met with the spokesman for Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi, one of the three most important Shiite leaders in Iraq apart from Sistani. (The others are Mohammed Said Hakim and Mohammed Ishaq Fayyad). The three lesser leaders all command significant numbers of followers and their teachings differ from Sistani’s in modest ways. But overall, they and their followers acquiesce to Sistani’s ultimate authority (especially now, since they’ve put on a united front to deal with the Americans). This is not necessarily the case with Muqtada al-Sadr, a young Shiite cleric whose popularity derives foremost from his legacy as the son of Muhammed Sadiq al-Sadr. In the 1990s, the older al-Sadr gained a significant following by defying Saddam Hussein’s iron-fisted anti-Shiite edicts (for instance, his attempt to forbid Friday prayer). Saddam had him assassinated in 1999. Though Muqtada does not have his father’s seniority or clout, he’s shown he cannot be ignored. Shortly after the end of the war, Muqtada organized large anti-American protests and, at one point, attempted to set up his own alternative government. Shiites tell me that, in general, he is not widely respected. But he has served as the focal point for anti-American sentiment and, these days, that means a lot. Lately, though, he has dropped somewhat from the scene. I’ve heard that he’s being checked somewhat by Sistani’s influence, but I cannot say that with certainty.
My post last night
about protests in Nasiriyah dredged up an issue that Green Boy raised a week earlier
: What is the deal between Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and Moqtada al-Sadr? Are they allies, rivals, or somewhere in between?
The Greenster suggests the image of a dangerous psycho on a leash (he probably just wanted to post the “Mad Max” picture), but in truth, I think, al-Sadr is far less dangerous than Sistani, if only because the younger cleric can’t command the sheer numbers that the ayatollah can. Indeed, when the two clashed in October, Sistani’s supporters squashed al-Sadr like a bug, and then stepped in to U.S. from arresting him (no doubt adding insult to injury for Moqtada).
But G.B. hits closer to the mark when he adds in the comments to his post, “The two guys hate each other’s guts, for all I know. But even so, Sistani can still use Sadr to his own benefit, and may well have some inhibitory influence over him.” I’d compare the Shiite religious structure to a large corporation with many quasi-independent franchises — Sistani is the wise, yet deceptively savvy patriarch with vast resources at his command, while al-Sadr is the impatient, sometimes overconfident young executive looking jealously up the corporate ladder at the old man.
It certainly can’t be an easy relationship. The Council of Foreign Relations describes the history of the two, citing =http://www.juancole.comJuan Cole[/url] while discussing other clerics who once ranked as high as Sistani:
One of the most important was Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, who was gunned down in 1999 along with one of his sons (Saddam Hussein’s forces are suspected in the murder). Sadr preferred the more activist, Khomeini-like tradition, urging underground resistance to Saddam’s rule. Sadr and other critics portrayed Sistani as a coward and referred to him derisively as the “silent authority,” Cole says. Today, Sadr’s son, 30-year-old Muqtada al-Sadr, considers himself a rival of Sistani and calls on Iraqis to resist the occupation.
So, you can see the irony here. Sistani stayed alive by being passive while al-Sadr’s father defied Saddam, and now the son has to be attentive to the surviving ayatollah’s whims.
For his part, Sistani seems to exercising his typical, carefully considered restraint in dealing with al-Sadr — reining him in when necessary, but also letting the young cleric test various boundaries while remaining out of the fray himself. And so it is that when Sistani calls off demonstrations to avoid the appearance of pressuring the United Nations as it returns to Iraq, al-Sadr’s public griping about the UN and relatively small protest not only let Moqtada blow off steam and assert a measure of independence, they also serve as a reminder of Shiite influence that Sistani can’t be blamed for.
The same dynamic applies to the Nasiriyah demonstrations on Friday, which were admittedly staged as a test case to see how the U.S. would react, but without requiring the ayatollah’s fingerprints. A convenient strategy, isn’t it?