The Shia Religious State

In the never-ending battle to define and redefine the terms of the Iraq debate, President Bush and conservative supporters of the war have rallied to portray the recent signing of the security agreement between the U.S. and Iraqi governments as a milestone for freedom.

Speaking to the Brookings Institution on Dec. 5, Bush announced, "Iraq has gone from an enemy of America to a friend of America, from sponsoring terror to fighting terror, and from a brutal dictatorship to a multi-religious, multi-ethnic constitutional democracy." That same week, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer declared the security agreement "a defeat for Tehran," because the "the ostensibly pro-Iranian religious Shiite parties resisted Tehran's pressure and championed the agreement."

But examining the debate within Iraq over the security agreement reveals who has power in the new Iraq and shows that the claims of the war's supporters are -- as usual -- less than accurate.

Shias make up more than 60 percent of Iraqis, and the new Iraqi order is, unsurprisingly, largely Shia-controlled. Significantly, the parties that dominate Iraqi Shia politics -- the Islamic Da'wa Party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and the Sadrists -- are all Islamist parties. Each advocates a society based upon Islamic principles, and each seeks and takes guidance from a small number of ayatollahs in and out of Iraq. In October, as negotiations between the United States and Iraq over the status of forces agreement appeared close to a finish, prominent Shia ayatollahs demonstrated their influence on Iraq's politics -- and thus on the U.S. presence in Iraq -- when they issued fatwas (legal-religious decrees) regarding the disposition of the agreement.

Over the last two years, as Maliki's government has worked to consolidate its rule and increase its legitimacy, one of the semi-official procedures has been "the Najaf visit." When the government is considering matters of great import, Maliki or his representatives pay a call to a small apartment located on one of Najaf's dusty side streets, the home of Iraq's most prominent cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. After the ayatollah has been consulted, a brief press conference is usually held outside, where the substance of the meeting -- carrying Sistani's imprimatur -- is relayed to reporters.

This ritual was repeated throughout the negotiations over the security agreement, just as it has been since the earliest days of the U.S. occupation. In early July, as Bush administration officials were downplaying talk of timetables and withdrawals, Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie used a post-consultation presser to insist that Iraq "would not accept any memorandum of understanding with [the U.S.] side that has no obvious and specific dates for the foreign troops' withdrawal from Iraq." The timing and location of the statement -- immediately after a meeting with Sistani, in front of Sistani's home -- made clear both to Iraqis and to the Bush administration that the ayatollah had, in effect, spoken.

In response to these religious edicts, the security agreement was resubmitted by Iraqi negotiators. Among the changes made was stronger language in regard to U.S. withdrawal -- including retitling the pact "agreement on withdrawal of U.S. forces" – as well as prohibition against using Iraq as a staging ground for attacks on Iraq's neighbors. The power of these ayatollahs over Iraq's politics, such that they could threaten to scuttle an agreement of significant import to the security of the United States, throws into stark relief what the Bush administration has helped to create in Iraq: a government dominated by Shia religious parties that take their guidance -- and derive their legitimacy -- from the opinions and edicts of a small handful of conservative Shia clerics.

To understand the context within which the agreement was negotiated -- and the considerable power of Shia religious leaders -- it's necessary to review some history. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's party, the Da'wa ('Islamic call'), is the oldest of Iraq's Shia parties. The Da'wa grew out of the intellectual ferment of the seminary city of Najaf in the 1950s and 1960s, during which a new wave of religious activists competed with secular leaders to define the politics of Iraq's Shia community. The most significant intellectual figure in Najaf's scholarly renaissance was Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr (a distant cousin and father-in-law of Muqtada), who advocated a more activist role for clerics, as well as the more formal institutionalization of Shia religious leadership. His theories about the place of religion in society underpin all of the leading Shia parties today. Sadr's activism stood in contrast to the relatively apolitical tradition of the Najaf clerical establishment -- known as the Hawza -- a tension that remains to this day.

Violence against the Da'wa by Iraq's ruling Ba'ath Party grew more severe throughout the 1970s. After formally taking power in 1979, Saddam Hussein began a massive wave of repression against Shias, whom he condemned as agents of Iran. He had Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr arrested and executed, and thousands of Shia clerics and activists fled to surrounding countries. But Sadr's ideas have evolved into three main trends that now make up Iraq's dominant political parties.

In Iran, a faction of the Da'wa split off and founded the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) under the sponsorship and direction of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. SCIRI adopted Khomeini's ideology, an extreme form of Islamism in which clerics rule directly. (In 2007, in an attempt to publicly distance itself from Iran and bolster its Iraqi nationalist credentials, SCIRI renamed itself the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). Its leadership, however, still enjoys close ties to the Iranian regime.) The Da'wa, meanwhile, with its members in exile in Iran, Syria, and Europe, developed into a more traditional political party, with non-clerics such as Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Nouri al-Maliki taking leadership roles.

Back in Iraq during the 1990s, a cousin and protégé of Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr, Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr, continued to develop his cousin's ideas, creating a network of activist clerics in Iraq's poor Shia communities and directing increasingly provocative criticisms at the regime. After ignoring repeated warnings to stop preaching against Saddam, Muhammad Sadeq al- Sadr was assassinated in 1999. The Sadrist movement, made up largely of the urban poor, remains the biggest Shia movement in Iraq, believed to number over 2 million.

The complex history of Iraqi Shia political activism came to the fore when, on Oct. 21, Lebanon's Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah issued a fatwa criticizing the security pact, saying "the Baghdad government has no right to ‘legitimize' the presence of foreign troops," and that any agreement should call for an unconditional withdrawal of U.S. forces. A protégé of Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr, Fadlallah was one of the founders of the Da'wa Party. In the 1970's, Fadlallah was dispatched to Lebanon, where he helped found Hizballah. Fadlallah is the marja al-taqlid (source of emulation) for many in the Da'wa -- including Prime Minister Maliki. This means that they have chosen Fadlallah as a spiritual guide and committed to following his guidance in regard to correct religious practice, a fact which, in and of itself, made the agreement in its then-current form a dead letter.

On Oct. 22, Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri, another cleric with roots in the Da'wa Party, issued an even more stringent fatwa against the security agreement, calling it haram --forbidden by Islam. His fatwa stated that approving the agreement would be "a sin God won't forgive." Haeri, an Iraqi based in the Iranian holy city of Qom, was the designated successor of Muqtada al-Sadr's father, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr, retaining many of Sadr's followers after he was assassinated. Haeri nominated Muqtada as his representative in 2003, which effectively bolstered Muqtada's own relatively meager credentials with the force of Haeri's scholarly authority. Haeri withdrew his support of Muqtada in the wake of the Mahdi Army uprising against the U.S., but Muqtada is now believed to be studying under Haeri in Iran. Haeri remains the source of guidance for many of Iraq's Sadrists, who continue to oppose the agreement.

Having previously set his own conditions for the security agreement, Sistani's office reiterated that he would support the agreement, as long as there was consensus. As it was clear that consensus did not exist, Sistani signaled-- in typically oblique fashion -- that changes in the agreement were required. As he had done in the previous years, Sistani had "taken the temperature" of his fellow clerics and then indicated the course that the government should follow. And, as it had done in the past, and will continue to do in the future, the government listened.

The rave assessments of the state of Iraqi politics coming from the administration and its supporters are unsurprising. Their professional reputations -- and Bush's presidential legacy -- are inextricably tied to that country, and thus they will spend the remainder of their careers testifying to its success, regardless of events on the ground. But we know now that a lack of understanding of Iraq and the region -- and the attendant misjudgment of the role that American military power could play in its transformation -- helped to lead the U.S. into disaster. And as long as a misapprehension of the current political and religious trends continues to cloud our understanding of Iraq, American leaders will have a difficult time finding the appropriate policy for dealing with it.