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Iran, Iraq, and two Shiite visions

As Shiite-run Iran begins its elections Friday, Shiites in Iraq follow a different vision toward their own democratic debut.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 20, 2004


The Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala are back in business - teeming with thousands of pilgrims drawn from across the Middle East and Asia.

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After decades of persecution by Saddam Hussein's regime, the Shiite resurgence in these two holy cities presents new opportunity - and a potential challenge - for the Shiite leadership in neighboring Iran.

Amid preparations for pivotal elections Friday in Iran - and later this year in Iraq - analysts see two Shiite visions of democracy vying for dominance. Some say the traditionally "quietist" clergy represented by Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is growing more influential at the expense of Iran's all-embracing system of clerical rule embodied by Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"There is a strong possibility that over time large numbers of lay religious Iranians will switch their allegiance to Sistani, and some of the [Iranian] reformers are said already to have done so," says Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan and a specialist in Shiite affairs. "But the Khamenei establishment is extremely wealthy and offers scholarships, so the seminarians and clerics in Iran would have difficulty defecting en masse. Sistani does not have nearly as many monetary resources."

But Khamenei faces other, nonfinancial challenges. The powerful ruling clergy in Iran is under attack from a growing number of Iranians frustrated at the faltering attempts to achieve greater openness and political freedom.

Reformist efforts were dealt a blow in the run-up to Friday's parliamentary elections in Iran when some 2,400 mainly opposition candidates were barred from competing.

Iran's Wilayet al-Faqih doctrine (governance of the religious jurist, preached in the Iranian city of Qom) was devised in the mid-1970s by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and served as the ideological underpinning of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran which he led. It grants absolute authority over all matters - religious, social, and political - to a marja who has earned the title of mujtahid, a blend of judge and theologian.

Although the Wilayat al-Faqih system was successfully introduced into Iran's homogenous Shiite society, exporting the doctrine elsewhere has proved difficult.

Its most successful adaptation outside Iran is by Lebanon's Hizbullah organization which considered Khomeini and then his successor Ayatollah Ali Khameini as the group's marja. Establishing an Islamic state in Lebanon on the Iranian model remains one of Hizbullah's ideological goals, on paper at least. But Hizbullah long ago accepted that the tiny country's multiconfessional character mitigates heavily against the creation of an Islamic state.

So, too, with Iraq. Iraqi Shiites represent around 60 percent of the population. The remaining 40 percent is comprised of Sunni Muslims, several Christian sects and a tiny Jewish community. Furthermore, many Shiites are avowedly secular and have little enthusiasm for an Islamic state, whether governed by Wilayet al-Faqih or a less comprehensive form of Islamic rule.

Even groups such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which was supported by Iran during Saddam Hussein's regime, has begun to distance itself from Tehran's clerical rulers to boost its appeal among Iraqi Shiites.

"The Iranians have their own problems and that is not a model for us," says Sheikh Humum Hammoudi, a senior member of SCIRI's leadership. "We want our religious leaders to be advisers not [political] authorities."

The question of Iraq's political future is due to come to head in the months to come. Despite uncertainty surrounding the nature of the country's upcoming elections, the US is expected to hand over power to an Iraqi government by June 30.

"Changes are possible but the date holds," Iraqi administrator Paul Bremer told reporters Thursday. Bremer spoke before an expected announcement by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Mr. Annan was expected to say that elections are important but that they cannot be held by the end of June.

A rare insight into Sistani's views on Iran's Wilayet al-Faqih system was posted on the Internet last week by an anonymous Sunni tribal leader who met with the reclusive Shiite cleric at his home in Najaf.