Daily Archives: June 15, 2006

Basra v. Persia, Part II

Posted by Cutler on June 15, 2006
Iran, Iraq, Israel / 2 Comments

Details regarding a flare up of tensions between Basra Shiites and Iran–discussed in the previous post–remain sketchy. Here are some of the media reports:

The Associated Press (via Forbes) suggests that Basra Shiites are upset because of accusations made on Iranian TV about Iraqi cleric Mahmoud al-Hassani (variously referred to as Ayatollah Mahmoud al-Hassani al-Sarkhi or Shaikh Mahmud al-Sarkhi al-Hasani):

Viewers in Iran and Iraq said a talk show guest on the channel Saturday criticized Mahmoud al-Hassani, a fiercely anti-American cleric whose followers have battled in the past with U.S. and other coalition troops in Iraq. The guest, Shiite cleric Sheik Ali Kourani, said al-Hassani was not a real cleric and Israel was using him to tarnish Islam, according to the viewers.

Many of al-Hassani’s supporters took the criticism as an accusation that the cleric was an Israeli agent, Basra police Capt. Mushtaq Khazim said.

Question #1: Was Sheik Ali Kourani saying that al-Hassani was an agent of Israel, as the Basra police Capt is said to have suggested?

Such an interpretation would make it seem like Kourani was fanning the flames of anti-Zionism by accusing al-Hassani of serving “Zionist masters.” There is reason to doubt this interpretation. First, the AP report that “Israel was ‘using’ him to tarnish Islam” could have more to do with Kourani’s discomfort with al-Hassani for militantly anti-Zionist and anti-American positions that Kourani thinks gives Islam a bad name. That would be a very different thing, no? It certainly rules out the possibility that the “anti-Iranian protesters” are implicitly pro-American or pro-Israeli.

Question #2: What does the media say about Ayatollah Mahmoud al-Hassani al-Sarkhi?

Not much. On April 5, 2004, a Washington Post article briefly mentions militias in Iraq that are loyal to “a mystical cleric named Sarkhi Hassani.”

The depiction of al-Hassani as “mystical” makes some sense in light of another charge allegedly levelled against him by Kourani on Iranian TV. According to a June 14, 2006 Agence France Presse report under the headline “Iraq protestors tear down Iran consulate flag in religious row” (I could not find a copy on-line; link anyone?):

The incident came after an interview on Iranian television with Islamic scholar Sheikh Ali Korani, during which he criticized al-Sarkhi for claiming to be in regular communication with the hidden imam — a messiah-like figure who will one day return and redeem the Shiite community.

Although al-Hassani’s followers deny the charge, it is one that is regularly made against mystics in many religious traditions.

According to a December 28, 2005 “Iraq Weekly Status Report” published by the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs of the U.S. State Department, al-Hassani is an “extremist Shi’a cleric” and leader of the Islamic Walaa Party (ballot number 758). The report also notes that Walaa Party members demonstrated in Karbala “and accused the United Islamic Alliance… of a host of election infractions…”

So there seems to be some tension between al-Hassani’s Walaa Party and the ruling Shiite alliance.

[Update: Juan Cole was on the case way back in October 2003 when he provided a profile of al-Hassani. He describes al-Hassani as a Sadrist.]

Question #3: Who is Shiite cleric Sheik Ali Kourani, the talk show guest whose comments sparked the demonstrations at the Iranian consulate in Basra?

Ali Kourani (also Ayatollah Ali Korani) received a burst of US media coverage in the middle of the 1990s as the representative of a new, moderate, modern trend within Iran. His specific claim to fame was as a “new wave” mullah, at least according to a May 11, 1995 Wall Street Journal report by Peter Waldman under the headline “Islamic Upheaval: Iranian Revolution Takes Another Turn, But Where Is It Going?–On the Inside, Signs Point to Greater Moderation; U.S. Still Sees Terrorism–‘New Wave’ Mullahs On-Line”:

[Y]ounger, “New Wave” mullahs, as the turbaned hackers are called, have persevered.

The spread of information will inevitably lead to a more moderate climate,” says Ali Korani, the cleric who heads the Qom project to publish the planned Encyclopedia of Islamic Law.

Some of the clergy say we’ve been hurt by being part of the government; we should return to our original role as spiritual leaders,” says Mr. Korani, the computer mullah. “Among the marjas [the most influential ayatollahs], this is the dominant view.”

Question #4: What is the relationship between Ali Kourani and the current Iranian government?

According to the Associated Press, the Iranian program appeared on a state-run channel:

Iran…has increased Arabic-language TV broadcasts in an attempt to further boost its influence in neighboring Iraq.

Al-Kawthar, which has a mix of religious and political programming, often with an anti-American tone, is the second largest Iranian station seen in Iraq, after al-Alam television.

According to the Agence France Presse report cited above, however, Iranian representatives in Iraq weren’t eager to claim Kourani:

The Iranian consulate in Karbala pointed out that its press was free and Korani was Lebanese, not Iranian, so the whole affair was not Tehran’s responsibility.

Implications: It may be too soon to say, but it looks like this whole event turns traditional Right Zionist assumptions about Shiite politics on its head. If, as I have argued in my article “Beyond Incompetence“, Right Zionists hoped that moderate Iraqi Shiites would help undermine the revolutionary Iranian regime, this case looks like the exact opposite: radical Iraqi Shiites demonstrating against political “moderates” in Iran.

Basra v. Persia?

Posted by Cutler on June 15, 2006
Iran, Iraq / 3 Comments

Juan Cole at Informed Comment has posted a very important discussion of recent tension between Shiites in Basra and the Iranian government:

An angry crowd of Iraqi Shiites attacked the Iranian Basra consulate on Wednesday, protesting an insult aired on Iranian television against Shaikh Mahmud al-Sarkhi al-Hasani, a popular Basra preacher. They set fire to an annex of the building, and black smoke billowed above it. Iraqi Shiite leaders said that they feared further violence if Iran did not apologize. Many Basra Shiites still hold a grudge against Iran for the latter’s shelling of the city during the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988. Sadrist Iraqis in particular denounce the dominance of Persian Shiism over Iraqi Shiism. The crowd planted an Iraqi flag on the building.

Is the Bush administration supporting these anti-Iranian demonstrators? One might imagine so. But if you look closely at Bush administration policies in Iraq, it sure looks like the Bush administration continues to back the pro-Iranian SCIRI party against anti-Iranian Iraqi nationalist Shiites in Basra.

In a series of recent posts (HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE), I have been trying to make some sense of Basra politics–especially in light of Prime Minister Maliki’s highly publicized declaration of a “state of emergency” in Basra. What are the stakes?

In the oil-rich city of Basra, political control is crucial and from early on in the war there has been talk about various plans for Shiite regional autonomy centered in Basra. In most instances, such talk has also been viewed as part of an emergent regional alliance between Iraqi and Iranian Shiites. One recent Reuters report went so far as to suggest that the Maliki crackdown on Basra was, in essence, a battle to win control of Basra away from Iran.

“There are local and international battles for Basra. Locally it is between Fadhila and other groups while regionally it is between Iran and other forces, like the British.”

By all appearances, Maliki’s “state of emergency”–for which Maliki has earned considerable White House praise–seems directed at the political influence two political forces in Basra: Moqtada al-Sadr and the Fadhila/Virtue party.

Here is the mystery: Sadr and Fadhila are often depicted as being the two Shiite forces that oppose Shiite regional autonomy. See, for example, an August 2005 New York Times article.

But there are also Shiites who vehemently oppose any move toward autonomy. Moktada al-Sadr, the young rebel cleric who led two uprisings against the Americans last year, and Ayatollah Muhammad Yacoubi, another radical cleric with ties to Mr. Sadr, have both denounced the movement, saying it goes against the concept of central Islamic rule.

Yacoubi is the leader of the Fadhila party.

A more recent June 13, 2006 New York Times article “Oil, Politics, and Bloodshed Corrupt an Iraqi City” tellsl a somewhat different story:

In Fadhila’s model, Basra Province, the only one it controls, would stand on its own. “We as Fadhila, we want to make our province our own region,” Mr. Talib said. “We have two million people, an airport, a port and oil — everything we need to be a state.”

Does Fadhila favor a strong, centralized Iraqi state, as initially reported? If so, one would think that on this question in would have quite a bit in common with nationalist Sunni Arab political forces. Certainly Sadrists have, at times, recognized this common ground.

Or does Fadhila favor regional autonomy for Iraqi Shiites?

The relationship between Fadhila and Iran may be crucial in this respect. Anti-Iranian sentiment would seem to tilt Fadhila toward an Iraqi nationalist position. The recent reports of tension between Basra Shiites and Iran would seem to support this view.

One additional tidbit that points in the direction of anti-Iranian sentiment among Basra Shiites come from a January 25, 2005 Washington Post report, “Political Islam Put to the Test in Southern Iraq“:

The question of Iranian support is debilitating for Basra’s Islamic parties, in particular for the Supreme Council, which fought on the Iranian side during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and, as is bitterly recalled by some Iraqi veterans, oversaw prisoner-of-war camps. Some Supreme Council officials in Basra still speak Arabic with a Persian inflection, and many residents — both religious and secular — punctuate their conversations with rumors about the involvement of Iran’s intelligence service in southern Iraq.

One rival Islamic party, an offshoot of Sadr’s movement known as Fudhala, is campaigning on a slogan that is a not-too-subtle jab at the Supreme Council’s perceived leanings: “Born in Iraq, Iraqi financed, with Iraqi leadership.”

If the Bush administration is full of praise for the SCIRI-backed Iraqi government of Prime Minister Maliki for its attempt to drive an anti-Iranian Shiite political party from power in Basra, what does that say about Bush administration attitudes toward Iranian regional influence?