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The Shia factor

Print edition : Mar 11, 2005 T+T-
The Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, an important Shia shrine.-ALI JASIM/ REUTERS

The Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, an important Shia shrine.-ALI JASIM/ REUTERS

WORSHIPPERS from Iran can often be seen queuing up outside the golden-domed Imam Ali shrine at Najaf in Iraq. Among them Iranian women, in their finely cut Abayas (flowing black gowns), stand out. Waiters at the row of eateries close by seek customers in Persian. In the adjoining market, Iranian goods, especially fabrics, are freely available.

The scene outside this revered shrine of Shia Islam is symptomatic of Iran's deeply entrenched relationship with Iraq.

The age-old ties got reinforced following the departure of many prominent Iraqi Shias to Iran during the years when Saddam Hussein was President. Many of them initially resided in Iran, but subsequently moved to Western capitals, where they even established connections with those governments and some interest groups.

After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, several of them returned to Baghdad and have now acquired prominent positions in the emerging political dispensation. With these individuals at the helm, Iran has gained substantial, though arguably not overwhelming, influence in Iraqi ruling circles.

Iran's influence is evident from the fact that the top Shia spiritual leader in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, is of Iranian origin. Al Sistani was instrumental in forging the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), which has the Al Daawa party and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) as its core constituents. Both these political groups have Iranian antecedents.

Al Daawa's Ibrahim Jaafari is likely to be designated Iraq's new Executive Prime Minister. Jaafari's Iranian links can be traced to 1980 when he fled to that country after Saddam Hussein intensified his crackdown on his party. During his stay in Iran, he worked closely with the SCIRI. In the 1980s, Al Daawa was also known to have ties with shadowy groups in Lebanon and Kuwait, which were involved in targeting the United States and French interests in those countries.

Nine years later, Jaafari left for London, which soon became a base for overseas Al Daawa activities, and emerged as one its foremost leaders.

Similarly, the SCIRI has had a close relationship with Iran. Its leader Abdul-Aziz al Hakim, along with his half-brother Mohammad Baqr al Hakim, fled to Iran in the early 1980s when Saddam Hussein began to target Iraqi religious bodies.

Inside Iran, Abdul-Aziz al Hakim led the Iran-backed Badr Brigades, the SCIRI's military wing, against the Iraqi government forces.

After nearly 23 years in Iran, al Hakim returned to Iraq following the U.S. invasion in 2003. By then his elder brother had become the leader of the SCIRI. He was assassinated in Najaf on August 29, 2003. Thereafter al Hakim headed the SCIRI. He will exercise substantial influence over the emerging Iraqi government.

In the past, al Hakim has declared his commitment to Islamic law, which he wants enforced in Iraq. In his farewell address in May 2003 to worshippers in Teheran, he stressed that "the future of Iraq belongs to Islam". In an interview with the Iranian state radio, he said "all of the people of Iraq" can realise their aspirations for "reconstructing and creating a developed and independent country under the banner of Islam".

Iran's influence over Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and likely President of the new Iraqi government, is also well known. He fled to Iran in 1988 after Saddam Hussein's forces attacked Kurds that year. The PUK has its seat in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniah, near the Iranian border. Trade with Iran in this area has flourished, benefiting the PUK greatly.

Despite all these, the Iranian influence is likely to encounter some limitations. For instance, some of the Shia leaders, such as Jaafari, have had differences with Iran. Jaafari had a running battle with clerics such as Kadhim al Haeri, who wanted to merge Al Daawa into former Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini's Hezbollah. In spite of his sympathies with Iran, it is unlikely that Jaafari will be inclined to rubber-stamp decisions taken in Teheran.

The Iranian influence over Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr also falls in the grey zone. Al Sadr has met the Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Teheran. But with Iran clearly backing al Sistani, its influence over al Sadr might have reduced. Al Sadr, who has a wide following within the Shia dwellers of Sadr City, a sprawling slum on the outskirts of Baghdad, has also been active in forging ties with Sunni groups which have been marginalised after the recent elections. The Shia cleric is now calling for a national reconciliation conference, in which all Iraqis, including Sunnis, will be represented. He is also urging the elected Iraqi leaders to call for the withdrawal of American forces within a fixed time-frame.

Analysts point out that there is a basic fault line between the Arab Shias in Iraq and the Persian Shias of Iran, which needs to be recognised. This distinction allowed Saddam Hussein to wage a war with Iran for eight years with an army that had a large numbers of Shias.