Shiite clerics stand in constitution's path
Political goals in Iraq hinge on 2 theocrats
by Robert Collier, Chronicle Staff Writer Monday, November 17, 2003
Qom, Iran -- In the shadow of the Bush administration's decision to accelerate the shift of political power to an Iraqi government stand two reclusive Shiite clerics who could have a profound effect on the success or failure of America's plans.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a relative moderate based in the Iraqi city of Najaf, and his chief rival, Grand Ayatollah Kadim Haeri, a hard-liner in the Iranian city of Qom, almost never speak to the media, have avoided almost all contact with U.S. officials and rarely leave the hushed confines of the religious seminaries where they teach.
Sistani has quietly urged patience among his followers, but it was his insistence -- in addition to the upsurge in anti-U.S. violence and American dissatisfaction with the hand-picked Iraqi Governing Council -- that contributed to the administration's decision to abandon its plans to rule Iraq until a new constitution and democratic system were in place and instead to set up a quasi-elected provisional government by June.
And it is Haeri's uncompromising stance that has inspired Shiite radicals in Baghdad's slums to overtly challenge the Americans while threatening to join the Sunni Muslim fighters who are waging a guerrilla campaign against U.S.
In the first interview he has given in recent years to a Western reporter,
Haeri said Sunday that the latest U.S. plan is unacceptable and only a strict Islamic government would do.
"The Iraqi constitution should be drafted only under supervision of the just mushtahids," he said, using a term for the holiest religious scholars. "It must be an Islamic government. Other forms of government are not Islamic. They may be elected by people or anything, but they are not accepted."
Speaking to a Chronicle reporter through a translator by telephone from his seminary in Qom, Haeri called the current Iraqi authority, the Governing Council, "puppets of the Americans. ... The American administration in Iraq is not legitimate. So we are not obliged to obey the Americans."
Haeri's religious lineage makes him a highly influential authority for millions of Iraqi Shiites. In 1999, when then-leader Grand Ayatollah Muhammed Sadr died, he designated Haeri to take over his mantle. Haeri, in turn, has designated Sadr's son, Muqtada, as his representative in Iraq.
The 30-year-old Muqtada is a firebrand anti-American who has threatened to lead a Shiite guerrilla war against U.S. troops and is widely suspected of involvement in the killing of several Sistani allies in recent months.
So far, Sistani's pragmatism appears to be winning more followers than Haeri's and Muqtada Sadr's radicalism. Although Sadr has a large following in Sadr City -- the Baghdad suburb named after his father -- and has an armed militia of several hundred men, his repeated calls for Iraqis to disobey the Americans have failed to spark a significant response.
Faced with U.S. threats to arrest him if he continues flirting with rebellion, Sadr in recent weeks has moderated his words and disavowed armed attacks.
Haeri also distanced himself from the guerrillas. "If an Islamic government is formed in Iraq, military resistance against the American occupation is recommended," he said. "Until then, we have no power to mobilize against the Americans. There is no unison among Muslims in Iraq."
Haeri's position in Qom is almost a mirror image of the role played by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who turned Iran into a fundamentalist theocracy after the 1979 Iranian revolution. During much of the 1960s and 1970s, Khomeini lived in exile in Najaf, presiding over a seminary that helped him spread his radical vision to the streams of Iranian students and pilgrims who visited Najaf, traditionally regarded as one of the Shiites' holiest cities.
In Qom, the center of Iran's conservative Shiite establishment, Haeri's seminary is the focal point for the throngs of Iraqi Shiites who come to pray and study -- and then take his teachings home to Iraq.
His seminary is a nondescript, three-story brick building in a side street a few blocks from the huge Masumeh shrine that dominates the center of Qom.
"Haeri is very conservative, very much one of the leading hard-liners here," said Fazal Miboudi, a pro-reform mullah who is professor of political science at Mofid University in Qom.
Despite U.S. government fears that Iran may foment strife in Iraq, most diplomats and analysts in Iran believe that the Iranian government of President Mohammad Khatami has pressed Sadr and other Shiite radicals to restrain themselves.
But on Friday, Iran's top cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, harshly criticized the U.S.-led occupation and -- in an Arabic-language address beamed at the Iraqi people by television -- called on Iraqis and Palestinians to take up arms against Americans and Israelis. "We should fight against America and the Zionist regime in unison," he said.
Whether Khamenei's speech is seen as giving a green light to Haeri and his followers to step up their activities is unclear.
For many observers, the big question is: When will Haeri return home? Now 64, he has lived in Qom since 1974.
"If he returns to Iraq, he will strengthen Sadr and will open a real battle with Sistani for the soul of Iraqi Shiites," said a Western diplomat in Tehran. "It will be very dangerous for the Americans. It will be like throwing a match onto gasoline."
When asked about the frequent rumors that he will return to Iraq soon, Haeri said merely that he would return "in the right time."
The situtation in Iraq is much more complex than has been revealed. Open question: does the U.S. possess the political and cultural savvy to successfully accomplish? I'd like to hear your thoughts