An Iraqi Shiite “Readjustment”?

Posted by Cutler on May 18, 2007
Iran, Iraq

Something is brewing in the worlSomething is brewing in the world of US-Shiite relations, but I confess that the contours of any shift remain very murky.

As noted in my previous post, there has been increased chatter about tensions between Iraqi Shiites and the Iranian regime.  Reuters reported:

Iraq’s biggest Shi’ite party on Saturday pledged its allegiance to the country’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in a move that would distance it from Shi’ite Iran where it was formed.

Party officials told Reuters on Friday… the party had been close to Sistani for some time, but a two-day conference on Baghdad that ended on Friday had formalized relations with the influential cleric.

“We cherish the great role played by the religious establishment headed by Grand Ayatollah Sayed Ali al-Sistani … in preserving the unity of Iraq and the blood of Iraqis and in helping them building a political system based on the constitution and law,” said Rida Jawad al-Takki, a senior group member, who read out the party’s decisions to reporters…

Officials said the party, which was formed in Iran in the 1980s to oppose Saddam, had previously taken its guidance from the religious establishment of Welayat al Faqih, led by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Iran.

Anne Barnard of the Boston Globe followed up with additional talk of popular Iranian Shiite support for Sistani.

At the governmental level, the US has been urging and predicting such an Iraqi Shiite shift for some time.  In January 2007 press briefing, Zalmay Khalilzad described a “readjustment” underway among Iraqi Shiites:

AMBASSADOR KHALILZAD: I think the Iraqis are going through a readjustment process – and by Iraqis I mean different political forces. There is no problem in terms of understanding between us and the Prime Minister. In the past, before Saddam Hussein was overthrown, a number of groups opposed to the regime operated from outside Iraq and they developed relations with some of the institutions and organizations of the neighboring states that supported them, and those are almost invariably security institutions. But now Iraqi is in a different place. It is a state that some of those people who were opposed are now in the government and there cannot be and there should not be relations with security institutions of neighboring states that work against the interests of this new Iraq; that attack Coalition forces, Iraqis, undermine the stability of Iraq.

Right Zionists celebrated news that such a “readjustment” might have led to a rift between Iraqi Shiite politicians and the Iranian regime.  FrontPage predicted the US was “Turning the Corner in Iraq“:

[B]ad news for Iran is the seismic shift of Iraq’s largest political party away from Iran…

In fact, what exists is a deep rivalry between the revolutionary Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini and the traditionalist Grand Ayatollah Sistani, both claiming authority over the Shi’a faith….

And yet, the signs do not all run in the same direction.

First, the FrontPage writer, Steve Schippert proposes that some sober “caution” is in order:

While it is difficult to understate the significance of the monumental shift within Iraq, it should also be recognized that the decision to transform the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq into simply the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council was not arrived at with unanimity.  Nor was it arrived at without heated debate.  As well, many of the SCIRI party’s elected government officials have ties and allegiances to Iran that are unlikely to simply evaporate overnight.

The factional lines within SCIRI/SIIC are not clear, but IraqSlogger cast doubt on the entire story of an Iraqi Shiite shift:

The media bureau of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, formerly SCIRI, issued a statement late Saturday correcting what it described as “dubious remarks attributed to senior SCIRI officials” and “inaccurate analysis” made by media outlets, referring to reports that the party would distance itself from neighboring Iran.

It can be difficult for any leader to deal with organizational factionalism, but SCIRI/SIIC leader Abdel Aziz al-Hakim seems to be taking it all very hard.

The Associated Press is reporting that al-Hakim is suddenly on his way to the US:

The leader of Iraq’s largest Shiite political party has left for the United States for medical checkups after complaining of exhaustion and high blood pressure, two officials said Friday.

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim flew to the United States on Wednesday, according to one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

The official, who works at al-Hakim’s office, declined to give further details. But a senior member of the Shiite leader’s party, the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, said al-Hakim was suffering from fatigue and high blood pressure.

Maybe he will also use his time in the US to “clarify” the position of his party, in light of the current confusion and the prospect of factional divisions.

And, finally, there is the question of the alleged rivalry between Sistani, on the one hand, and Khameini and the incumbent Iranian regime, on the other.

According to recent reports, Sistani has welcomed upcoming talks between the US and the Iranian regime:

Planned talks between the United States and Iran in Baghdad are “the first promising step for free and direct bilateral talks” between the two adversaries, a cleric close to Iraqi Shia leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said on Friday.

In his Friday sermon in a Najaf mosque, Shia Imam Sadr Eddin al- Qabanji expressed hope that the Iranian-US talks would lead to peace between the US and Iran…

Right Zionists love Sistani.  But not all Right Zionists seem to share Sistani’s enthusiasm for US-Iranian diplomacy.

Richard Perle, in particular, seems pretty bitter about the prospect of US talks with Iran:

Richard Perle offered a withering assessment of the president’s impotence at a meeting of the Hudson Institute in New York, saying American foreign policy is being applied by an out-of-control State Department….

“We have already seen a change in policy towards Iran,” he said. “It is now firmly back in the hands of the Department of State.”

Ultimately, Right Zionists are committed to the restoration of the old US-Israeli-Iranian strategic alliance.  The question is whether that could ever mean peace with the incumbent Iranian regime or only peace with “eternal Iran.”

Perhaps al-Hakim will be discussing that very question during his visit to the United States.

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