Thursday, July 15, 2004

Seattle Post-Intelligencer: AP - Shiite leadership in a clash of theology in Iran, Iraq

Seattle Post-Intelligencer: AP - Middle East: Shiite leadership clash in Iran, Iraq: "Shiite leadership clash in Iran, Iraq


An Iraqi man prays inside the Holy Shrine of Imam Ali in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq, Wednesday, July 14, 2004. With Shiites empowered in postwar Iraq, the leadership of the world's estimated 170 million followers is at stake between the Shiite ayatollahs of Iraq and Iran, and the outcome will have profound consequences not only for the two nations but the entire Islamic faith. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- For centuries, enmity between Arabs and Persians has shaped much of the Middle East - from the Arab conquests of the 7th century to the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s.

Now, with Shiites empowered in postwar Iraq, the gloves are off again. But this time, the antagonists are the Shiite ayatollahs of Iraq, a mainly Arab country, and Iran, formerly Persia.

At stake is the leadership of the world's estimated 170 million Shiites - and the outcome will have profound consequences not only for the two nations but the entire Islamic faith.

At the heart of the conflict is a rivalry between the holy cities of Najaf in Iraq and Qom in neighboring Iran.

A victory by Najaf's "quietist" school of thought, which places a cleric's spiritual calling ahead of involvement in politics, could deal a serious blow to the claim of legitimacy by Iran's ruling clergy. It could also provide a counter-ideology to the militant political Islam adopted by some Sunni Muslim groups in the region and which are behind the terrorism of recent years.

Iraq's Shiites have emerged from decades of oppression by a Sunni Arab minority when Saddam Hussein's regime fell 15 months ago. As the majority, they are now poised to dominate the country politically after a general election due in January.

Najaf's senior clerics refuse to be publicly drawn into the Najaf-Qom rivalry, but they don't conceal the nationalist undertones involved.

"It is the Shiites of Iraq who spread the faith in Iran," boasts Mohammed Hussein al-Hakim, son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Said Hakim, one of Najaf's four top clerics. "Shiites appeared in Iraq centuries before there were any Shiites in Iran."

Similar sentiments are indirectly reflected by ordinary Iraqis, eyeing with suspicion Shiite political parties known to be closely linked to Iran or created there by politicians who found refuge there during Saddam's 23-year rule.

"For hundreds of years, the Iranians prevented Arabs from assuming the Shiite marjaiyah (top clerics)," laments Qays al-Khaz'ali, an aide of young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militant movement has gained much of its popularity because of his repeated boasts of Arab descent and scathing criticism of Iranian-backed politicians and groups.

Iraq is the 7th century birthplace of Shiism, a faith born of a dispute over who succeeds the Prophet Muhammad after his death. It's home to the sect's most revered sites in Najaf and Karbala south of Baghdad and Samarra to the north of the Iraqi capital.

Shiites, however, did not become a majority in Iraq until the 19th century through massive conversions of Arab tribesmen frustrated by the injustices of the Sunni Ottoman rulers.

In Iran, Shiism became the official religion early in the 16th century but Shiites only became a majority in the 1800s. Ideological differences between the two communities always existed, but they were driven farther apart in the 20th century.

During 35 years of Saddam's Baath party rule, Iraq's Shiite majority was brutally oppressed and tens of thousands of Shiites, including clerics, were killed, jailed or deported.

Najaf's senior clerics were targeted. Those who dared to speak out against Saddam were killed. Keeping quiet meant survival, but also diminished influence and empty coffers.

In the meantime, Qom gained pre-eminence and Iran emerged as the world's bastion of Shiism after the 1979 Islamic revolution. It suited Saddam to see Najaf fade into insignificance, but the fall of his regime signaled the city's rebirth and the start of its journey to replace Qom as the world's foremost seat of Shiite learning.

Najaf's seminaries are filled with students again and the city's top clerics are renewing links with followers and loyal clerics across the world. Najaf's independence and energy is a far cry from Qom under the rule of the clergy.

"Qom seminaries have become very politicized," Iranian analyst Mohammad Hosseini said in Tehran. "Qom is the center of Iranian Shiite theology. Najaf is the center of global Shiism."

Reducing Qom to playing second fiddle to Najaf is not a purely religious matter.

Qom cleric and writer Mohammad Javad Akbarein says that unlike those in Najaf, Iran's senior clerics rely on government funds and patronage.

"The Qom seminary wants to remain as a pioneer platform for Shiite Islamic thinking and definitely doesn't want Najaf to take its place," he said.

Ironically the Najaf renewal is led by an elderly, Iranian-born cleric who settled in Iraq more than 50 years ago and is now considered the world's top Shiite authority.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, following in the footsteps of his mentor, the late Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei, belongs to the "quietist" school of thought, whose followers see it as the purist form of Shiism.

In contrast, the principal of "wilayet al-Faqeeh," or "the right of the most learned to rule," serves as the central ideological plank that supports the monopoly on power held by Iran's clergy since the Islamic revolution.

Al-Sistani, however, has influenced Iraq's U.S.-sponsored political process, demanding that a general election be held at the earliest date possible and that a permanent constitution must be written by elected, not selected, delegates. His supporters say such demands don't amount to meddling in politics, arguing that his intervention was much needed at a critical time for Iraq."


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