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Shiite Clerics Clashing Over How to Reshape Iraq By: Neil MacFarquhar
New York Times | Tuesday, August 26, 2003

The clerics who hold sway over Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority are locked in a violent power struggle pitting the older, established ayatollahs counseling patience with the occupation against a younger, more militant faction itching to found an Islamic state.

The militants are suspected of carrying out a series of attacks, including one over the weekend, engineered to eliminate or at least unsettle Najaf's religious scholars just as Shiites feel their moment has come. The bloodshed started in April with the murder of a prominent young cleric, Abdel Majid al-Khoei, inside the city's most holy shrine. That slaying remains such a tinderbox issue that the police and prosecutors only reluctantly confirmed for the first time today that some 12 suspects had been rounded up this month and more arrests were pending.

The tense standoff, as described by clerics from both factions, is playing out among the twisting alleyways of this holy seat, a battle for the leadership of Iraq's Shiite community, which accounts for 60 percent of the country's population of about 25 million.

In one corner sit the senior ayatollahs clustered around Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, all betting that it is only a matter of time before the United States delivers a democratic state that the Shiites can dominate through sheer numbers.

Arrayed against them are more activist opponents of the American-led occupation who back Moktada al-Sadr and who believe that Shiites should aggressively pursue an Islamic state modeled on clerical rule in Iran.

"It goes back in history to two distinct lines in Muslim and particularly Shiite thought," said Sheik Shaibani, a 33-year-old cleric who runs the Islamic court in Najaf in defiance of the elder clergy.

"There are those who say you must undertake jihad in times of oppression, and those who say we must stay silent until the reappearance of the Mahdi," he said, referring to the Shiite savior.

Although not calling for an outright holy war, the young clerics hint at the possibility. No one points the finger directly at Mr. Sadr, the descendant of a long line of illustrious clerics, but the police, prosecutors and Americans in Iraq, not to mention ordinary Najafis, single out his group as the font of violence. "Everyone in the city was expecting something like this to happen," Qassim Shabbar, a Najaf merchant, said of Mr. Sadr's possible role in the latest bloodshed. A bombing on Sunday outside the residence of a conservative ayatollah killed three men.

Shadowing the entire discussion about Shiites' power is the question of Iran's role here. Officially, the Iranians have said they want a stable, democratic Iraq, expecting that it will bring Shiite dominion.

But some Iraqis harbor suspicions that Iran wants the United States kept preoccupied by an unstable Iraq, rather than turning its attention next door to the Islamic Republic, and so is supporting Mr. Sadr or worse, the scattered remnants of Ansar al-Islam, a militant Islamic group that American officials believe has been plotting attacks against Western targets in Baghdad.

In the immediate aftermath of the murder of Mr. Khoei, the son of a beloved grand ayatollah killed under Saddam Hussein, residents of Najaf were too fearful to speak about it. But a few weeks ago, they pointedly hung banners in the streets and spoke openly of their suspicions that Mr. Sadr or at least his followers had had a hand in it.

"Disgrace and humiliation to the heretics, the murderers," said one such banner near Mr. Sadr's office. Residents said opponents were also sneaking up to the office door at night to attach pictures of Mr. Khoei.

The possible ramifications of the Khoei investigation are so sensitive that prosecutors and the police refused to discuss it, other than to say they had arrested a dozen or so men whom witnesses identified as having been involved.

Sheik Ahmed Shabani, a Sadr aide, denied that the followers of Mr. Sadr had a role in any violence.

Conservatives in Najaf view Mr. Sadr and his followers as rabble-rousers. The difference between the two groups is readily apparent during any religious event, as stark as the difference between a rave crowd and a group of symphonygoers.

The followers of Mr. Sadr are all coiled fervor, chanting ardently against America, "We are Sadr against the infidels!" while rhythmically jumping and beating their chests with their hands despite the August heat. The followers of the elderly clergy, even the young, politely sit in formation or stand chanting tepid, apolitical slogans.

Among Mr. Sadr's most hotly disputed proposals has been to form a popular militia that his senior aides said would provide greater security in Shiite neighborhoods. It is also envisioned as a kind of morals police, upholding standards of Muslim public behavior.

"It is not an army of destabilization or to undermine security," said Sheik Muhammad Fartousi, one of Mr. Sadr's senior aides in Sadr City, a Baghdad slum with a population of two million that is ground zero for Mr. Sadr's supporters. "It will help the oppressed."

The militants are careful not to risk the wrath of the American forces by singling them out by name, but the threat of engaging them wafts around nearly every sermon, every interview.

"We don't have airplanes or tanks or artillery like our enemies," said Mr. Fartousi, vowing that tens of thousands of volunteers signing up for the Army of the Mahdi will defend Shiite neighborhoods from any attack. "Even if we reach the extent where we run out of stones, we will lay down our bodies."

In Najaf, senior clergymen make sarcastic remarks about the prospect of any kind of popular militia protecting Shiite figures or shrines.

But some merchants in Baghdad worry that a violent religious underground has already formed. Practically every liquor store in the city — a trade limited exclusively to Christians because Islam forbids alcohol — has been firebombed or attacked with rockets overnight during the past few months.

The young clerics around Mr. Sadr argue that alcohol should be banned, but say they are not trying to prevent it through violence.

Officials of the American-led occupation of Iraq recognize that no community is more crucial than the Shiites. One senior coalition official described the tacit consent of the high-ranking ayatollahs to the occupation of the country as a crucial strategic factor in establishing what stability there is in Iraq. "Retaining the support of the Shiites is essential for the success of the coalition," he said.

In general, Shiites are reluctant to discuss factional rivalries. Senior officials from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa Party — both of which have members on the Iraqi Governing Council — paint the tension as a natural outpouring following years of oppression.

"After 35 years, people just want to express their ideas, even if it is not always in a responsible way," said Adel Abdel Mehdi, a senior official with the council. "It's a healthy sign of the Shiites coming out of repression. You have a community trying to find its way, which could be dangerous if we are not united."

When asked directly, senior clergymen deny any deep schism, blaming Baathists seeking to destabilize Iraq for the violence. A banner hung by Mr. Sadr's supporters outside his offices today attributed blame for the bombing on Sunday to the the American-led coalition trying to intimidate the Shiite seminary movement in Najaf, which is known as the Hawza. But the more established Shiite groups describe gangland tactics like those used on liquor stores as a sign that the militants are immature and unlikely to retain the faithful.

"This childish movement imposes its ideas on others," said Ali Abdel Mehdi, a senior official with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution. "Its ideas are without thorough knowledge or study by these people who are teenagers, people who have done no religious studies."

There has been little public criticism of Mr. Sadr in Iraq, however. The Shiite establishment appears slightly at a loss over how to challenge him, sensing that his popularity among the most disenfranchised would lose them an important constituency.

Outside the Shiite community, some officials believe that Mr. Sadr serves as a useful tool. While the ayatollahs might fret about the militants, they serve as a vivid example of the holy war that could be unleashed should the occupation fail to deliver.

The question now is whether the older, more established clerics can win over the Shiite rank and file, or whether frustration will spread the appeal of an Islamic state.

The moderate clerics believe that the fastest antidote for radicalism is providing security, jobs and electricity, which they say will sway Shiites away from extremism.

"People fear chaos," said Muhammad Hussein al-Hakim, a son of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Said al-Hakim, whose house was the scene of the bombing on Sunday. The younger Mr. Hakim suffered injuries in the attack and was himself threatened some weeks earlier. "If the occupation forces could achieve results fast," he said, "that will prevent the calls for this kind of action."

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