The Shia of Iraq and the South Asian Connection

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Khaled Ahmed[1]


(The state of Iran turned Shia in the 17th century with the help of the Shia scholars imported from Lebanon. The Arab population of Iraq became Shia as late as the middle of the 19th century with the help of the Shia scholars of Iran and financial assistance from the state of Awadh in India. Today a majority of the population of Iraq is Shia, engaged in a political process that it has partly borrowed from Lebanon. The custodian of the seminarian complex of Najaf and the mausoleum of Caliph Ali is a Pakistani grand ayatollah, appointed to his top position in deference to the fact that Najaf and Karbala were developed as a habitable economic zone by the Shia rulers of North India through the construction of the Hindiya Canal as a diversion from the Euphrates.  Author).


Iraq did not exist till it was created as the British mandate in 1921. Before that it was a province in Syria under the Ottoman Empire. Before that, it was simply a zone of contact between the Ottoman and Persian empires. Najaf and Karbala attracted the Shia of the region but the population of Iraq itself was not predominantly Shia. The tribes of Iraq converted to Shiism around the 18th through 19th century. When the Safavids ruled Iran in the 16th century they often claimed Najaf, Karbala and other cities since the Ottomans were neither reverential towards them nor exercised too much control over them. Najaf is where Caliph Ali is buried. But before he ruled from Kufa in Iraq, Umar had defeated the Persian king Yezdigerd in the battle of Qadisiya, taking prisoners and slaves and converts from Iran. When Ali ruled, his support came from this community of Persian origin. After Ali, the rule of the Umayyads from Syria was oppressive towards the Iraqis. Surprisingly, Iraq could not win against Syria because of internal divisions – typical of any melting-pot type of cultural contact zone.

At Qadisiya, in 637 AD, 4,000 Sassanian troops from Daylam in Northern Iran (called the Asawira) joined the 12,000-strong Arab army in Southern Iraq and decided to fight against their own king, Yezdigerd, on the condition that they be allowed to settle where they wished. In Iraq, there were a number of Iranian Muslims who were to join the Muslim army under the name of Hamra, “the red army”. When Hazrat Ali faced the forces of Muawiyya bin Abu Sufian at Siffin, his 70,000 Kufan soldiers included 8,000 mawali (non-Arab Muslim converts from slaves) and abeed (slaves). Sassanian soldiers swelled the Muslim armies in later years, coming and settling mostly in Basra from as far away as Sindh in today’s Pakistan. They were better archers than the Arabs and became a useful part of the Islamic army. However, the civil war that followed the assassination of Ali in Kufa in 661 AD, and the civil war that took place between the Syrian forces of Muawiya and the Iraqis of Basra and Kufa, saw these Sassanian elements as weakening the solidarity of the Iraqis already undermined by the revolt of the Khawarij, a sect that arose at Siffin opposing both Ali and Muawiya. After the murder of Caliph Usman in 656 AD, those who were angry at the incident arose in Basra as the supporters of Hazrat Aisha, the wife of the Prophet, under the leadership of Talha and Zubair. Caliph Ali’s army was Kufan and was pitted against the Basrans who were routed and both Talha and Zubair killed. But this evidenced yet again the split in Iraq, which made Syrian dominance of the country easy later when Imam Husain was besieged by the Syrians under Yazid.

The first Iraqi weakness appeared when the Kufans arose in revolt after the martyrdom of Imam Husain at Karbala in 683 AD at the orders of the Syrian-Umayyad governor of Kufa Ubaidullah bin Ziyad. The revolt came after the death of Yazid and the flight of Ibn Ziyad back to Syria. The battle which occurred finally in North Syria was lost by the Iraqis once again because of lack of cohesion among its various communities. Many Iraqis did not join after first promising to, while the Syrian army was united and greater in number. The Basrans and Kufans had finally to submit although they were greater in population and lived in the richest province. The Umayyads ruled their most precious territory from Syria by disarming the Iraqis, who were once the most warlike and numerically strong force, and by sending particularly tyrannical governors to keep them tamed. One such was Hajjaj bin Yusuf al-Thaqafi who was cruel towards the dissidents and benefited from the lack of loyalty of the Iraqi mawali. He was particular in not sending Kufan and Basran troops for conquests abroad. His nephew Muhammad bin Qasim al-Thaqafi was sent for the conquest of Sindh with a Syrian army. Later, the demilitarisation and civilianisation of the Iraqis warriors actually delayed the overthrow of the Umayyads by the Abbasids. The soldiers began to get paid salaries under the Umayyads. The custom of getting Muslim convert armies from other lands was started by Ali, continued by the Umayyads, and finally adopted in real earnest by the Abbasids whose bloodline was partly from Khurasan[1].

The Shia of Iraq

Today, Iraq has a population of 26.8 million of whom 65 percent are Shia while the Sunnis are 35 percent. Like all minorities, the Shia of Iraq keenly joined political movements that take the confessional focus away from public affairs. They embraced communism and pan-Arabism in order to become integrated into a Sunni-controlled state. The Baath party with its Arab nationalist doctrine took over in 1963 and was intellectually guided, making it possible for the Shia to participate in its politics. But by 1968 the Baath was taken over by tribal Iraqis with a strong anti-intellectual bent, which included an ancient distrust of the Shia and the communists. The Shia aroused suspicion because of their closeness to their religious leaders despite the fact that these leaders remained mostly quietist so as not to attract the cruelty of the Sunni tribes. But there were occasions when the Baath bore down on the more outspoken of the Shia spiritual hierarchy formed around the internationally revered cities of Najaf and Karbala. The poverty of the Shia prevented them from becoming completely integrated into the secular order. Saddam Hussein perpetuated himself through organisation and unbending cruelty towards his opponents or potential opponents.

Saddam banned public celebration of Shia festivals and killed the Shia leaders who showed signs of rebellion. His method of killing them was most gruesome and was meant to discourage any future disobedience. For instance in 1980 he killed the Shia cleric Baqer al-Sadr by driving nails into his head after al-Sadr had watched his sister being raped. In 1999, Saddam went on the rampage. He killed Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr along with his two sons (one son was Muqtada al-Sadr’s father); he also killed ten brothers of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim who fled to Iran and set up his militia as Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) with Iran’s help and in 2006 fielded the largest bloc of elected members of the Iraqi cabinet. Saddam fought his war with Iran from 1980 to 1989 with the help of the Arab states in the region and American support. Although prosperous, Iraq lost much of its economic strength because of the war, Iran was finally defeated because of its self-imposed isolation. In 1990, Saddam invaded Kuwait and began a reverse process: the world got together, isolated him and attacked him. Saddam was defeated and ousted from Kuwait. This was also a window of opportunity for the Shia of Iraq. They arose in rebellion and could have won against the Saddam regime had America decided to take the invasion to its logical conclusion by removing Saddam from power. Nasr reports that Saudi Arabia prevented the Americans from removing Saddam so as not to strengthen Iran in the region. President Bush and his administration understood what they were doing when they let Saddam turn around and punish the Shias for their act of rebellion, which they had earlier instigated.

The “second coming” of Saddam was the cruellest moment for the Shias of Iraq. Saddam crushed the religious leadership and top Shia politicians who had to flee to Iran and become dependent on Tehran’s largesse. This affected the legacy of Grand Ayatollah Khoi who had refused to accept the concept of velayat-e-faqih of Ayatollah Khomeini and weakened the autonomous status of the Iraqi Shia. Ajami notes that President HW Bush did not go for regime-change in Iraq in 1991 because that would have Lebanonised Iraq and tilted the sects into fighting and killing each other. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell and secretary of State James Baker seemed quite sure about what they had done by not removing Saddam from power:

“The spectre of Lebanonisation of Iraq stayed America’s hand. The Bush administration did not trust its knowledge of Iraq and its distant ways and sects. America was haunted by the memory of Lebanon – the sects warring on the deadly fault-lines – and was convinced that the Shia of Iraq were destined to fall under Iran’s sway. The Shia were the majority of Iraq’s population, the Shia faith having spread in the 19th century because the nomadic tribes of Iraq had taken to it when they settled near the shrine towns of Najaf and Karbala in search of water for their agricultural work. There had been no racial divide, no clear-cut distinctions between the Sunnis and Shias of Iraq. All this was unknown to those who had waged the war against Iraq. America had seen the terrible harvest of aggrieved Shiism in Tehran and Beirut. No one wanted a replay of the past. Hard as the Shia leaders of Iraq would insist that they had no ‘sister republic’ of the Iranian theocracy in mind, they could get no hearing for their case”[2].

As Ajami seemed to lay the foundation of a “neo-con” interpretation of what happened in 1991, plans for invading Iraq in 2003 were afoot. This time the Shia got what they wanted; but the experience of 1991 had flecked their perception of the United States with scepticism. They gravitated to religious leadership because that is what they had during long years of marginalisation and persecution. Strangely, the clergy guided them realistically albeit there were extremists like Muqtada Al Sadr who began to clamour for an end to American occupation soon after it became apparent that the Americans had little grasp of what it meant to restore the civic amenities destroyed by the war and what the US troops would be up against when the insurgency started. The Shia clergy, while representing the Shia community, got divided into three factions. The first faction was of the quietist grand ayatollahs of Najaf – Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayyad, Bashir Hussain al-Najafi al-Pakistani, Said al-Hakim – led by Ayatollah Sistani, that kept alive the legacy of grand ayatollah Al-Khoi and spread it through their representatives in all parts of Iraq and among the moderate exiles abroad. Khoi’s son Majid al-Khoi returned to Najaf from London in 2003 only to be murdered by the supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr.

Young Muqtada al-Sadr was the extremist who ruled the riff-raff of the Shia slum dwellers in Sadr City, Baghdad. Other slums in Kirkuk and Basra too had his supporters and although Muqtada had failed to pass the seminary, he knew how to control his following, relying mainly on the welfare network left behind by his great father. He was violent in his actions but was weak in religion and therefore sought advice from Ayatollah Khadim Hussain al-Haeri at Qum, but he too distanced himself after seeing Muqtada’s tendency towards violence. Strangely, Muqtada became more relevant to Iraq as time passed and violence became common. Insurrection played right into his hands and everyone from Ahmed Chalabi to Sistani wanted to either use him or to have him around in case the Sunnis increased their pressure. He mixed nationalism with Islam and threw his organised youths named Mahdi Army into the fray in 2004, asking the Americans to quit while confronting the Sunnis and other objectors from among the Shia, from such cities where he had established his power as Baghdad, Basra and Karbala. The last-named city provided big income to him from the fee collected from pilgrims.

The third clerical outfit is associated with Abdul Aziz Hakim and his Iran-backed SCIRI and militia Badr Brigade. He and his militia stood between the moderation of Sistani and the extremism of Muqtada. In the December 2005 elections, Muqtada joined the other two factions of the Shia clerics to sit atop the biggest bloc of members in the Iraqi government. He was readily accepted by the other two because he had fire power and could do violence in return for the Sunni violence steadily coming from the old elements of the Baath and Saddam’s disbanded army.

The grand ayatollahs of Najaf

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Hussaini Sistani (b.1930) emerged the highest cleric of Iraq because he inherited the mantle of the late Grand Ayatollah al-Khoi at the world centre of Shiism at Najaf. He is Iranian-born and hails from Mashhad with no connections to Qum, but has a large following in Iran because of the influence of his moderate-quietist master, Al Khoi, also an Iranian[3]. Sistani’s strength lay in his great learning in Shia theology and his ability to stay clear of Iranian politics, especially when taking sides had become important. He stayed clear of the quarrel which took place between the Lebanese Shia and Tehran – over Musa Sadr’s militia, Amal – and also remained silent over the split that happened in Iran between Grand Ayatollah Montezari and Ayatollah Khomeini over the doctrine of velayat-e-faqih and revolutionary violence. His status in the Shia world can be judged from his ranking among the marja’s (persons worthy of following) in the world. Out of all the living ayatollahs Sistani has the largest global following, the largest in one country being in Iraq, followed by Iran. Other grand ayatollahs at Najaf are: Afghan Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayyad, Pakistani Bashir al-Najafi al-Pakistani and Iraqi Said al-Hakim. In Karbala, the authority belongs to Muhammad Taqi Mudarassi; in Lebanon, to Muhammad Hussain Fadlallah; at Qum, to Mirza Javad Tabrizi, Taqi Behjat and Hussain Ali Montezari. The ideologically oriented Shia follow the Spiritual Guide Ali Khamenei in Tehran[4]. But in deference to the sheer power of Qum and the increasing insecurity at Najaf, Sistani “chose Qum as the headquarters for his internet operations”[5]. So close is the Lebanese Shia thinking to the moderates of the Sistani school that Hezbollah’s spiritual guide grand ayatollah Fadlallah, originally from Najaf, seriously thought of moving to Najaf but was thwarted by Iraq’s insecurity.

In 2003, the grand ayatollah Bashir Hussain al-Najafi was targeted by Saddam’s fedayeen terrorists, but the grenade thrown at him only seriously wounded him. In Pakistan very few outside of the Shia clerical hierarchy know about the only grand ayatollah produced by Pakistan. There are five grand ayatollahs living today and four of them are in Najaf, Iraq, headed by Sistani. Out of these four, only one is Iraqi-born, the others being from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. (Grand Ayatollah Fayyad or Fayyaz is most probably a Hazara.) Ayatollah al-Uzma Sheikh Bashir Hussain Najafi, as described on his personal website, was born in 1942 in Jullundhar, India, and moved with his family to Pakistan in 1947 and memorised the Quran while studying Islam in Lahore. He moved to Najaf for higher studies and in his 40 years of career in Iraq has never visited Pakistan. He registered in the hawza (complex of seminaries) of Najaf headed by Ayatollah Al-Uzma Al-Syed Mohsin Al-Hakim. He was counted among the bright students of Ayatollah Al-Khoi and Ayatollah Al-Syed Mohammad Al-Rohani. After three years Najafi was already teaching other students and was accepted as the first teacher from South Asia. Under Ayatollah al-Uzma al-Khoi he started teaching the highest course of the seminary in 1974. Among his students were some Shia leaders who became famous in Pakistan: Syed Sajid Ali Naqvi, late Syed Arif Hussain Al-Hussaini, late Syed Ijaz Kazmi and Maulana Syed Nabi Hassan, etc. Among other pupils he counts the family of the famous al-Hakim clerics of Iraq, and the family of the “hanging judge” Ayatollah Khalkhali of Iran.

The Najaf school never accepted the doctrine of velayat faqih propounded by Imam Khomeini after coming to power. Under this doctrine, about which he began thinking in 1971 during the celebration of the pre-Islamic identity of Iran by the Shah, the Shia jurist had to rule the state instead of just issuing opinion. The doctrine posited that the leading cleric could have something of the divine spark that illuminated the Imams. This controversially meant that now the chief jurist could share in the ismet (infallibility) of the Prophet and the Imams[6]. During Imam Khomeini’s stay in Najaf, where he went in 1965, Pakistan’s Shia cleric from Parachinar, Ariful Hussaini, at that time a pupil of now-grand ayatollah Bashir Hussain, came under his influence and became his companion. It is through Ariful Hussaini that the Shia of the region of Kurram Agency, down to the settled district of Kohat in the NWFP, began going to Qum and manifesting signs of following the Khomeini doctrine. Hussaini was killed in Peshawar in 1988, followed ten days later by the death of General Zia, the ruler of Pakistan. In 1991, Shia killers ambushed and killed the governor of the NWFP under General Zia, whom they suspected of being involved in the death of their leader.

It was said that after grand ayatollah Sistani, Bashir Najafi would take his place at the top of the Najaf hierarchy, but as far as the administration of the seminary complex of Najaf was concerned, he was the heir to the legacy of Al-Khoi who personally gave him charge of it. The seminary was shut for six months after Khoi’s death but was revived by Najafi with his personal resources. It was destroyed by Saddam in 1991 again but once again Najafi was able to rebuild dozens of seminaries and hostels and resume the studies there. The average supply of electricity in 2006 was for about eight hours a day. He bought six large power generators to provide electricity to the seminaries and 2,500 houses in the neighbourhood. Some knowledgeable bloggers, one among whom is said to be a well-known British journalist writing under a pseudonym, believe that Najafi is more anti-American than Sistani. His website doesn’t mention Sistani, which may be significant. If the “Najaf four” are killed by terrorists, the leadership of Najaf will pass to the “fifth” grand ayatollah Kazem Haeri in exile in Qum in Iran, who has broken with the Najaf tradition of Khoi and subscribes to Khomeini’s revolutionary creed.

It is not known whether the three “foreigner” grand ayatollah (Sistani, Najafi, Fayyad) have been naturalised as Iraqis or are still aliens with passports and visas which have to be renewed. Some concern was raised about this when Sistani did not vote in the 2005 general election. One blogger reported that they had to get their visas renewed regularly through a local guarantor. He also reported that in the 1990s, it was Muqtada al-Sadr who became their guarantors and wrote the required letter of recommendation for them, and that, once, to assert his authority vis-à-vis the Najaf trio, he did not issue the letter and the government had to renew the visas without a guarantor. Another well known blogger says, quoting Iraqi newspaper Al Zaman: “The provincial council of Najaf, now dominated by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), requested that the first act of the Iraqi parliament once it is seated on March 16 be to grant Iraqi citizenship to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Sistani’s family immigrated to Iraq from Iran and settled in Najaf about a century ago, the paper claims, but could never acquire citizenship. The vice- chairman of the Najaf body, Shaikh Khalid al-Numani, requested that the parliament also give citizenship to Bashir Najafi (a Pakistani) and Ishaq Fayyad (an Afghan)[7].”

Najaf and the Shia of Awadh

The India-born “Pakistani” grand ayatollah of Najaf, Bashir Hussain, belongs in the tradition linking South Asia to the Shiism of Iraq. It is quite possible that his handling of the administration of the mausoleums and the seminary complex of the city of Najaf is an extension of the past that shows India deeply involved in the consolidation of the Shia faith in Iraq. The faith itself has a pattern of “transference” which is quite interesting. The Safavid conversion of Iran to Shiism at the beginning of the 17th century was owed to the Shia jurists who were brought in from Lebanon, the surviving cradle of the faith. The conversion of Iraqi Arabs was owed, among other factors, to the “bequests” that came from Awadh[8] (Oudh) in India, first rescuing a waterless and desiccated Najaf from death, through the construction of Hindiyya Canal from the Euphrates, then through permanent stipends to the Shia jurists of the city.

Najaf is where the first Shia Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib lies buried. Karbala is where his son the third Imam Husayn fought his battle with the Umayyad caliph and achieved martyrdom. Both cities were visited by the Shia pilgrims of Iran and India. A large number of Iranians and Indians were buried in Najaf and other shrine cities. Iraq remained Arab and Sunni but there were interregnums when it was ruled by Shia rulers like the Buyids (945-1055) who defended the Shia imams and looked after the shrines of Najaf, Karbala, Kufa, Hilla, Samarra, Kazimayn, etc. After Iraq fell to the Sunni Ottomans in 1533, these shrines were simply tolerated as places visited by the Shia of Iran and India. The conversion of the Sunni Arab tribes to Shiism of Iraq is dated from the 18th century, but more significantly from the 19th century. The dominance of the faith grew through the 20th century too till in 1932 the Shia were recorded by the census to be 56 percent of the population of Iraq[9].

Najaf and Karbala would have remained desert marketplaces visited by the nomadic Sunni Arab tribes during spring had it not been for the construction of the Husayniyya Canal by the Ottomans that revived Karbala. But it was the Hindiyya Canal that was to uplift the two cities and bestow on them the greatness they acquired in later times, and also led to the settlement of the Arab desert tribes and to their conversion. In the late 1780s, the chief minister of Awadh in India, Hasan Raza Khan made a contribution of Rs 500,000 towards the construction of the canal, completed in 1803, that brought water to Najaf. So big was the diversion of the water from the Euphrates that the river changed course. The canal became a virtual river and transformed the arid zone between the cities of Najaf and Karbala into fertile land that attracted the Sunni Arab tribes to settle there and take to farming.

The Shia kingdom of Awadh (1720-1856) gave more than a million rupees annually from its treasury for the upkeep of the Shia shrines in Iraq. The money went to the Iranian Shia jurists settled around these shrines. Yet the most significant contribution emanated from the loan an Awadhi king Ghaziuddin Hayder extended to the governor-general of the East India Company during the Company’s war with Burma[10]. The loan was never repaid but the interest on it was paid regularly according to the will of the king; and the payments continued after the British annexed Awadh in 1856. According to the will, the interest had to be paid to the four wives of the king, but after their demise it was to go in part – and in some cases, full – to the Shia of Najaf and Karbala, through the Iranian jurists there, also targeting the “pauper” Indian Shias – getting one-third of the bequest – who had made their homes in the two cities. The fund was called the Awadh Bequest – amounting to nearly 200,000 rupees when ten rupees were equal to a British pound – and was handled by the British Indian consulate in Iraq, at times with an intent to extend the influence of the Raj in Iran.

Litvak reports an interesting change in the disposition of the Bequest in 1867 on the request of Nawab Iqbal al-Dawla, the grandson of Nawab Saadat Ali Khan of Awadh, who lived in Kazimayn[11]. He accused the Iranian jurists of not using the bequest honestly and pleaded for the “pauper” Indian and Kashmiri population living in Najaf. He was able to change the distribution pattern of the bequest and henceforth administered the “sub-bequest” whose beneficiaries also included the pauperised descendants of the Awadh rulers now living in Najaf. It was only after the initiation of this bequest that more Indian “paupers” were attracted to the holy Shia cities like Karbala where there were no Indians to begin with[12].

Many factors persuaded the Arabs to embrace Shiism in the 19th century. The one big factor was the Corpse Traffic (naql al-janaez) that accounted for nearly 20,000 dead bodies of Shias from Iran and India for the purpose of burial at the shrines. The practice was old and had stemmed from the hadith of the sixth Imam Jafar Sadiq that “being next to Ali a day is more favourable than seven hundred years of worship”[13]. The coming of the corpses had its own economics that attracted a lot of commerce to the city of Najaf. The fertility of the land around Najaf and Karbala attracted the desert Arabs to agriculture, while the Ottoman bureaucracy encouraged them to own land so that tax could be collected from them. The well-endowed Iranian Shia jurists, threatened by repeated raids from the Wahhabis of Arabia against the Shrines of Najaf and Karbala, began to proselytise intensively among the Arab tribes till most of them converted.

Elections under the new Constitution 2006

Sistani convinced the Iraqi Shias into agreeing that Iraq should not become a theocracy like Iran. He joined the various Shia formations together and got them to vote as a united front in the January 2005 elections meant to form a transitional parliament and a transitional government to oversee the framing of a constitution for Iraq. The polls anticipated a political system based on proportional representation similar to the Lebanese model and not the Iranian one. The Shia grouping won the largest number of seats in the constituent assembly but the Sunnis by and large boycotted the election. Then in January 2006 elections were held under the new constitution. A month after Iraqis voted to elect their first permanent parliament since Saddam Hussein’s capture nearly three years earlier, the country’s independent electoral commission finally announced the results. As expected, the Shia-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), which dominated the previous year-long transitional government, easily won, taking 128 out of 275 seats, with 41 percent of the votes cast, down only slightly from its near-majority in January 2005. A Kurdish alliance of two main parties took 53 seats and 22 percent of the vote, also down a bit from last January’s total. Finally, the two main Sunni-led coalitions took 55 seats and 19 percent of the vote between them, a big gain on the 17 seats the country’s former ruling minority won a year earlier, when most Sunni Arabs had abstained[14].

The way the confessional communities reacted to the Constitution indicates some trends of concern. The Constitution is federal and promises enough devolution for the Shias and the Kurds to start aiming at carving out their separate states ultimately based on ethnic cleansing. The Kurds want to make an independent state out of the three northern provinces while the Shia want nine southern provinces to belong to them. Both groupings have large oil resources on the sharing of which the Constitution shows remarkable ambivalence. Both groupings are interpenetrated with other confessional and ethnic populations. The Iraq Study Group Report put it succinctly:

“The Iraqi Constitution, which created a largely autonomous Kurdistan region, allows other such regions to be established later, perhaps including a ‘Shiastan’ comprising nine southern provinces. This highly decentralised structure is favoured by the Kurds and many Shia (particularly supporters of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim), but it is anathema to Sunnis. First, Sunni Arabs are generally Iraqi nationalists, albeit within the context of an Iraq they believe they should govern. Second, because Iraq’s energy resources are in the Kurdish and Shia regions, there is no economically feasible ‘Sunni region’. Particularly contentious is a provision in the constitution that shares revenues nationally from current oil reserves, while allowing revenues from reserves discovered in the future to go to the regions. The Sunnis did not actively participate in the constitution-drafting process, and acceded to entering the government only on the condition that the constitution be amended. In September, the parliament agreed to initiate a constitutional review commission slated to complete its work within one year; it delayed considering the question of forming a federalized region in southern Iraq for eighteen months…Iraq’s leaders often claim that they do not want a division of the country, but we found that key Shia and Kurdish leaders have little commitment to national reconciliation. One prominent Shia leader told us pointedly that the current government has the support of 80 percent of the population, notably excluding Sunni Arabs. Kurds have fought for independence for decades, and when our Study Group visited Iraq, the leader of the Kurdish region ordered the lowering of Iraqi flags and the raising of Kurdish flags. One senior American general commented that the Iraqis ‘still do not know what kind of country they want to have’. Yet many of Iraq’s most powerful and well-positioned leaders are not working toward a united Iraq[15].”

If the sectarian-ethnic fallout of the American withdrawal cannot be controlled and channelled, the Shia majority may become more assertive politically, overshadowing the apolitical and mostly “foreign” priestly leadership of the grand ayatollahs. At the time of writing, the non-Iraqi “trio” is already dependent on the politicised religious leaders like Aziz al Hakim of SCIRI and Muqtada al Sadr of Mahdi Army. The field will thus be open to Iran to benefit from the decline of the anti-Khomeini “foreign trio” and the rise of the militias more willing to engage Iran politically. Both would require financial and military support in the early phase, which will make them more dependent on Tehran. It is quite clear that neither Bashir al Najafi nor Ishaq Fayyad is likely to succeed Sistani whose health has not been good since 2004. The “fifth” Najafi grand ayatollah is located in Qum and might be chosen on a political basis. Kazem Haeri has broken from the Khoi tradition of Najaf and embraced the Khomeinist interpretation of Shiism.

[1] Khaled Ahmed is consulting editor of the Friday Times, Lahore.

[1] Hugh Kennedy; The Armies of the Caliphs: Military and Society in Early Islamic State, Routledge, London, 2001.

[2] Fouad Ajami, The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey, Vintage Books 1998, p.181-182

[3] Yitzhak Atash, Reaching for Power, Princeton 2006, says Sistani did not vote in the 2005 election probably because he was not registered as an Iraqi national (p.155).

[4] Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival, WW Norton 2006, p.71.

[5] Ibid, p.218

[6] Daniel Brumberg, Inventing Khomeini: the Struggle for Reform in Iran, University of Chicago Press, 2001, p.82.

[7]  >>  Juan @ 3/15/2005 06:30 (Blogger Prof Juan Cole teaches at the University of Michigan amd makes TV appearances in the US as an expert on Iraq.)

[8] Awadh is a region in the centre of the modern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, which was before Independence known as the United Provinces of Oudh and Agra. The traditional capital of Awadh has been Lucknow, still the capital of the modern State. The modern definition of Awadh geographically includes the districts of Ambedkar Nagar, Bahraich, Balrampur, Barabanki, Faizabad, Gonda, Hardoi, Lakhimpur Kheri, Lucknow, Allahabad, Kaushambi, Pratapgarh, Rai Bareilly, Shravasti, Sitapur, Sultanpur, and Unnao. The region is home to a distinct dialect, Awadhi. Literary Urdu has two competing accents, Dehlavi (represented by Ghalib) and Lakhnavi (represented by Mir).

[9] Yitzhak Nakash, The Shiis of Iraq, Princeton Paperbacks, 1995, p.13.

[10] Meir Litvak, Money, Religion, and Politics: the Oudh Bequest in Najaf and Karbala 1850-1903. International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 33, 2001, p.1-21. Litvak writes it was Nepal where the East India Company had planned its expedition.

[11] The shrines to Musa al-Kazim and Muhammad al-Jawwad, the 7th and 9th Imams, are located in Kazimayn, now a Baghdad suburb.

[12] Meir Litvak, Ibid, p.6.

[13] Yitzhak Nakash, Ibid, p.186.

[14] The Economist, 26 January 2006.

[15] The Iraq Study Group Report: The Way Forward – A New Approach, Vintage Books 2006, p.18.