum believed that Shiites must organize themselves and formulate coherent stands on Iraq's crucial post-occupation political issues. The Shia House has been in direct contact with Sistani and his advisers and has coordinated support for mobilization and action in Shiite communities over questions concerning Shiite welfare and power.
The 2003 American invasion and occupation of Iraq encouraged Sistani to openly address questions dealing with state, religion and society. In his previous writings, he barely touched on the state. But he had not been diffident toward this question and has had definite views on some of these issues. In August 1998, Abdul Aziz Sachedina, an expert on Shiite Islam, traveled to Najaf, met with Sistani and, over a period of two days, conducted a series of lengthy interviews. Sachedina later published an account entitled "What Happened in Najaf."9 Far from being detached, passive or quietist, Sistani insists in these interviews on the primacy of Marji (the source of Shiite religious authority) on issues related to the affairs of the Muslim community in religion and politics, among other issues. He openly exposes, in these interviews, his pessimism over the concept of religious pluralism and what is advocated in the Muslim world by reformers in the arena of democratic government and values. He also divulges his distrust of the proponents of "reformist Islam," including former President Khatami in Iran, for their efforts toward democratization of the faith and its interpretation in relation to the established religious hierarchy and "religious democracy" (democracy-e dinee). He also openly discloses his differences with his mentor, Ayatollah Khoi, on matters of political theology.
Sistani discloses that he does not subscribe to the traditional school of theology in Shiite Islam, which argues that clerical power over the state in the period of occultation before the return of the last imam (mahdi) is illegitimate. This traditional theology contends that, after his return, only he would be capable of establishing the perfect community and a flawless state. This view does not confer upon Sistani inclusion in the fold of reformist Shiite theologians, who advocate democratic principles as a central component of a modern Shiite state. For example, Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri in Iran advocated this in his political theology and later criticized the Iranian clergy who became part of the political establishment and questioned or conditionally accepted the centrality of democratic norms in rulership and government.
The most accurate conclusion that one can reach regarding Sistani's view in this domain is that he favors the direct influence of the clergy over the state, with the intention that this institution of power and enforcement could protect religion and the Islamic identity of the community of the faithful. This view inevitably establishes the primacy of religion over the state and secures a predominant role for the "guardians of religion," the clergy, in political affairs. This definition of government was shared by Ayatollah Khomeini, who favored the state as the guardian of religion and the religious identity of the community. This view was rejected by Mehdi Bazargan, a religious reformer, intellectual and Iran's first prime minister after the revolution, who argued in a speech that Ayatollah Khomeini wanted government to be the guardian of religion, while reformers want Islam to help build a stable and flourishing country.
After the American invasion of Iraq, Sistani's first statement dealt with the theft of items from the Iraqi National Museum. He used the concept of "government property" in connoting ownership of the treasures and condemned the theft by explaining that the museum's articles belonged to the state. Later he recognized the authority of the state in establishing the rule of law and a legal framework for punishing those Baathist officials who were the victims of vigilantism after the fall of Saddam's regime. He strongly advocated a legitimate court (mahakama shariyyah) under the rule of Islamic law supported by the state.
In a fatwa issued April 20, 2003, Sistani warned the clergy against the temptation to participate directly in national politics by accepting political appointments. He recommended that they seek instead to provide "general advice" to the public. This was the sign of a clear distinction between him and the later position of Ayatollah Khomeini, whose velayat-e faqih (rule of the Islamic jurist) theory of government encouraged clergy to seek office and accept government positions. Ayatollah Khomeini took a similar position in discouraging the clergy from seeking political office when he went back to Iran in 1979. He not only rejected any political role for himself in the government but discouraged Ayatollah Hossein Beheshti, one of the leaders of the Islamic Republic party, and his close associates from running in the first presidential election in 1980. So far, what we know about Sistani is that he is in favor of a different version of velayat-e faqih in Iraq, one that mostly oversees but does not directly participate in the running of a government. This approach is closer to the established tradition of most of the Shiite clergy. Under the Safavid (15011722) and Qajar (1781-1925) dynasties, the clergy participated in advisory positions, mostly in religious affairs in association with government institutions. The difference is that Sistani would like to see the fruit of his impact on politics in tangible changes in state behavior. His influence is implemented unconventionally and informally in disputes that affect governing institutions.
Forbidding the clergy from taking political office and encouraging them to get involved in politics are two different things. This does not mean that Sistani is apolitical or passive in politics. On June 26, 2003, he totally broke with his past behavior of limiting himself to issuing fatwas and bayans. In responding to a question concerning the intention of the occupation to establish a council to write a constitution, he firmly made known that those authorities had no mandate to appoint such a council. He then proposed a democratic process, through which the elected representatives of the Iraqi people in a national assembly would write a constitution, to be put to a referendum by all Iraqis. In November, Bremer was seeking to appoint members of an interim government to write the constitution. Sistani protested this alternative and made it known that election was the only legitimate way acceptable to the Iraqi nation. On November 15, the Iraqi Governing Council and the Coalition Provisional Authority worked out a compromise accommodating Sistani's demand. He then went on to protest the unwillingness of the CPA to organize an immediate election and warned that no institution in the country would be legitimate if it interfered in the election process. He also announced to the dismay of the occupation authorities that the United Nations would be the only legitimate non-Iraqi body that could expedite a democratic election. With the UN decision that an early election was impossible, he agreed to postpone the election to the end of 2004 or a few months later. He continued to protest the idea that any non-elected institution should participate in the writing of the constitution, including what the IGC was preparing to adopt earlier under the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL). In June 2004, he rejected the U.S. plan for the transfer of sovereignty to an unelected provisional government.
In August 2004, after Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in the Iraqi Interim Government (June 2004-May 2005) and the U.S. occupation authorities failed to broker a peace agreement with Muqtada al-Sadr's militia in a bloody confrontation in the holy city of Najaf, Sistani intervened and defused the conflict. He showed that the power of his influence went beyond his fatwas, bayans and protests. Two months later, in October 2004, he reached the apex of his campaign for a democratic process in Iraq by issuing a fatwa encouraging all Iraqis to register and participate in the election scheduled for January 2005.
Sistani's views on religion and government began to surface later through six distinctive fatwas on his website and a few Iranian dailies from November 2004. He made it known that he advocated velayat-e faqih in government, but that his version differed from those of Ayatollah Khomeini and his teacher and mentor, the late Ayatollah Khoi. Khoi had explicitly interpreted velayat-e faqih in the context of guardianship of minors and a few other limited functions. Ayatollah Khomeini broadened the meaning and application of this concept to include the authority of mujtahid in all Muslim affairs, from religion to politics and society. Sistani agreed wholeheartedly with Ayatollah Khomeini's concept, except that he did not recommend that clergy seek direct political positions in government. He advocated a de-institutionalized authority by the faqih, whose authority could not be restricted by laws defined in the constitution. In Iran today, politics and government function on the model of Sistani's prescription of velayat-e faqih, not on what is currently described by law and written in the Iranian constitution. The office of valeyat-e faqih is legally bound by the Iranian constitution, but this is not how the institution functions in Iranian politics. The office of vali-e faqih has the power of extra-territoriality when it comes to the application of law. Until the last years of his life, Ayatollah Khomeini continued to extend his theory of government into new territory, with ultimate authority over state functions by amending the concept of the absolute authority of the faqih. This interpretation took the concept to a new level, sanctioning the right of the faqih to unilaterally abrogate social conventions and contracts where and when it was deemed necessary for the welfare of the community. This was a totally new invention in Shiite jurisprudence. It contrasted directly with conventional theological inferences that recommend specific reverence for the sanctity of social contracts.
During 2005, different Iraqi groups worked on the final draft of the constitution. On October 12, parliamentarians agreed on additional articles with the aim of accommodating Sunni reservations and interests. The draft was finalized, and on October 14, Sistani's office in Qum made public his endorsement in favor of the constitution and urged followers to actively participate in the referendum with a "yes."
Sistani had also continuously and indirectly influenced the Iraqi elections by favoring the Shiite coalition under the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), which had a decisive victory in the January 2005 elections. Sistani's blessing was decisive for his supporters in the organization. The coalition succeeded in reducing the influence of the minor Shiite political groups and some radicals such as Muqtada al-Sadr on the course of political developments in the country. He was also continually in favor of a united Iraq, encouraging all Muslims, Shiite and Sunni alike, to support each other in building a new national government.
Sistani was also very much aware of the threat to his position, and the Shiite position generally, by radicals including Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers. Other major Shiite groups such as the Dawa party and SCIRI, who were with Sistani, saw that al-Sadr's role in the post-occupation politics of Iraq was divisive and debilitating. Sistani confronted this force indirectly and took steps to weaken its impact on Iraqi politics. In August 2004, he left the country for medical treatment in London. It was during this time that Muqtada was confronted in Najaf by the occupation military forces. Many analysts speculated that Sistani's trip was timed to teach al-Sadr a lesson, allowing the occupation forces and the government to expose his vulnerability. When Sistani returned to the country a few weeks later, millions of Iraqi Shiites poured into the streets of Najaf and Baghdad to celebrate his return. Although not planned, this show of force demonstrated who the leader of the Iraqi Shiite community was, and who had the greatest influence on them.
Sistani, as a marja, has played his role in post-occupation politics with enormous skill. He has promoted the causes of democratic rule, Shiite power and a unified Iraq. He has not opposed occupation but has made it known that he looks forward to a swift end to occupation. He has not met with anyone from the occupation authority, not wanting to legitimize foreign occupation or associate himself and his office with it. This was a gesture calculated to give homage to the nationalistic sentiments of the Iraqis, both Muslim and secular. Nationalism has breached the boundaries of ethnicity and religion in Iraq, and Iraqis have again shown their disdain for foreign domination, as they have throughout history. Although Sistani had discouraged the clergy from seeking political office, many are currently members of parliament. It is highly unlikely that the clergy could maintain a high level of political presence and work toward establishing the foundation of a theocratic polity in this nation, since the mixed ethnic and religious configuration in Iraq is very different from that of neighboring Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini applied his theocratic rule to government in a country in which more than 90 percent were Shiite. In Iraq, Shiites constitute about 60 percent of the population, and the other religious and ethnic groups are opposed to clerical rule.
Only time will tell how and for how long Washington can encourage Sistani and the Shiite community to cooperate with its policies in Iraq. That country has a strong nationalistic history, an anti-foreign political culture and a religion that is deemed mostly to be interpreted by a religious hierarchy through resorting to a traditional, hierarchical and conventional reading of the faith means that Washington will have an arduous challenge to face in following policies that might alienate both the forces of nationalism and religion in Iraq. Sistani, as a religious leader in a region of the world that is very much opposed to Washington's foreign policy, will look carefully at any future American maneuver and urgently seek the departure of U.S. forces.
The Shiites of Iraq have arrived at a historical opportunity to shape the future of this nation. They play the democratic card because this is the only way to achieve power and influence. They are interested in shaping a government and political process that protect their majority rights. Stability and security in Iraq also depend heavily on the participation of the powerful, Sunni minority in the politics of this nation. The United States has agreed recently with the Sunni tribal leaders to wage a war against al-Qaeda inside Iraq. The Shiite community is not comfortable with this new scheme, because it reminds them of the era of Saddam, in which tribes were used to secure the country for the Baath regime in Baghdad.
America has blindly occupied a country that has a complex social structure a majority religion and a dominant sense of nationalism that play significant roles in the belief and attitudes of its people. Iraq is definitely not Japan or Germany. The advocates of occupation of this nation have so far not been able to recognize and comprehend its complexity.
2 For tribes in Iraq, consult Phebe Marr, The Modern History of Iraq (Westview Press, 1985); Council on Foreign Relations, Iraq: The Role of Tribes (Council on Foreign Relation, 2007); and Hussein D. Hassan, Iraq: Tribal Structure, Social and Political Activities (Congressional Research Service, Report for Congress, March 15, 2007).
3 See Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Class and Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq's Old Landed and Commercial Classes and Communists, Bathists, and Free Officers (Princeton University Press, 1978).
4 See Marr, The Modern History of Iraq; Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shiite Islam (Yale University Press, 1985); and Stephen Longrigg, Iraq: 1990-1950 (Oxford University Press, 1953).
5 See Faleh A. Jabar, The Shiite Movement in Iraq (Sagi Press, 2003).
6 See Hanna Batatu, "Shiite Organizations in Iraq: Al-Dawah al-Islamiyah and al-Mujahidin," in J. Cole and Nikki R. Keddie, eds., Shiism and Social Protest (Yale University Press, 1986); and Dilip Hiro, Neighbors, Not Friends: Iraq and Iran After the Gulf Wars (Routledge, 2001).
7 Hanna Batatu, "Shiite Organizations in Iraq."
8 For Sistani's life and views consult Reidar Visser, Sistani, the United States and Politics in Iraq: From Quietism to Machiavellism (2006), at http://www.mafhoum.com/press9/274P4.pdf; Ali A. Allawi, The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace (Yale University Press, 2007); Ayatollah Sistani's website: www.Sistani.org.
9 For Abdul Aziz Sachedina's report, access the following link: http://www.uga.edu/islam/ sachedina_silencing.html.