Friday, August 31, 2007

Analysis: Behind the struggle for Karbala

Above: Pilgrims touch the tomb where Imam Abbas is buried in his shrine in the holy city of Karbala last Sunday.

Who exactly did what in Karbala this week is still unclear. The only thing certain is that the armed clashes between Shi'ite pilgrims and Iraqi police, or members of the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army, led to the death of 52 Iraqis and the injuring of over 300.

One story says that police began firing into the crowds of Shi'ite worshipers because they chanted for the downfall of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, presumably under orders from Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The other says that his Mahdi Army provoked the violence in an attempted takeover of the holy shrine in the city.

The religious site in Karbala (100 kilometers southwest of Baghdad) is currently controlled by the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) headed by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim. It is guarded by the Badr Brigade of the SIIC and members of the Iraqi police, who are former members of the Badr Brigade and still affiliated to Hakim. Briefly, back in 2003, it had been under control of Muqtada.

The Sadrists, it is believed, want to retake the shrine for a variety of reasons. One is financial, since donations worth millions of dollars pour into it every year from Shi'ite worshippers around the world - mainly Iran. Karbala, and its shrine, is one of Iraq's wealthiest cities, profiting from pilgrims around the year. Second, preaching from its 100 mosques gives whoever is in control of Karbala a grand platform to market his views, ideology and recruit new members into any political or military association. The city has 23 religious schools, all controlled by SIIC. In this case, the Mahdi Army would be striving for control of Karbala mosques.

Third, the "struggle over Karbala" falls in line with a long and bloody feud over Shi'ite leadership in Iraq, between the Sadr family and that of Hakim. Muqtada covets anything that is controlled by Hakim. Regaining Karbala would be a great bonus for the Mahdi Army, which is struggling to prop up its leader, Muqtada, as the prime Shi'ite leader of Iraq instead of Hakim.

Read the rest at Asia Times