Iraq's Shiite power vacuum
Sistani's clout is diminishing. Sadr is eyeing his spot.
(Page 2 of 2)
Because they shunned direct involvement in politics, Sistani and other scholars created a power vacuum in the Shiite community. Sadr and his supporters quickly sought to fill that void after the US invasion.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
During parliamentary elections in December 2005, Sadr turned his popularity among poor Shiites into political influence, with his supporters wining 30 seats in the 275-member legislature – the largest share of any single faction. Sadr then became a kingmaker in the selection of Nuri al-Maliki as prime minister. At the same time, Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, ran death squads that assassinated Sunnis and drove them out of Shiite sections of Baghdad.
In the Shiite world, it is unusual for a young cleric with Sadr's modest religious credentials to garner such a wide following. Sadr is several ranks and years away from attaining the title of ayatollah. Normally, it can take two decades of study and research for a cleric to become an ayatollah. But he is the only surviving son of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was assassinated by the Iraqi regime in 1999. The elder Sadr was one of Shiism's leading scholars, and – unlike Sistani – he advocated a strong political role for the clergy.
Sistani was often criticized for remaining silent about Saddam Hussein's crimes against Shiites. By contrast, the elder Sadr challenged the regime in a series of sermons that ultimately led to his murder. Sistani and the elder Sadr became rivals in the Shiite religious hierarchy. Despite his lower clerical rank, many of Sadr's followers look to him as the inheritor of his father's legacy and are willing to emulate him instead of more senior scholars.
Without Sistani, there is no one with the religious and moral authority to restrain Sadr and other Shiite factions as they battle for control of oil-rich southern Iraq. The recent fighting in Basra was the latest chapter of a conflict between Sadr and his main rival for dominance of the Shiite heartland: the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, led by a US and Iranian-backed cleric, Abdulaziz al-Hakim. Whatever faction ultimately rules Basra will control much of Iraq's oil and the means of shipping it.
Sadr emerged from the latest battle with his militia and reputation intact. And he got an unexpected boost: a display of Sistani's waning influence. That can only embolden the young cleric and create new troubles for the United States.