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.

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 Sistani's absence at a critical time for the Shiite community highlights how far he has withdrawn from public life and the potential for a dangerous power vacuum in religious leadership as Shiite factions violently compete for influence in Iraq.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.

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.

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.

Mohamad Bazzi is the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was Newsday's Middle East bureau chief for four years.

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