The Shia of Iraq: friends, enemies or agents of Iran? (1/3)

Grand Ayatollah Sayed Ali Sistani (Najaf)

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Baghdad and Najaf by Elijah J. Magnier – @ejmalrai

It is practically impossible to speak about Iraq without mentioning the role of Iran in the country, and its influence over the population, the politicians and its relationship with the Marjaiya’, the spiritual leadership of the Shia based in Najaf, Iraq and led by the Grand Ayatollah Sayed Ali al-Sistani.

This relationship between Iran and Iraq is complex: it is therefore an over-simplification to label Mesopotamia as pro or anti Iran. The relationship between the decision makers of Iran and Iraq will be illustrated through key topics.

The Marjay’a (religious leadership) in Najaf:

Following the fall of Saddam Hussein and the 2003 US occupation of Iraq, both Iran and the Marjaiya in Najaf found themselves liberated from decades of ruthless dictatorship, responsible for murdering the religious Ulemas (knowledgeable theological leaders), who feared their influence among the population and the Iranian influence in supporting insurgency in Iraq. Saddam cost Iran billions in defensive measures on borders and the financing of insurgency to overthrow the Iraqi President, though in the end the US forces offered the head of Saddam to Iran on a golden plate, cost-free.

Following the death of the Grand Ayatollah Sayed Abu al-Qassem al-Khoei (known as the absolute leader of the Hawza al-Ilmiyah), Najaf was left with several Grand Ayatollah(s): Sayed Ali al-Sistani, Sayed Mohamad Saeed al-Hakim, Sheikh Ishac al-Fay’yad (known as Sheikh al-Afghani) and Sheikh Bashir al-Najafi (known as Sheikh al-Pakistani). All religious leaders agreed to give the political leadership to Sistani (and the religious one due to his close relationship with Sayed al-Khoei and his superior knowledge and intelligence), without necessarily dropping their own religious position and their advisory role to the government. Najaf is the centre of the “Hawza al Ilmiyah”, the theological school where religious knowledge is passed on from generation to generation. Truth seekers in the Shia theology come from the four corners of the globe to study in the city, which is known as the “city of Ali Bin Abi Taleb”, the cousin of the prophet Mohamad, his son-in-law, the first of the 12th Shia Imams, and the fourth Caliphate in ancient Islam.

There are many very knowledgeable Ulema in Najaf who had decided to keep a low profile, uninterested in being known or famous. But these are well known to the old families of Najaf, who can refer back to the family tree of each individual and are aware of the position of each one. The background and ancestors play a decisive role in the reputation of each individual who lives within the old walls of Najaf. They are referred to as IbnWelaya, meaning “one who was born within the small geographic area/old walls of Najaf centre around the holy shrine of Imam Ali.” To say the least, Najaf is a huge theological school and university, but it is also the discrete centre of political decisions in Mesopotamia.

The Marjaiya in Najaf has its own very complicated language, and is one of the most difficult communication systems to understand. Its influence is mainly channelled through its representatives around the country, preaching in mosques (Karbala shrines mainly) but also outside.

Silence is also one of the communication codes used by the Marjaiya (details to be explained later). Sistani never receives journalists for interview or gives a political opinion or statement: messages are officially announced by the office through Najaf; expressed by official representatives around the World; and vocally pronounced in the Friday prayer speech in Karblaa and other places in Iraq. Sayed Mohamad Redha Sistani – son of the Marja’, his close advisor in political affairs, the organizer of his father’s meeting, a Mujtahid (highest knowledgeable level in theology before becoming a Marja’), and an author of many books in theology –is the only one ever to receive local journalists (I was the only foreigner) in 2008 at the Marja’ house in Najafa but with one clear rule: I’ll answer all your questions but you publish nothing. No foreigner, Arab or western, can fully understand this special language and the behaviour of the Marjaiya: full of politeness, but the sharpest one can encounter in Iraq.

Grand Ayatollah Sayed Ishaq al-Fay’yad

In fact, most Iraqis ignore how to address the Marjaiya or what the Marjaiya likes or dislikes until something is purposely leaked outside the Barrani (office of the Marja). Many try to speak in Sayed Sistani’s name or quote the Marjaiya or pretend to be “experts in Marjaiya affairs”. The more you frequent the Marjaiya, the more you realise how little you know and how much there is still to learn. Every single word written by the Marjaiya counts and requires long thinking and several interpretations to make sure the message is well received because it is addressing the entire world, even those who do not follow Sistani ideologically but who carefully monitor developments in the Middle East. With the Marjaiya, trust is a continuous earning, it is never granted for life.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani lives in Al-Rasoul Street, al Barak area, in a small alley called “darbouna” where his “Barrani” and his modest home are in the same place. Outside his door, there are dozens of guards spread in all alleys leading to where Sistani is, some are visible and others are more discreet, mixed with the population. But every single shop next to Sistani’s home is self-security aware. The ‘Marja’ is loved by his neighbours and very attentive to avoid disturbing their daily life. The (new) fortified barrier prevents suicide cars from driving in (even though al-Rasoul street is car free) and guards are not only behind the barrier but also in the main street. One needs to stop for few seconds by the main alley before being faced with a very polite man asking if he can be of any help: the word “bikhidmat’koum” (at your service) is the well-mannered expression used by the security guys, inviting you to speak about the reason why you are pausing by the passage leading to the house of the most famous Marja’ of today in the Shia world.

The 85 year old man lives in a very modest house where he receives mainly the population wanting to greet him or to ask for financial support or seek only a Dua’ (a prayer). There are annexed rooms and offices for administration and religious helpers advising commoners seeking a fatwa or financial support to poor and newly married couples and, since three years ago, an unlimited support to the killed and wounded of Hashd al-Shabi and their families But his main house and office is made of a hall with three rooms on the ground floor, one of which hosts Sistani. He sits on the floor and next to him is his trusted friend and writer, the most polite and friendly smilingly faced Sheikh Mohamad Hasan al-Ansari.

But Sistani is much more than a normal man: he is the spiritual leader of the majority of the Arab Shia world, with enough power to rule the country if he wished to. This is the least of his concerns: Sistani, an Iranian living in Najaf for decades has never asked for the Iraqi nationality he is entitled to. He and his family renew their residence permits on a regular basis. He asks for no particular favours from the government, unlike some other Marjaya’ Ayatollahs in the same Najaf. On the contrary, Sistani closes his doors, refuses to meet any politician, even a Prime Minister, members of the cabinet. But he will meetany one provided these promise to do their job, to fight corruption or stamp it out, and look after their other duties, to offer social and medical services to the population.

Sayed Ahmad al-Safi and the new Imam Hussein Shrine (in construction) in Karbala

The most powerful man in the Shia Muslim sect suffers tremendously, like any Iraqi, when the heat is above 50 degree Celsius and when his house is suffering an electricity failure for hours. Sistani refuses to be treated differently from his neighbours. Years ago, Sistani was trying to convince his neighbour to switch off his electric generator after midnight, to allow the Grand Ayatollah and his family members to sleep on the roof, the freshest place most Iraqis in Najaf use when electricity is not available, where the temperature drops to between 40 to 35 degrees after midnight (during most of the Summer), enabling people to sleep for few hours away from the heat. Old houses host Sirdab, a shelter under the house, but that is not Sistani’s case.

Sheikh Bashir al-Asadi, head of reception at Sistani’s “Barrani” passes oninstructions to the guards: “without procedures”,.One of the security men, creating a cordon with his AK-47 outside the “Darbouna” (narrow passage), shouts these words to his half a dozen colleagues before walking a guest into the house of the Marjaiya, reflecting the respect and special treatment the Marjaiya allocates to few people. Usually, people visiting the Marjaiya are exposed to physical search and electronic exam by special machines and metal detectors. No watch, belt, keys, mobile phone or rings are allowed in the very modest house for security reasons. Al-Qaeda in Iraq in the 2000s and later ISIS both threatened to kill Sistani. Even some young and foolish clerics in the same Najaf tried to attack Sistani’s house in 2004, forcing an increase in the number of guards, a concern that is no longer standing today.

Inside the house of Grand Ayatollah Sayed Mohammad Saeed al-Hakim in Najaf.

Guards, tea makers, sheikhs dealing with daily bureaucracy, all remember regular foreign visitors and are very welcoming: all people surrounding the Marjaiya are trustworthy and very discreet. Extremely polite, they form a protective family around the Marja’ and understand better than any expert his body language (if he likes or dislikes his visitor or if the visit has created concern or relief). Sistani’s home is not limited to welcoming VIPs because many of these are unwelcome! It is made to receive commoners, followers seeking to see the Marja’, and those in need of financial support. Sistani is at the service of the population who believe in him and follow his recommendations. But Sistani has drawn up a road map for politicians of all kinds: serve the people who elected you and place their trust in you, otherwise don’t come and knock on my door: you don’t enjoy my support if you don’t serve the population.

Sistani wants politicians to offer social services to the population, to consolidate the foundations of the state of Iraq, to fight terrorism, , to fight corruption, and to send to jail all those who accept bribes, regardless of their rank and party (this includes Ministers).

The Marjaiya’ showed its strength in 2004 during the battle of Najaf between Moqtada al-Sadr’ Mehdi Army and the US-backed Iraqi forces, when Sistani returned from London to Iraq and intervened in person to reach an agreement between both sides, allowing Moqtada and his men to leave the city safely. The second stand was when Sistani played an important role in writing the Iraqi constitution. The third was when Sistani convinced the former Prime Minister and current Foreign Minister Ibrahim al Ja’fari to stand down and renounce his second term as a Prime Minister to save the Shia coalition groups (United Iraqi Alliance with the electoral number of 555) when the late Sayed Abdel Aziz al-Hakim (through sheikh Jalal’eddine al-Sagheer) threatened to leave the strongest Shia coalition blessed by Sistani. His fourth intervention was when he clearly rejected Nuri al-Maliki as a Prime Minister for a third term despite the IRGC-Quds brigade commander Qassem Soleimani’s desire to promote al-Maliki. The fifth was when Iraq was falling apart and the “Islamic State” (ISIS) was about to reach Baghdad and Karbala in 2014: this is when Sistani issued a clear fatwa calling for the creation of the Hashd al-Sha’bi, the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU). There are many other strategic and tactical stands Sistani took from behind the scenes, which cannot be developed here.


People use Sistani’s power indirectly: the late Ahmad al-Chalabi told me once that he needed to visit Sistani, inform the media of his visit to gather at al-Rasoul street, exchange few words with the grand Ayatollah about general Iraqi matters, and then come out to tell the Americans what he wants about strategic issues in Iraq by quoting Sistani. Chalabi knew he could get away with it because the Marja’ speaks very little and is not concerned to deny or confirm anything reported on his behalf, especially to the Americans.

The Marja’ Sayed Ali al-Sistani is angry with all Iraqi politicians and with government members, closing the doors of his home, receiving no-one. Haidar al-Abadi can’t make up his mind, he is not firm and he is not up to keeping his promises to have a “clean” government. Abadi is a good man but unfit to lead a country like Iraq in need of strong leadership to fight corruption. The central government in Iraq is bankrupt; it needs to reconstruct all damaged cities and provinces due to the war on ISIS and make sure the grievances among the population will not prevail again, so as to avoid the return of ISIS to the Sunni majority provinces; and it must repair the relationship with the Iraqi Kurds by fulfilling commitments and standing by the constitution. The country lacks electricity, thanks to the billions spent on imaginary contracts; hospitals are malfunctioning, with little finance and medicine, and so much more…

Sistani did everything to prevent al-Maliki coming to power, clearing the way for Haidar al-Abadi. This time the Marjaiya is not willing to interfere in favour of or against anyone: there are no available candidates among the known names capable of really leading a broken but potentially wealthy Iraq. Sistani doesn’t want the population to blame him for any particular choice because he is aware that political society is corrupt, therefore he closes his doors. Politicians I spoke to contest Sistani’s attitude for refusing to receive them. Some ask for Sistani to act and declare what he wishes. The answer is clear: When Sistani declares he is unhappy about the Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s government performance it is due to the weakness of this hesitant Abadi, who refuses to hit with a fist of iron all those who are corrupted: the population should mobilise itself and claim the removal of Abadi and his cabinet. When Sistani criticises corruption among politicians, he is asking Abadi to move against them and asks each Minister: “From where did you get your wealth?” If, indeed, nothing happens and the population is not reacting, it must mean people are not interested or able to improve their way of life and are not able to respond positively: therefore Sistani keeps silence.


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