Iraq's Shiite power vacuum
Sistani's clout is diminishing. Sadr is eyeing his spot.
As Iraqi troops battled Shiite militias last month in the southern city of Basra, Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was remarkably quiet. This is bad news for Iraq and for the United States.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Sistani's absence at a critical time for the Shiite community highlights how far he has withdrawn from public life and the potential for a dangerous power vacuum in religious leadership as Shiite factions violently compete for influence in Iraq. The US and Iraqi governments can no longer depend on Sistani as a stabilizing force in the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq.
Compare Sistani's recent performance with his actions in August 2004, when he brokered a cease-fire between the Iraqi government and the militia of renegade cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. That deal averted a US attack on Shiism's holiest shrine in the city of Najaf and paved the way for Mr. Sadr to join the political process a year later. It was an extraordinary feat by Sistani, who negotiated the deal within two days of returning to Iraq from a hospital in London. For a cleric who eschews the limelight and politics in general, Sistani affirmed his position as the most important player in Iraq's stability.
But today Sistani is sitting on the sidelines, and the longer he stays quiet, the more his influence will wane. Press reports from Iraq suggest that Sistani has slowed down because of his health. Some aides say that he has handed over many duties to his son, Mohammed Redha, who is a junior cleric.
The United States and its Iraqi allies must begin planning for a post-Sistani era and for ways to avoid a larger power struggle among Shiite factions. Right now, there is no clear successor to Sistani. In Najaf, there are three other grand ayatollahs who could replace him as the highest marja al-taqlid – source of emulation – for Iraqi Shiites. But none of them has a wide following or has shown the same political deftness that Sistani has displayed since the US invasion in 2003.
Sistani's diminishing clout – and the absence of an apparent successor – will ultimately bolster Sadr, the enfant terrible of Najaf who is working to burnish his religious credentials. In December, Sadr's aides announced that he is studying to become an ayatollah and is on track to attain that status within two years. That would be a remarkable fast-tracking of the normally rigid system of Shiite scholarship. Once he's an ayatollah, Sadr can issue his own religious rulings and he will no longer have to defer to senior clerics.
Already, the 33-year-old Sadr has shown disdain for the elder clerics, accusing them of being too acquiescent toward the Americans.