Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Perspective: Rise of the Shia clerics

While Washington has been busy focusing on the divisions between Shiites and Sunnis that have led to nonstop sectarian violence in the country, the deep divisions within the Shia community itself have gone almost unnoticed.

Indeed, some say the competition among Shia clerics, each jockeying for power within the majority Shiite community, is the reason the current Baghdad government has been unable to create a political coalition that represents a broad cross-section of the country's population.

Nowhere is the rivalry being played out with more intensity than in the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf.

While former President Saddam Hussein was in power, Iraq's Shia majority was repressed, their political and religious aspirations crushed and their clerics kept firmly under the control of the state.

But with his ouster, the clerical establishment was able to take center stage in Iraqi life. And while Washington might have hoped that a central authority would emerge and exercise control over not only the general Shia population but also the important "hawzas" (Shia colleges and seminaries), something very different emerged instead.

Instead, there is constant turmoil as different factions struggle for power, with the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Badr militia of Ayatollah Muhammed Baqir al-Hakim, and the followers of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, regarded as Iraq's supreme Shia authority, all competing for influence.

In addition, a new type of Shia leader has emerged: self-appointed clerics who combine the might of armed militias with an almost messianic sense of purpose.

Read the rest at the Times Herald Record