Five and a half years ago, if you had come to me and told me that in December 2006 I’d be interested in the opinions, health, interrelationships, and relative influence of three clerics of a minority Muslim sect, I’d have been concerned for your sanity. However
BAGHDAD — In the quest to create a new Iraq, two powerful clerics compete for domination, one from within the government, the other from its shadows.
Both wear the black turban signifying their descent from the prophet Muhammad. They have fought each other since the days their fathers vied to lead Iraq’s majority Shiites. They hold no official positions, but their parties each control 30 seats in the parliament. And they both lead militias that are widely alleged to run death squads.
But in the view of the Bush administration, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim is a moderate and Moqtada al-Sadr is an extremist. As the U.S. president faces mounting pressure to reshape his Iraq policy, administration officials say they are pursuing a Hakim-led moderate coalition of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurdish parties in order to isolate extremists, in particular Sadr.
Hakim, who once verbally attacked U.S. policy, now senses a political opportunity and is softening his stance toward the Americans. Sadr’s position is hardening. Young and aggressive, he has suspended his participation in Iraq’s government and is intensifying his demands for U.S. troops to leave the country.
Their rivalry is rising as the moderating influence of Iraq’s most revered Shiite figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is fading on the streets of Baghdad and is being replaced by allegiance to militant clerics such as Sadr, according to Iraqi officials and analysts.
They question whether Hakim can counter Sadr’s growing street power without worsening the chaos. As President Bush ponders limited alternatives in forging a new approach in Iraq, some wonder whether the United States is overestimating Hakim’s ability.
This story from yesterday is relevant:
BAGHDAD, Dec. 19 —Iraq’s most venerated Shiite cleric has tentatively approved an American-backed coalition of Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish parties that aims to isolate extremists, particularly the powerful Shiite militia leader Moktada al-Sadr, Iraqi and Western officials say.
But Ayatollah Sistani has grown increasingly distressed as the Shiite-led government has proved incapable of taming the violence and improving public services, Shiite officials say. He now appears to be backing away from his demand that the Shiite bloc play the dominant political role and that it hold together at all costs, Iraqi and Western officials say.
As the effective arbiter of a Shiite role in the planned coalition, the ayatollah is considered critical to the Iraqi and American effort.
American officials have been told by intermediaries that Ayatollah Sistani “has blessed the idea of forming a moderate front,” according to a senior American official. “We wouldn’t have gotten this far without his support.”
As was Al-Hakim’s visit to Washington at the beginning of December.
For some insight into this last meeting consider the commentary of Iraqi blogger The Mesopotamian:
A meeting of the highest significance and importance has just taken place. Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim, though much reviled and hated by the SodomoLadinists et al, is undoubtedly the highest Shiite figure ever to meet the American leadership at the highest level. This meeting has very profound meaning and is a very important message to the various factions in Iraq. I refer you to my previous post titled “Flirting with Sayid Ali”. There are basically two camps in Iraq now. Not a Shiite Camp and A Sunni camp, but a camp for the new order including a majority of the Shiites, the Kurds, and many Sunnis (for example the tribes of the Anbar Salvation Council, and many, many other Sunnis), and another camp that is composed of sectarian factions totally opposed to Democracy and pluralism including anarchistic revenge groups and gangs of both sects. The first camp is by far the majority of the people.
The strategic instinct of President Bush is guiding him in the right direction again despite all the confusion and pressures. I have always said that it is necessary not to lose site of the fundamentals of a situation, never to jeopardize the strategic base for the sake of any temporary tactical maneuvers. It is not a question of taking sides in a sectarian struggle. It is question of knowing where one’s real popular base is; of knowing who has real interest in seeing the success of one’s strategic goals and objectives. Nothing encourages the enemy like seeing confusion and disorientation of the Western leadership; and nothing discourages him more than seeing resolve and commitment otherwise. The enemies have be tackled one a time, and opening many fronts at the same time should be avoided, a fairly obvious axiom which is so often forgotten. If a fight is necessary, so be it; one side has to emerge victorious. This will only take place when the backbone of the enemy is broken thoroughly and definitively. History teaches us this. America itself would not be the Great nation that it is today had it not been for the victories of the American Revolution, and the American Civil War. This is the eighty percent strategy, this is right. We shall have more to say later God’s willing.