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Shia Leadership

A marjah is the highest authority on religion and law in Shiism. Where a difference in opinion exist between the Marjah, Aalims (Religious Scholar) try to provide different opinions. Four senior Grand Ayatollahs [Ayat Allah] constitute the Religious Institution (al-Hawzah al-`Ilmiyyah) in Najaf, the preeminent seminary center for the training of Shiite clergymen.

Taqlid means acting according to the opinion of the jurist (mujtahid) who has all the necessary qualification to be emulated. So you do what the mujtahid's expert opinion says you should do, and refrain from what his expert opinion says you should refrain from, without any research [in Islamic sources] on your part. It is as though you have placed the responsibility of your deeds squarely on his shoulders. Among the conditions which must be found in a jurist (mujtahid) who can be followed is that he must be the most learned (al-a'lam) jurist of his time and the most capable in deriving the religious laws from the appropriate sources.

There are generally six ranks among Shi'ite clerics. The highest, grand ayatollah means "great sign of God". In the past, there were usually no more than five grand ayatollahs in the Shi'ite Islamic world. Today however it is suspected that there are at least seven and possibly more. Under grand ayatollah is ayatollah ("sign of God"). Below ayatollah is the rank of hojat al Islam, which is Arabic for "authority on Islam". Next is mubellegh al risala or "carrier of the message". While mujtahid often refers to clerics in general, it is also a specific rank, which denotes one has graduated from a religious seminary. At the bottom of the ladder are religious students, talib ilm. Besides the obvious factors such as graduation to be promoted to mujtahid, promotion in the ranks is a rather subjective matter. Two important factors behind promotion are the size and quality of one's student following and authorship of scholarly works on Islam.

As of late 2002 there were two generally acknowledged senior Shi'a clerics in Iraq. Prior to the American occupation, Ayatollah Al-Sayyid Ali Al-Seestani [Ali as-Sistani ] had been forbidden to lead prayers and remained under virtual house arrest in Najaf as a result of attempts on his life. Grand Ayatollah Sayed Ali Seestani, the current Shi'a spiritual leader, was attacked in his home in Najaf in November 1996, resulting in the death of one of his employees.

Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sayeed al-Hakim, another of Iraqi's most important Shiite clerics, is the uncle of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose brother, `Abdul Aziz, serves on the Interim Governing Council. But Sa`id is not associated with SCIRI; he is much closer to Sistani. His cousin Grand Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim had been the spiritual leader of the Shia world between 1955 and 1970 and served as mentor to the founder of Iran's Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The two other living grand ayatollahs, who along with al-Hakim and Sistani comprised the four most powerful clerics in Iraq, are Muhammad Ishaq Fayadh and Bashir Hussein al-Najafi. Both rarely speak on political issues. All are based in the Shi'a seminary -- the 'Hawza' -- in Al-Najaf, which is the highest religious authority of Iraq's majority Shi'a population. Their followers regard them as sources for religious emulation and their written opinions can carry the force of law.

At the end of the 1991 Gulf War, President George Bush urged Iraqis to topple the Baath regime, but the US did not back the Shiite uprising that ensued in southern Iraq, and the rebels were slaughtered. When the fighters of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), headed by Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, poured over the border from Iran. Fears of Iranian influence over Iraqi Shiites through SCIRI was a decisive factors in the US decision not to support the uprising. Grand Ayatollah Abu Gharib al-Qassem al-Khoei sent his son Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khoei to contact the Americans. When he reached French lines he was told Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the allied forces, would meet him, but the meeting never took place. Afterwards, Al-Khoei went into exile.

For more than half a century, the school of the late Grand Ayatollah Imam Abul Qassim al-Khoee was an undepletable spring that enriched Islamic thought and knowledge. From his school graduated dozens of jurists, clergymen, and dignitaries who took it upon themselves to continue his ideological path which was full of achievements and sacrifices in the service of the faith, knowledge, and society. Among those are outstanding professors of parochial schools, especially Holy Najaf and Qom. Some of them have attained the level of 'ijtiihad'- competence to deduce independent legal judgment enabling them to assume the office of supreme religious authority. Others reached lofty levels qualifying them for shouldering the responsibilities of teaching and education. Most distinguished among those figures is His Eminence Grand Ayatullah as-Sayyid Ali al-Hussaini as-Seestani. He ranks among the brightest, the most qualified and knowledgeable of Imam al-Khoee's former students.

In 1991 Iraqi authorities arrested 108 Shi'a clerics and students, including 95-year-old Grand Ayatollah Abu Gharib al-Qassem al-Khoei, 10 of his family members, and 8 of his aides. Ayatollah al-Khoei subsequently was released; however, he was held under house arrest until his death in August 1992. Ayatollah Hussein Bahr al-Aloom, who was arrested in 1991, had reportedly died under questionable circumstances in June 2001.

The late Grand Ayatollah Muhsin Al-Hakim was the spiritual leader for the Shia world in the period 1955-1970. Grand Ayatollah Abul-Qasim al-Khoei received the mantle of leadership after the death of Grand Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim, in 1970. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who succeeded Grand Ayatollah Abul-Qasim al-Khoei in 1992, is believed to favor keeping the Iraqi Shi'ite clergy out of politics.

Baath Governmental authorities were associated with a series of previous fatal accidents, apparently engineered, such as the well known case of Sayed Muhammed Taqi al-Khoei, son of the Grand Ayatollah al-Khoei, who died on 21 July 1994 in a suspicious car accident while returning from his weekly visit to Karbala. He was accompanied by his brother-in-law, Amin Khalkhali, his six-year-old nephew and his driver, when they crashed into an unlit truck blocking the divided highway.

Since January 1998, the killings of three internationally respected clerics and an attempt on the life of a fourth have been attributed widely to government agents by international human rights activists, other governments, and Shi'a clergy in Iran and Lebanon.

Ayatollah Shaykh Murtada al-Burujerdi was shot dead in the evening of 21 April 1998 while he was walking home with two companions after he had led congregational evening prayers at the shrine of Imam Ali. Following the 1991 Shi'a uprising in southern Iraq, Ayatollah al-Burujerdi, who at that time had been arrested for three days, began leading the daily prayers in the sacred enclosure of Imam Ali. As well as being a leader of the congregational prayers, Ayatollah al-Burujerdi was a serious candidate for the position of Marja. It was reported that Ayatollah al-Burujerdi had been asked by the Iraqi authorities to give up his post as leader of the prayers at the shrine of Imam Ali, but he refused.

Grand Ayatollah Shaykh Mirza Ali al-Gharawi (68 years old) was assassinated on 18 June 1998 in his car on the route between the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf. He was accompanied by his son-in-law, driver and another companion. According to information from persons claiming to have been witnesses, the car of Ayatollah al-Gharawi was stopped and all four passengers of the car were then shot dead on the spot. Ayatollah al-Gharawi was a well-respected religious scholar and was also a senior spiritual leader (or Marja) of Shi'a Muslims.

Ayatollah Sheikh Bashir al Hussaini escaped an attempt on his life in January 1999.

Grand Ayatollah Mohammad al-Sadr [aged 66], the leading Shi`a cleric in Iraq, was assassinated in Najaf while driving home on the evening of 19 February 1999 along with his two sons and chief assistants, Mustafa and Mu`ammal, and their driver. The government had recognized al-Sadr as grand ayatollah in 1992, but in the months preceding his death he had begun distancing himself from the government in Friday sermons and urging people, against government wishes, to attend mass prayer gatherings. Following the murder of Ayatollah al-Sadr there were widespread reports of at least four days of heavy clashes between protesters and security forces in heavily Shi`a neighborhoods of Baghdad such as Medinat al-Thawra and in majority Shi`a cities such as Karbala, Nasriyya, Najaf, and Basra in which scores were killed and hundreds arrested. According to Iraq's opposition groups, the latest killings unleashed a mini-insurrection. They claim the army besieged Najaf. United Nations observers, monitoring fooddistribution in Iraq, passed through Najaf on the day of the supposed siege and noticed nothing unusual.

In mid-April 2003 Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, who had lived in exile in Iran for 23 years, and Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khoei, who had lived in exile in London for 12 years, both returned to the holy city of Najaf to organize their followers. The two men were leaders of the most important Shiite families in Iraq. Each man's father had served as the supreme religious authority in the Shiite world for more than 20 years. They had both been betrayed by America after the 1991 Gulf War. And by the end of August 2003 both had been assassinated.

At the beginning of the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Baqir al-Hakim instructed SCIRI elements in Basra, Najaf, Karbala and other cities not to start an uprising or support the US-led coalition. To supporters Baqir al-Hakim's arrival was the Khomeini-like return from exile of a man who is due - at the very least - a place among the Iraqis who will form the country's interim leadership. To his opponents Hakim had been away too long and is too close to Tehran, where he lived while his people fought a bloody eight-year war with Iran. Al-Hakim warned repeatedly that the US would face armed resistance if its forces stayed too long after ridding Iraq of Hussein's regime. Al-Hakim was far less accommodating to coalition interests than al-Khoei and said, "We refuse to put ourselves under the thumb of the Americans or any other country, because that is not in the Iraqis' interest."

On 10 April 2003 Shiite Ayatollah Abdul Majid Al-Kohei was assassinated by a knife attack in Najaf after arriving from London. Majid was the son of the late Grand Ayatollah al-Khoei, spiritual leader of Iraq's Shi'ites at the time of the 1991 Gulf War. Al-Kohei was a moderate and his competition with Grand Ayatollah Al-Hakim (who also headed to Najaf from his base in Iran) would have helped the American occupation. Al-Khoei had a better relationship with the United States, and his quick return to Najaf - with American assistance - was part of the Bush administration's effort to draw support away from al-Hakim. Although al-Khoei was usually accompanied by coalition forces, the officers do not enter the mosque and so were unable to rescue him. Abdul Majid was stabbed to death at the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, one of the holiest shrines for Shi'ite Muslims. The murder raised tensions among Iraq's majority Shi'ite population. The perception of al-Khoei as a US puppet was strengthened by the subsequent admission by Washington that it had channeled $13 million dollars to him.

On 24 August 2003 a bomb exploded outside the house of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Said al-Hakim, killing 3 guards and injuring 10 other people. Ayatollah Muhammad Sa`id al-Hakim was slightly wounded in the neck by flying glass when a bomb went off outside his offices in Najaf, shortly after he finished his prayers. Four men in a car dropped a canister of cooking gas near the wall of the house beside the room where the grand ayatollah and his son were resting. Bodyguards noticed a flame coming from the top of the canister before it exploded, killing two of the guards and another household employee. Ten of his aides were wounded. Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Said al-Hakim is the uncle of Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim, the leader of the best-organized Shi'a party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq [SCIRI].

Ayatollah Muhammad Sa'id al-Hakim headed one of Iraq's most powerful clerical families. The family included his nephew Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, who led the best-organized Iraqi Shi'a group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). The group waged a long guerrilla campaign against deposed leader Saddam Hussein from exile in Iran until the US overthrew the Iraqi regime in April 2003. Subsequently, SCIRI modified its traditional calls for an Islamic system in Iraq and now says it is ready to work toward that goal within a democratic framework. A representative of SCIRI is one of the 25 members of the US-appointed Governing Council in Baghdad.

The bomb attack called new attention to the potentially violent political divides among Iraqi Shi'a organizations. While no one knows who was behind the attack, suspicion in Al-Najaf immediately fell upon political rivals of the al-Hakim family. And those enemies -- thanks to the family's prominence -- are numerous.

On 29 August 2003 a car bomb exploded during Friday prayers in Al-Najaf outside the Imam Ali Mosque, killing Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and many others. Over a hundred people were killed, and several times that many were reported to be injured at the mosque, which is the most holy shrine for Shi'ite Muslims in Iraq. There had been considerable unrest among the religious factions in the holy city, 175 kilometers southwest of Baghdad. Al-Hakim was the brother of Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who is a member of the Iraqi Governing Council. Baqir al-Hakim, who was 66 years old, returned to Iraq on 10 May after 23 years in exile in Iran.

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