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Commentary Last Updated: Sep 15th, 2006 - 00:41:54

Sistani�s fears realized
By Abbas J. Ali, Ph.D.
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Sep 15, 2006, 00:39

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Traditionally, only under a severe threat to the country or the community does the senior member of the religious authority, the Marjaea, in Najaf, Iraq, assertively voice his political concerns. Political matters of highest urgency demand guidance and citizens often respond positively to this authority.

Ayatollah Ali Sistani is not an exception. As an accepted grand principal of an Islamic school of thought which emerged in the seventh century, he has found himself shouldering a moral and national responsibility under adverse conditions. The country is occupied, terrorists roam freely, and the prospect for an all-out civil war is looming.

Over the centuries, two primary traditions have emerged within the Marjaea relative to political affairs. The first tradition calls for an active involvement in confronting oppression and in preventing unfolding threats. The second maintains its distance from political life and focuses on moral and religious guidance. According to this tradition, the involvement in politics is contingent upon the degree and urgency of the threat to community welfare and national existence.

Faced with an extraordinary historical responsibility in 1920, the Marjaea was collectively steadfast in not abandoning its moral and national duties. The authority vehemently rejected any compromise on the unity of Iraq and its Arab national identity. Indeed, its message was precise, clear, and patriotic: end occupation and maintain the Iraq Arab character. The British occupational power reluctantly acceded to the demands.

Aware of the impending threat to the society and the depth of the danger that lay ahead during the invasion of 2003, Sistani opted to issue a brief instruction to Iraqis; do not stand in the way of the invading forces. Though critics faulted this stand, Sistani understood the nature of the gathering storm and believed that peaceful means could result in a better outcome.

At the time, Sistani faced a serious dilemma: if the people violently confronted the occupational forces, not only the existence of Iraq would be in doubt, but there would be a blood bath unequalled in recent history. His fears were not unfounded and Sistani never lost sight that the invasion had nothing to do with furthering the interests of the people of Iraq.

Since the collapse of Saddam�s regime, people's unrealized expectations for an immediate withdrawal of the invading forces and the intense desire for full sovereignty and democratic government have transformed the Iraqi Street into a boiling volcano. This has emboldened the faction in the Marjaea which espouses active political involvement. It has seized the opportunity to confront the occupational authority and positioned itself as the legitimate voice of the populace.

The initial tilt of the vocal members of the Marjaea toward embracing the populist demand of confronting the occupational authority and Paul Bremer�s misguided policies enlarged the gulf between Ayatollah Sistani and the populace, especially in the center and southern parts of the country. This situation shifted shortly after Sistani successfully called for rejecting Bremer�s ill-conceived caucus system, advocating, instead, early open general elections. Even though Bremer maneuvered to delay the election schedule, the people felt they had won an important round. This, along with Bremer�s failed military showdown with the popular Sadrist Movement, enabled Sistani to gradually reclaim his undisputed moral authority.

Sistani�s fears, however, have not dissipated. Indeed, the nightmare of a chaotic, unstable, and polarized Iraq has continued to deeply concern him as the situation becomes increasingly intolerable. The facts appear to reinforce Sistani�s fears as ethnic and sectarian strife and the death of innocent Iraqis become the norm in various parts of Iraq, and the hopes of a functional and sovereign country is a, seemingly, remote reality.

In a rare statement this July, Sistani openly articulated his fears declaring, �My heart is saddened and I feel pain as I witness what the oppressed people of Iraq experience daily -- suffering and aggression, fear and displacement, kidnappings, killings and mutilation. Words are unable to describe the ugliness and brutality. . . . I have been, since the early days of the invasion, duly diligent in helping Iraqis pass this critical period in their history in order not be trapped in sectarian and ethnic strife; fully aware of the great peril which is threatening the unity of the people and its social fabric, at this stage.�

The other two senior members of Marjaeaa who advocate the peaceful approach, Ayatollahs Mohamed Isaac Fayed and Bashir Najafi, have issued similar statements. The latter has been more direct stating that the occupational forces �do not wish any good for Iraq� and are a source of instability.

While the Pentagon report, Measuring Security and Stability in Iraq, provides a grim assessment of the general affairs in Iraq, especially in terms of civilian deaths and suffering, many Iraqis fear that Iraq is heading deeply into disaster. They attribute the problem to chronic and fatal mistakes committed by the �multinational forces� and the boldness of ethnic (Kurdish) and sectarian militias. The Kurdish militia has become, increasingly, a powerful state within a larger but weak State of Iraq.

Regrettably, in recent days, matters seem to have worsened. The leader of the Kurdish militia, Massoud Barzani has banned the use of the Iraqi flag on public buildings in areas under his militia control. He has assertively announced his willingness to declare independence from Iraq, stating, �we will do so and we will fear no one,� thus sending a gigantic shock wave across Iraq and intensifying the fear that Iraq is on the verge of imminent partition.

Likewise, the end of American military and political occupation has becomes a remote possibility and the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki often finds itself incapable in defending its people from terrorists and the occupational army. Furthermore, the redeployment of American troops to the heartland of the Arab majority around and south of Baghdad have given rise to the suspicion that the U.S is about to activate a hidden plan to either partition Iraq, eliminate the Sadrist Movement and/or change the al-Maliki government.

The visit by Iraqi Vice�President Adel Abdul Mahdi, a close ally to the Bush administration and the neoconservatives, to Washington and his meetings with President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have not helped to dispel Iraqis� fears and suspicions. In fact, the increasing distrust of Washington�s next move, the intensity of terrorism against the majority of the population, and the ferocity of sectarian and ethnic tensions have given support to the consistent message of the vocal elements within Marjaeaa: to forcefully confront the American design to partition Iraq before it is too late.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the Bush administration�s official design for a democratic and unified Iraq is seriously in doubt. Sistani may be the only credible force left for building a democratically functional Iraqi. So far, Sistani has been reasonably successful not only in preventing the collapse of Iraq, but also in persuading the vocal elements within Marjaeaa and the general public to avoid mass confrontation with the occupational forces. His positive influence may not last much longer. President Bush needs to get a grip; change course and work with the Ayatollah Sistani for a unified democratic Iraq.

Abbas J. Ali, Ph.D., professor and director, School of International Management, Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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