Global Policy Forum

Shiite Leaders Distance Themselves


By Nancy A. Youssef

McClatchy Newspapers
August 1, 2006

Many of the Shiite Muslim religious leaders who strongly backed the formation of the Iraqi government now are condemning it, warning that the country could descend into full revolt. Their statements, observers said, reflect their effort to distance themselves from an increasingly unpopular government, one they once encouraged voters to risk their lives to support. In the process, they hope to win back support from the populace, the majority of which is Shiite.

The signs of defection are troublesome for U.S. and Iraqi officials, and another possible sign that the American strategy is threatened. The Shiite leaders have pushed for formation of the government more aggressively than any other Iraqi group, and their frustrations come just as American and Iraqi officials had encouraged Sunni Muslims to participate in the nascent political process. "The government formed after the fall of the regime hasn't been able to do anything, just make many promises. And people are fed up with the promises," said Sheik Bashir al Najafi, one of the top four Shiite leaders and one of several who suggested there could be a revolt. "One day we will not be able to stop a popular revolution." Religious leaders who spoke of revolt didn't specify what form it would take. But residents here said they thought it could be rogue militias and armed factions fighting Iraqi troops, and possibly U.S. forces, for control of the country. Alternatively, some said, southern Shiite residents could battle a mostly Sunni insurgency.

Many Shiites have refrained from engaging in all-out war because of repeated pleas from the Shiite leaders' council, the Marjaiyyah, to show restraint. The recent statements from religious leaders suggest that stance could be changing. "The Marjaiyyah will support the government as long as the government serves the people," Abdul-Aziz al Hakim, the leader of the United Iraqi Alliance, the largest Shiite political bloc, said in an interview with McClatchy Newspapers. "This was a warning."

As religious leaders attempt to distance themselves from the government, a tactical debate is emerging among residents about which Shiite leaders best represent their sect's interests. Many Shiite religious leaders are encouraging reforms in the government and in how the army and police secure the country. Militia supporters reject that and say the government's inability to secure the country means that residents should defend themselves.

Both tactics are born of a growing feeling that the government is grossly ineffective and the country is approaching total bedlam. In the Shiite holy city of Karbala, which voted overwhelmingly for the government last December, police Officer Ahmed al Khafaji said he'd never seen residents there so angry with it. The religious leadership "is blamed because they asked us to choose those political leaders, so they have to do something. They have to," Khafaji said. "The statement issued by Sheik al Najafi is a clear example that everyone is dissatisfied with the government."

During Iraq's two elections for parliament - in January and December of last year - the Shiite religious leaders encouraged voters to support the United Iraqi Alliance. Voters came out in droves and supported the slate, even as they admitted they didn't know the candidates. As a result, the United Iraqi Alliance won 128 of the parliament's 275 seats, allowing the slate to name the prime minister.

Since the beginning of this year, the number of killings per day has grown from 70 to 100, nearly all in sectarian strife. And while the government has promised sweeping security reforms, many people say their quality of life has worsened. Safe travel has become more difficult, fuel prices have soared and militias have overtaken more neighborhoods in a street-for-street battle for the capital. That, coupled with the announcement that U.S. forces must re-enter Baghdad to seize control of it from rogue armed groups, has reinforced feelings among Iraqis that their government and its American-trained military and police forces have failed.

In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, religious leaders are calling on the government to arm its army better. "The solution is up to the honesty and conviction of the politicians," Sheik Mohammed Yaquoubi told a group of religious students in Najaf last month. Militias are dangerous because no one knows for "whom these armed groups, which spread the killings, destruction and horror," work for. Even the usually reclusive top Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, has chimed in, calling for national unity and reconciliation. In a statement last week, Sistani encouraged the Iraqi people "of all different sects and ethnicities to be aware of the size and danger that threatens the future of the country."

But in Shiite strongholds such as Najaf and Karbala, residents said they felt misled by the government and the Shiite religious leaders who backed it during the election. Some said they wished they could take back their votes. "The failure of the Islamist political parties broke the trust between the Marjaiyyah and the people," said Amman al Janafi, a 39-year-old dentist from Najaf. "Even if Ayatollah Sistani himself were nominated in the next elections, I would not vote for the slate. The Marjaiyyah has lost the influence they had a year or two ago."

Shiite government leaders said they recognized the discontent, but privately admit they are in a quandary. If they say they agree with the statements of the religious leaders, who have huge influence over their base, they are conceding failure. If they disagree, they'll alienate voters. Most are embracing the religious leaders' sentiments and promising that change is imminent. Adel Abdul Mehdi, a Shiite and one of the country's two vice presidents, said the government was forming an economic plan that would rid the streets of militiamen. And he said that while the religious leadership was right to call the situation dire, much of the country was safe. "If the government is doing something bad, no one should support them," Mehdi said in an interview with McClatchy. "We are shifting our attention from the constitutional and political actions toward economic, investment and reconstruction" programs.

Regardless, Vali Nasr, an adjunct senior fellow who specializes in Shiite Islam at the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. foreign policy-research center, said the new position of the Marjaiyyah and their followers was precarious. Saying the government has failed "is a dangerous conclusion because then the country goes to Plan B. What is Plan B?" Nasr said. "Chaos."

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