Shiite power struggle simmers in Najaf

In Iraq's Shiite heartland, tensions remain high between Moqtada al Sadr and Iraq's ruling party SCIRI.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

On a recent Friday night here families thronged the brightly lit shops to buy clothing, jewelry, and religious trinkets on streets absent of foreign troops.

It was a scene of startling normalcy for Iraq where few people venture out after dark for fear of insurgent attacks, coalition firefights, or plain criminality. But while nightlife has returned to this southern city largely free of insurgent bombs, the civil strife between Shiites is brewing just below the surface.

The political fight for the control of the country's Shiite holiest city turned Najaf into a battlefield last summer when forces loyal to rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr engaged in fierce firefights with US forces. And in August, skirmishes involving Mr. Sadr's supporters turned Najaf's streets violent again, this time clashing with the militia of the ruling Shiite religious party the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

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Today, in the shadow of the city's gold dome and tile porticoes of the Imam Ali shrine that makes Najaf Shiite Islam's capital, a barely restrained tension between SCIRI and Sadr supporters continues.

At the national level, the two leading Shiite groups have joined a political coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, last week to run in the Dec. 15 elections. But in the streets here, that unity appears lacking.

"For the Najaf people [Sadr] is an unwanted person. All steps taken by this man are not for the best, not for the good of all Najaf people," says Sayyid Ali, a gold merchant in the city's main market who wouldn't give his full name.

But down different alley in the large market is another jewelry shop. This one is decorated with posters of Sadr. "All the police and all the government are supported by [SCIRI]," says Hussein Rasool al-Akash, whose brother was one of four Sadr followers killed in the August clashes with Sadr forces and demonstrators who opposed him and his followers presence in Najaf.

That violence lasted a few hours but had ripple effects throughout Shiite Iraq. Hours later, as word of the Najaf fight spread, battles broke out between Sadr followers and SCIRI forces across southern Iraq. Then, just as suddenly, all was quiet by the next afternoon after Sadr called for calm.

But local government leaders are anxious to show there will be no trouble on their watch, having just taken over control of the city from US troops.

"We are not worried at all about the Sadr movement. As a matter of fact, we believe it is the nearest movement we can go hand-in-hand with," says deputy governor Abdel Hussein Abtan, who oversees security in Najaf.

Mr. Abtan is also the secretary general of the Badr Organization in Najaf. The group was better known as the Badr Brigade or Badr Corps, the feared militia of SCIRI, until it vowed to disarm and focus on humanitarian work after the US invasion of Iraq. But Sadr supporters and many Najaf residents say an armed Badr Brigade still exists as the Najaf police force.

Abtan says the recent fighting was just the growing pains of freedom. "Democracy is new to the Iraqi people. As more time passes ... we will learn how to live together and make the best of it," he says.

That message has not made it through to the Sadr officials in Najaf, however, just a few minutes away in this compact city.

"In Najaf we suffer from an uncooperative government. They are not working with us with a good sense," says Salah al-Obaeidi, a Sadr representative in Najaf. "They try to be very restrictive of [Sadr] visitors, refusing to allow them to say the [Sadr Movement] slogans ... we can't say they have targeted us but we can say they are not cooperative with us."

Mr. Obaeidi says that across southern Iraq the relationship between SCIRI and Sadr varies from tense coexistence as in Najaf, to the all-out armed conflict that has flared frequently in Basra and Samawa.

The Shiite political parties like SCIRI entered Iraq from exile in Iran after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. As a result they have little constituency among average Shiites and many leaders have spent decades outside the country they are now ruling.

Instead, the majority of Shiites identify strongly with the marjiyeh, four grand ayatollahs who each hold the status as the highest religious Shiite authority. SCIRI was swept into office last January after Ali al-Sistani, the first among the four equals, was believed to have given his support to them.

The divide between Sadr and SCIRI is more than just the natural rivalry produced by Iraq's new political plurality. It is rooted in historical tensions in the Shiite community, making the divide all the more entrenched. Sadr comes from a family of prominent Shiite clerics who have a history of being outspokenly antiestablishment.

But SCIRI represents the Shiite establishment that supports Ayatollah Sistani, who was a rival of Sadr's beloved father. Sadr himself has few religious credentials and publicly pays homage to Sistani's authority. His weeks-long battle with American troops in Najaf in August 2004 was seen as an affront to Sistani's authority to some, but also earned him enormous street credibility.

While most people across Najaf have chosen sides between the Sadr movement and SCIRI, some, like Kadhim Mohammed a shopkeeper here, are not allied with any political group and are caught in the middle of the Sadr-SCIRI power struggle.

When asked about Sadr he was reticent. "I can't answer this question. I can't," says Mr. Mohammed, who wouldn't give his real name. "If you don't say anything for or against them, if you don't talk about it, you will be OK."

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