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The United States and Iraq's Shi'ite Clergy: Partners or Adversaries?

The United States and Iraq's Shi'ite Clergy: Partners or Adversaries? - Cover

Authored by Dr. W. Andrew Terrill.

February 2004

49 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The author addressed the critical need to gain the cooperation or at least the passive tolerance of the Shi'ite clerics and community. Such an effort could become more challenging as time goes on, and one of the recurring themes of this monograph is the declining patience of the Shi'ite clergy with the U.S. presence. By describing the attitudes, actions, and beliefs of major Shi'ite clerics, the author underscores a set of worldviews that are profoundly different from those of the U.S. authorities currently in Iraq and Washington. Some key Shi'ite clerics are deeply suspicious of the United States, exemplified by conspiracy theories. These suggest that Saddam's ouster was merely a convenient excuse, allowing the United States to implement its own agenda. Other clerical leaders are more open-minded but not particularly grateful for the U.S. presence, despite their utter hatred for Saddam and his regime.


Clerics are one of the most important forces guiding and directing Iraqi Shi’ite public opinion. Many of Iraq’s secular leaders were sullied by their collaboration with the Saddam Hussein regime or were tainted by their prolonged absence from Iraq, and thus do not have the potential power of the religious establishment to mobilize popular opinion. Moreover, many Shi’ite clerics are emerging as important spokesmen for their communities. Iraqi Shi’ites have been denied power proportionate with the size of their community since Iraq was established in 1920 and are determined not to be disenfranchised again. Their actions toward the United States are often calibrated with this goal in mind.

All of Iraq’s major Shi’ite clerics are critical of the U.S. military presence. Some are deeply critical and may choose to support anti-coalition violence should the U.S. forces remain in Iraq for an extended period of time. Those who do cooperate with the U.S. presence usually are careful to explain to their followers that they do so reluctantly and only in recognition of overwhelming U.S. power.

The leading Shi’ite clerics in Iraq at this time are Grand Ayatollah ?Ali Sistani and his four colleagues who control the Najaf Hawza, a Shi’ite religious seminary and center of religious scholarship. The Hawza clerics have had a tradition of staying distant from politics, but this tradition now seems to be eroding. Sistani publicly treats the U.S. presence as illegitimate, but also engages in tacit cooperation with U.S. authorities. His continued cooperation with the United States will be vital for U.S. forces now in Iraq, but his patience is not assured.

A potentially important leader seeking to compete with the Hawza is the young and militant Muqtada al Sadr, a junior cleric whose father was Iraq’s most senior cleric in 1999 when he was murdered by Saddam’s agents. Sadr is backed by the deeply radical and anti- Semitic Grand Ayatollah Kazem Ha’eri, an Iraqi exile in Iran and a believer in a variety of hateful conspiracy theories about the United States. Sadr hopes to develop a strong following among the young and impoverished dwellers in Shi’ite slums.

Shi’ite political parties with an Islamic agenda also are emerging as significant players in post-Saddam Iraq. The most important of these is the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which has a long history of collaboration with Iran. SCIRI currently is cooperating with the United States on the grounds that Shi’ite interests must be strongly asserted, or they will be ignored. Nevertheless, SCIRI publicly stresses its strong distrust of the United States and unhappiness with the U.S. presence in Iraq. The smaller Da’wa and Iraqi Hizb’allah parties likewise stress the need for the United States to leave Iraq as soon as possible. None of these parties publicly call for violence against the United States at this time, although one of Da’wa’s sources of spiritual inspiration (Sheikh Fadlallah of Lebanon) has hinted that violence may be appropriate.

While none of Iraq’s leading Shi’ite clerics is friendly to the United States, some are more tolerant than others of the U.S. presence. None seem to trust the United States or assume that the United States has a benevolent agenda in the region. The ouster of Saddam thus earned the United States surprisingly little credit with a clerical leadership that suffered unspeakable oppression under the ousted tyrant. The dangers of militant Shi’ites committing acts of terrorism against U.S. forces in the foreseeable future thus are real and pressing. The likelihood and potential scope of such attacks will probably increase so long as the U.S. military presence continues.

In examining the above questions, the author has included a glossary at the back of this monograph for individuals who are less familiar with some of the titles, honorifics, names, and concepts within Twelver Shi’ite Islam.

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