Basra v. Persia, Part II

Posted by Cutler on June 15, 2006
Iran, Iraq, Israel

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.

2 Comments to Basra v. Persia, Part II

  • by chance I found an article about this cleric.

    PRAGUE, August 24, 2006 (RFE/RL) — Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Mahmud al-Hasani al-Sarkhi grabbed the spotlight last week when he challenged the authority of Shi’ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani through a brazen attempt to gain access to Karbala’s sacred Imam Husayn Shrine.

    In his attempt to wrest a greater role for himself and his followers in Karbala, the cleric’s militia clashed with government forces, leading to the arrest of some 300 militiamen, according to a statement issued by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s office on August 16. While observers say the cleric poses no real threat to Iraqi security, al-Hasani claims thousands of supporters across southern and central Iraq.

    Against All Foreigners

    Al-Hasani appears to have risen to prominence following the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003 through his staunch opposition to the U.S. invasion and the subsequent establishment of the Iraqi Governing Council. He later opposed the interim and transitional governments, as well as the December 2005 election that brought the current government to power.

    Al-Hasani stands strongly opposed to Iranian influence in Iraq, and has criticized Iranian-backed political groups operating in Iraq, such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Al-Da’wah Party, which is led by Prime Minister al-Maliki.

    While he opposes Iranian influence, al-Hasani does support the establishment of an Iranian-style Islamic theocracy in Iraq. A former student of Iraqi Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, al-Hasani subscribes to vilayat al-faqih, or rule of the jurisprudent, as practiced in Iran.

    His spokesman Haidar al-Abadi claimed in 2004 that the cleric had some 25,000 to 30,000 supporters. In April 2005, al-Hasani announced the creation of his religious seminary and the establishment of his militia, called Husayn’s Army, apparently named after Imam Husayn, over whose tomb he recently clashed with the government in Karbala.

    Al-Hasani believes himself to be the supreme religious authority, above all other ayatollahs, including al-Sistani and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Meanwhile, his detractors have questioned the 40-year-old cleric’s elevated status of ayatollah, and have balked at his delusions of grandeur. Indeed, as a Lebanese cleric pointed out in June, al-Hasani has crossed the line, going so far as to claim he has shared tea with the revered hidden imam, al-Mahdi.

    Back on earth, al-Hasani has even clashed with his onetime ally Muqtada al-Sadr, the son of his deceased former teacher Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr. Once described as the religious authority for the majority of al-Sadr supporters, al-Hasani’s relationship with the younger al-Sadr today is severely strained.

    Al-Hasani’s supporters backed al-Sadr militiamen in their clash with Ayatollah al-Sistani in Karbala in October 2003 and again against U.S. forces in Al-Najaf in 2004.

    But in recent months al-Hasani has grown critical of al-Sadr, particularly after the latter’s decision to allow his supporters to take part in the December parliamentary elections. Subsequent differences have further strained the relationship.

    Drawing Ire Of Police, Religious Authority

    While al-Hasani claims to have a base of support in Karbala, he was widely criticized in Karbala as early as 2003 for confrontations between his supporters and coalition forces. At least one Iraqi newspaper, “Al-Nahdah,” blamed al-Hasani for the October 2003 standoff between al-Sadr forces and the U.S. military there.

    In August 2005, his supporters demonstrated in Baghdad and Karbala, demanding that the Interior and Defense ministries close the file against him and drop an arrest warrant.

    Al-Hasani’s most recent clash with the government follows demands for a greater role for him and his supporters in Karbala. The cleric’s supporters have held several demonstrations in the holy city in recent months, including at least two in June, demanding an end to Iranian interference over Iraq’s holy shrines and the closure of the Iranian Consulate in the city.

    Earlier this month, al-Hasani and his supporters demanded the cleric’s participation in daily and Friday Prayer sermons and in the caretaking activities of the Imam Husayn Shrine after guards at the shrine denied entry to al-Hasani’s supporters on several occasions, the cleric claimed.

    Since 2003, a committee appointed by Ayatollah al-Sistani has been responsible for the assignment of shrine duties and the prayer leadership in the holy city. The committee is headed by al-Sistani representatives Ahmad al-Safi and Abd al-Mahdi al-Karbala’i. The committee was responsible for security for the shrines and security teams were reportedly staffed by Shi’a with diverse political leanings. Members of SCIRI, Al-Da’wah, and Iraqi Hizballah provided extra security support during religious festivals and holy days.

    After al-Hasani questioned al-Sistani’s authority in Karbala in early August, al-Sistani reportedly asked Salih al-Haydari, the head of Shi’ite Endowments in Baghdad, to officially deem al-Safi and al-Karbala’i guardians of the Imam Abbas and Imam Husayn shrines, respectively.

    Clashes subsequently erupted on August 16 between al-Hasani and his supporters and shrine security forces, with the latter eventually seeking backup from Iraqi security forces. Ten militiamen loyal to al-Hasani were killed and 281 arrested, Prime Minister al-Maliki’s office said in a statement.

    According to a correspondent for RFE/RL’s Radio Free Iraq in Karbala, militiamen connected with SCIRI’s Badr Forces and al-Sadr’s Imam Al-Mahdi Army did not take part in the clashes with al-Hasani loyalists on August 16, but both militias were present in the city, offering protection to administrative buildings.

    Calm was eventually restored but not before pro-al-Hasani protesters took to the streets in Karbala, Al-Nasiriyah, and Al-Hillah on August 16 and 17. Al-Hasani spokesman Mustafa al-Thabiti told Al-Sharqiyah television on August 17 that the cleric’s supporters would continue to rally against Iran’s influence in Iraq. Al-Thabiti claimed that the majority of Karbala Governorate Council members were Iranians “who hold both Iraqi and Iranian passports” and who take their orders from clergy in Qom. Al-Hasani has more than 500 “martyrdom seekers” at his disposal in 10 different governorates ready to die for his cause, al-Thabiti added.

    Fringe Player

    While al-Hasani’s profile has certainly been elevated in recent months following his campaign to eliminate Iranian influence in Iraq, the cleric currently poses no real threat.

    While he arguably garners sizeable grassroots support, particularly among Iraqi Shi’a weary of Iran’s growing influence in Iraq — “Al-Zaman” reported on August 20 that Persian is steadily replacing Arabic as the dominant language in Al-Najaf, Karbala, and Al-Basrah — he has seriously damaged his own credibility by claiming elevated religious status and otherworldly contacts with the long-awaited Imam al-Mahdi.

    Moreover, al-Hasani’s strained relations with nearly every Shi’ite political party have elicited more criticism than respect, and further delegitimized his cause in several cities, including Al-Basrah, where he has clashed with security services on several occasions. Al-Hasani maintains the clashes were the result of a campaign by the Iranian-sponsored political party Al-Fadilah.

    It is difficult to discern whether al-Hasani could ever rise to the level of al-Sadr in terms of on-the-ground support. While his message is one that resonates — no to occupation, no to Iranian influence — his opposition to federalism and the constitution and his desire to establish a theocracy would draw little popular support in the south.

    Al-Hasani also poses no real threat to the Shi’ite militias that currently hold power over much of central and southern Iraq. Although the cleric has accused the Iranian religious establishment in Qom of trying to assassinate him, it is likely that Iran views al-Hasani as little more than an annoyance.

    Al-Hasani will garner no sympathy from multinational forces should he run into trouble with his Shi’ite rivals, and not just because of his declared antipathy towards the U.S. military presence in Iraq. U.S. forces pledged a $50,000 reward for al-Hasani’s arrest in October 2003 after the cleric’s bodyguards allegedly gunned down three military policemen.

    With little Shi’ite support, a U.S. arrest warrant against him, and Iran as his enemy, it seems al-Hasani’s star will soon burn out.

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