Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 September 2004
Issue No. 706
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Comment: Al-Sistani's triumph

Events in Najaf have highlighted the impotence of the interim Iraqi government and the strength of the country's religious authorities, writes Abbas Kadhim

When fighting erupted in Najaf it soon became clear that no party was destined to emerge victorious when the guns fell silent. As the dust settled, three parties stood on the ruins of the holy city -- Moqtada Al-Sadr, the government and the Hawza.

Storming the mosques with enthusiastic sermons for the Friday prayer, the assistants of Moqtada Al-Sadr reminded worshippers that neither the Americans nor their agents could set foot in the shrine of Imam Ali, thanks to the bravery of the Al-Mehdi army. By doing so, they made it seem that Al-Sadr and his followers had intercepted a crusade aimed at destroying it. But we ought to know better. It is true that the government of Iyad Allawi and the forces that went to Najaf on its behalf displayed no signs of mercy or respect for what the city stood for. But their path to Najaf was paved by Al-Sadr, who, with his men, elected to take refuge in this most sacred of Shia shrines.

Al-Sadr made the analogy between himself and his great grandfather, Imam Hussein, who was left no choice but to fight and die for his principles. The behavior of the young cleric belied his analogy. Imam Hussein refused to take refuge in the holy mosque of Mecca and chose to be outnumbered in the open desert. He told his followers, "if you follow me you will be martyred; and if you stay behind, you will miss the victory." This concept of victory did not appear to be the goal of Al-Sadr and his followers. Their claimed victory amounted to creating a target of the Imam Ali shrine, and defending it in a style fitting of the theatre of the absurd.

The situation on the ground is only slightly different from the war of ideas. Al- Sadr movement did not accomplish a military victory; and it was not destined to do so, given the balance of power. But they did not lose either. They melted away with a large portion of their weapons and they were not forced to comply with demands to disband; they will not be held accountable for any abuses that might have occurred during their presence in Najaf, and they are invited, indeed encouraged, to participate in the political process, if they so wish.

The claim of victory for the government is preposterous. Indeed, the government and its patrons are the biggest losers in this showdown. Not scoring a military triumph after three weeks of fierce bombardment simply meant that all the death and destruction that accompanied the campaign was in vain. Moreover, the settlement stipulated that the government would meet the hefty bill for all damages in the city as well as compensating those who lost life and/or property. In the logic of disputes, this obligation can only be assigned to the defeated or the aggressor. The government should have provided this item as a gesture of good will, outside the deal to end the fighting, instead of placing it among the conditions for a settlement.

Another loss for the government is the exposure of its fragility as a concoction of groups that are glued to one another and held together in a bogus and nonviable institution. At any given day throughout the crisis one could hear three cabinet members voicing three different opinions on what needed to be done.

The real winner at the end of the crisis was Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. His return home from a trip to London for medical treatment accomplished a lot for him and for the disputants alike. First, his return cast away allegations that he left the city to avoid any involvement in the crisis. Indeed, no matter what the truth may have been, history would never have treated his trip kindly if he had not made this comeback. Secondly, his well-staged entry to Iraq and the rally that accompanied him from Basra to Najaf was a reminder to everyone that the era of powerless Hawza was over. Such a rally was not assembled in Iraq for an Ayatollah for over half a century. Thirdly, Ayatollah Al-Sistani is now about to be the turbaned king of Iraq -- a father figure for all Iraqis. I say, "about to be" because there is more he needs to do in order to acquire this status and displace many easily replaceable political leaders in Iraqi society.

To become the father for all Iraqis, Al-Sistani must extend his hand to other parts of Iraq that are still in peril. His rescue of Najaf is boxed in his status as a Shia cleric saving his hometown. He needs to exit from this confinement and move to the wider Shia areas, such as Al-Sadr City, and eventually -- maybe more importantly -- to Sunni areas. Winning peace for Falluja, Samarra and Baqouba would be the highest triumph any Shia cleric has accomplished in Iraq for over a century. By doing so, Al-Sistani would become a national figure rather than a sectarian leader. His unchallenged authority would benefit all Iraqis and this would earn him the affection not only of Shia, but also of other Iraqis, many of whom already think highly of him.

But this could not occur without political consequence. It is not clear if such involvement is on Al-Sistani's agenda to begin with. If so, his rise to such a position will inevitably render the office of the presidency in Iraq obsolete. Bear in mind that forging a settlement in Najaf was the job of President Ghazi Al-Yawar, according to the ideal vision of the new political system in Iraq. The president was meant to be the impartial arbiter between government and the people.

President Al-Yawar ended up being the first political figure to be displaced by Al-Sistani, who so far has a perfect score every time he has decided to act. It would be nice to see his success translated into meaningful benefits for the Iraqi people, whose aspirations have been reduced to what we take for granted.

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