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19.04.2006 | Stratfor.com | Kamran Bokhari


The Shiite Schisms

By Kamran Bokhari

Highly anticipated public talks between the United States and Iran over the future of Iraq have been lagging behind schedule, while the rhetorical exchanges between Tehran and Washington over Iran's nuclear program have been gaining volume. To our minds, the escalation on the nuclear issue -- which can be viewed as a lever rather than an end in itself for Tehran -- is a sign that a deal might be in the making in other channels. But there is a sticking point that must be resolved before public talks can take place, and that is the political impasse that has delayed the formation of a permanent government in Baghdad.

Despite the fact that Iraq's national election results were finalized nearly three months ago, there has been no agreement on the selection of a new prime minister. The interim prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, has been nominated to return to that position, but his nomination has been vehemently opposed by other political parties and even Shiite factions within his own United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) coalition. The situation, which appears to be worsening by the day, is born partly from serious disagreements among the four major blocs in parliament; perhaps even more significantly, it stems from schisms within Iraq's majority Shiite community.

Those schisms for some time have been exploited by others. The United States and Iran, of course, are the most critical players at the table, and the Iraqi Shia have been integral to the strategies of both. Thus far, Washington and Tehran have been exploiting the internal differences of the ethnic majority in order to secure their own interests in Iraq. However, managing the Shia has become a tremendous challenge for both Washington and Tehran, who now need to help repair the rifts in order to move toward their own larger goals in the region.

In short, understanding Iraq's Shiite factions -- and the interplay between them -- is critical to understanding Iran's future course and its implications for the region.

A Fractured Community

The Shia are acutely aware of their own divisions and the risk to their political power within Iraq. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani -- the most important religious leader for the Iraqi Shia -- has said that the unity of the Shiite political alliance must be upheld at all costs.

Al-Sistani's political influence has its limits, but it is not inconsiderable.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, Iraq's Shiite community has been held together by three forces: the dominant political trend of Islamism, the clerical establishment based in An Najaf, and Iran, which has varying degrees of influence with nearly every significant Shiite leader or group. Together, these three forces have prevented the rise of a viable secular political group among the Shia.

Thus, when what is now the main Shiite political coalition -- the UIA -- was formed, it was put together with the blessings of the religious establishment, which is led by al-Sistani. The UIA is an Islamist-leaning political bloc, but beyond that common thread, it would be difficult to refer to the coalition as "united." There are significant tensions and rivalries between each of its three main components -- Hizb al-Dawah (HD), the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and Muqtada al-Sadr's movement. All three groups are offshoots of the original Hizb al-Dawah, which was founded in the 1950s by Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr -- a leading Shiite Islamist ideologue and the uncle of Muqtada al-Sadr.

The al-Sadrites are a fairly new addition to the UIA. When he first emerged on the political scene, Muqtada al-Sadr was widely regarded as an upstart. However, given his family connections -- not only was his uncle well-known, but his father was a grand ayatollah who was killed by agents of Saddam Hussein -- he has been able to build a large following among the poorer Shiite classes.

That following became important to the UIA during the campaign season leading up to Iraq's Dec. 15 vote. The alliance already had been weakened by disappointment with Jaafari's political leadership and the departure of several groups, including a faction led by secular figure Ahmed Chalabi and a part of Iraqi Hezbollah. Moreover, with Sunni parties agreeing to participate in the election, the UIA knew it would need the votes of al-Sadr's followers in order to maintain its parliamentary majority. Thus, the "upstart" leader joined the ruling coalition -- and it has been a marriage of strange bedfellows indeed.

For one thing, the al-Sadrites have never gotten along well with SCIRI, which is led by Abdel Aziz al-Hakim (currently the president of the UIA). SCIRI was founded in Tehran in 1982 by Shiite exiles from Iraq who wanted to install an Islamist regime in Baghdad. It is still viewed as the Iraqi Shiite group with the closest political ties to Tehran. Both SCIRI and the al-Sadr movement have militias of their own -- the Badr Organization and the Mehdi Army -- and their clashes between April 2003 and late 2005 were what helped to clinch the prime ministerial nomination for the controversial Jaafari.

Jaafari's HD party is divided as well, into two factions. The main grouping has been led by Jaafari since his predecessor, Izz al-Deen Saleem, was killed by suicide bombers in May 2004. This faction spent time in exile in Europe and Syria. A smaller faction, known as Hizb al-Dawah-Tandheem al-Iraq, splintered from the main party in the 1980s. It has been more closely aligned with Tehran and was based in Iran during the period of exile.

Although these three groups are the primary players within the UIA, there also are several independents who are influential. These include Hussein Shahristani, a former nuclear physicist who is deputy speaker in the interim parliament. Shahristani is believed to be al-Sistani's most trusted political ally. Another key player is Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, who serves as national security adviser under the current interim government -- a position he also held under the previous Coalition Provisional Authority.

The Trouble With Jaafari

Were it not for political needs and pragmatic opportunism, it would be difficult to understand how such a diverse grouping ever could agree on their leadership under a united political banner. Needless to say, that process -- for the interim government that took power in spring 2005 -- was a hard-fought battle. Ultimately, the competition was between Jaafari and Chalabi, with the latter withdrawing his nomination under pressure from senior alliance members.

Jaafari won out and served one term as interim prime minister. However, by the time national elections to install a permanent government in Baghdad were held in December 2005, public opinion of Jaafari's administration had soured among all of Iraq's ethnic groups and in Washington, for various reasons. That has led to serious infighting in the UIA since the beginning of this year -- and the fissures have only widened in recent weeks as the Bush administration, the Sunnis, the Kurds and the secular nationalists have played their hands.

After weeks of deliberation designed to build consensus on a prime minister nominee, the matter went to a vote. Deputies from the alliance's member parties had to choose between Jaafari and Adel Abdel-Mahdi, a senior leader of SCIRI. Jaafari got the nomination by one vote, but the widespread opposition to his leadership has led to calls, even within the UIA, for his nomination to be scrapped in favor of another candidate, and several names have been floated. Jaafari, of course, has refused to relinquish his position and he still has the backing of some political allies -- even though another HD member, Ali al-Adeeb, recently has been suggested as a replacement.

The UIA's leadership must proceed carefully on this matter. Recognizing that too much pressure against Jaafari could lead to the collapse of the Shiite alliance, they have sought out al-Sistani -- who, again, is one of the few unifying forces for the Iraqi Shiite community. The ayatollah has urged the Shiite factions to sort out their differences but has refrained from endorsing Jaafari or any alternative candidates.

The Shia have not yet found a solution to the Jaafari problem, but they have bought some time through a neat political maneuver. The UIA has made any agreement on its part to nominate another candidate as prime minister contingent upon a deal to revisit choices for other coveted posts: president, vice-president, speaker of parliament, interior, defense, and oil ministries. They also have tried to mitigate the pressure on the UIA by finding fault with a Sunni, Tariq al-Hashmi, who was nominated as speaker of parliament. And there have been attempts to create a National Security Council as a power-sharing mechanism.

But as yet, there is no end to the political infighting in sight.

The Influence of al-Sistani

The fact that all the parties within the Shiite bloc have sought al-Sistani's assistance underscores the political influence of the grand ayatollah -- perhaps more so than the religious establishment as a whole.

There are three other grand ayatollahs in Iraq: Muhammad Fayyad, an Afghan; Hussein Bashir al-Najafi, from Pakistan; and Muhammad Said al-Hakim, an Iraqi. These three men are all of equal stature. Al-Sistani outranks them all, and the Shiite political factions are increasingly dependent upon him in the role of kingmaker.

But it is important to note that neither al-Sistani's interests, nor those of the Iraqi Shia as a whole, are synonymous with those of their religious brethren in Tehran.

The clerical establishments in Iraq and Iran certainly have common ties; Al-Sistani, for example, was born in Iran, and Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini -- founder of the Islamic regime in Tehran -- studied at the seminary in An Najaf. But there is a significant rivalry within the Shiite world as well, characterized by the Najaf and Qom schools of thought. The Najaf school -- so called after the Iraqi city that has been a major religious center since the Shiite sect emerged in the early 8th century -- adheres to a "quietist" approach in politics, meaning that the ulema do not hold office directly but exercise a great deal of influence and oversight in governance. The Qom school -- named after the Iranian religious center, which gained prominence in the early 16th century after the rise of the Safavid Empire -- has favored a direct role for the ulema in politics.

Thus, the Iranian regime -- heirs of Khomeini and the Qom school -- has its differences with al-Sistani, who follows the quietist approach of the Najaf factions. Those differences also can be seen, in varying degrees, with Iraqi groups strongly influenced by Iran.

For the time being, al-Sistani still is able to exert influence as a spiritual leader to help bind the various Shiite factions together. But given his age (76), previous threats to his life and other factors, one must consider what it would mean if he were to die or become incapacitated.

There certainly could be opportunities for some Shiite groups in Iraq if al-Sistani were to leave a power vacuum. The al-Sadrites, for example, harbor no great love for the cleric for numerous reasons, including personal histories: The Hussein regime tolerated al-Sistani and his quietist approach but tortured and killed al-Sadr's father (rival cleric Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr) and several of his brothers in the late 1990s. Moreover, the departure of the powerful grand ayatollah could allow figures like al-Sadr, who is not a cleric, to gain more personal clout. SCIRI, too -- as a creation of the Iranians -- has found al-Sistani's influence as a limitation to its own power.

That said, these factions -- and outside players like the United States and Iran -- still need him, for the time being, to bring what cohesion he can to the Shiite community.

The United States is not overly concerned with the unity of the Shia per se, but the Bush administration certainly would oppose any political moves that would bring further disintegration to the Shiite bloc and potentially derail the political process, which is critical to plans for a military drawdown and -- of course -- to public talks with Iran. Tehran, which has degrees of leverage with practically all of the Iraqi Shiite factions, likely could tolerate any candidate put forward as prime minister by the Shiite bloc. On the other hand, it doesn't want the UIA alliance to collapse, since that would translate into an aggregate loss of influence for Tehran in Iraq.

The paradox by now should be clear: Most of the players -- both within Iraq and in the region -- view a robust and united Shiite majority as a threat to their interests, but the divisions among the Shia have reached such a critical juncture that there are very real concerns about the overall level of stability in the country. The one thing that everyone can agree on is that achieving a balance somewhere in the middle would be the best outcome. And this is nothing short of a Herculean task, given the political landscape.

The two chief actors, as we have stated previously, are Iran and the United States. And while they agree on the need for a certain level of stability, they differ in their views of just how cohesive the Iraqi Shia should be. Washington wants a sectarian faction that hangs together well enough to act as a counterbalance to the Sunnis, Kurds and other factions and to contain the jihadists. Tehran, of course, wants as strong a Shiite community as possible -- and, ideally, a government in Baghdad that will allow Iran to catapult to regional hegemony.

The current deadlock over Jaafari and the prime ministership eventually will be resolved, but the structural reality among the Shia is not likely to change. The internal divisions within Iraq's majority community will continue to be significant -- in Baghdad and far beyond -- for quite some time to come.

© Copyright 2006 Strategic Forecasting Inc.

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