Cleric’s return signals uncertainty for Iraq

Cleric’s return signals uncertainty for Iraq (OpenDemocracy)

The anti-US Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, commander of the Mahdi Army militia responsible for the killing and wounding of thousands of US personnel, yesterday returned to Iraq having spent at least three-years of self-imposed exile in Iran, where he has pursued religious studies.

His return, not necessarily the first since he left in 2007 but certainly the first to be made public, is arguably telling of the changing dynamics of the Iraqi political arena and indeed of the Sadrist movement itself.

The Sadrists won nearly 40 seats in last year’s parliamentary elections. With seven ministries to his bloc’s name and the deputy-speaker of parliament post, as well as a collection of governorships in the south of the country, al-Sadr’s return may have also been part of this package of concessions offered to him by arch-enemy Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in return for his backing of Maliki as premier. This is since the cleric still has an outstanding arrest warrant against him for the murder of Sayyid Abdul-Majid Khoei in 2003, one of Iraq’s leading Shia clerics backed by both the US and UK.

That warrant may soon be revoked and al-Sadr’s return, if permanent, is likely to be part of a long-term strategy to embolden his bloc and its orbit of influence in the country.

His return will consolidate his movement’s political gains and will better galvanise his supporters, numbering millions of impoverished Shias and derived predominantly from Sadr City, the north Baghdad slum. This becomes particularly crucial for the movement as a result of internal divisions it has suffered in recent years. The most notable group to splinter from the movement is the so-called League of the Righteousness, led by Qais al-Khazali, the militiaman complicit in the 2007 kidnapping of Britain’s Peter Moore. The League of the Righteousness was recently involved in a gun battle with the Sadrists.

Al-Sadr’s return could also be part of a broader, longer-term plan to place himself as the successor to Grand Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq’s leading Shia cleric and the spiritual leader of Shia Muslims around the world. Al-Sadr, who himself comes from a famous clerical family has for long competed with Sistani for power and influence.

However, that will depend on the state of al-Sadr’s religious credentials. It takes decades to reach the rank of Grand Ayatollah. More importantly will be relations between al-Sadr and other leading figures of the clergy in the holy city of Najaf. Al-Sadr faces competition from Ayatollah Mohammad Saeed al-Hakim to become Sistani’s successor. Al-Hakim is widely tipped to be the successor; but what could make the competition for clerical authority violently uncertain is the fact that al-Hakim is more hostile to al-Sadr than Sistani is and, significantly, has not hesitated to outspokenly and publicly criticise him.

For now, it will be a case of waiting and seeing. It is not yet certain al-Sadr will stay in Iraq. He may return to Iran and continue his religious studies, lest suggestions that he left Iraq because he feared for his life or because of the arrest warrant issued against him is given credence.

It also remains to be seen whether Iraq is big enough a place for both al-Sadr and al-Maliki, who went head-to-head in the 2008 Battle for Basra that ultimately led to defeat and a dramatic decline in power for the former. Al-Sadr’s return had to have been approved by Iran and it came on the same day Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi visited Baghdad. Iran may have sanctioned al-Sadr’s return to put a check on Maliki, who has in the past moved against Iranian interests in Iraq.

There is further uncertainty about what implications al-Sadr’s arrival may have for the US, as it prepares to withdraw completely by the end of this year. The US will be ill at ease with the arrival of what it regards as an Iranian proxy so close to its departure. During his visit yesterday, the Iranian foreign minister repeated Iran’s demand that Maliki’s government not extend the US troop presence. Al-Sadr may have returned to ensure just that and possibly through any means necessary.

Organisations deemed subversive by Iran

Iranian Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi says dozens of foreign organizations that attempted to create havoc in the Islamic Republic have been identified.

80 have been identified, 60 are listed below.

1. The Soros Foundation,
2. The Woodrow Wilson Centre
3. The Freedom House
4. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED)
5. The National Democratic Institute (NDI)
6. The National Republican Institute (NRI)
7. The Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (based in Warsaw)
8. The East European Democratic Centre (EEDC)
9. The Ford Foundation
10. Rockefeller Brothers Fund
11. The Hoover Institution, Stanford University
12. The Dutch HIVOS Foundation
13. UK’s MENAS
14. The United Nations Association of the USA
15. The Carnegie Foundation
16. UK’s Wilton Park
17. The Search for Common Ground Organization
18. The Population Council
19. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
20. The Aspen Institute
21. The American Enterprise Institute
22. The New American Foundation
23. The Smith Richardson Foundation
24. The German Marshall Fund (with offices in Germany, Belgium )
25. The Centre for Peaceful Solutions
26. The Abdolrahman Boroumand Foundation
27. The University of Yale
28. The Meridian International Centre
29. The Foundation for Democracy in Iran
30. The International Republican Institute
31. The National Democratic Institute
32. The American Innovation Institute
33. The Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe [presumably a repeat]
34. The USAID
35. Center for International Private Enterprise
36. American Center for International Labor Solidarity
37. The International Centre for Democratic Transition (ICDT)
38. Association for Union Democracy [Persian: Anjoman-e Tashakkol-e democracy]
39. The Albert Einstein Institution
40. The World Movement for Democracy
41. The Young Activists Network
42. The Democracy Intelligence Group and IT [name as published]
43. The International Movement of Parliamentarians for Democracy (IMPD)
44. The Network of Democracy Research Institutes
45. The Rega [or Riga] Institution
46. The Berkman Center
47. The American Council on Foreign Relations
48. Germany’s Foreign Policy Association
49. Israeli Memri centre
50. The University of Yale and all its affiliations
51. The British Centre for Democratic Studies
52. The Meridian International Institute
53. The American National Defence Academy
54. The Iran Human Rights Documentation Center
55. The American FLTA Centre in Central Asia, Caucasus [name as published]
56. The Committee on the Present Danger
57. The Brookings Institution
58. The Saban Center for Middle East Policy – Brookings Institution
59. The Human Rights Watch
60. The New America Foundation


Iraq-Syrian tensions

Iraq and Syria have had a not so great relationship over the past number of decades. The two countries were governed by competing branches of the pan-Arab Baathist movement, and ties have been largely antagonistic. Relations were severed in 1982 during Saddam Hussein’s rule and soon after the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war. Later, Syria joined the anti-Saddam coalition that liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in the 1991 Gulf War.

Since the American liberation of Iraq, Syria has been a launching ground for terrorist operations in Iraq. The vast majority of bombings in Iraq were carried out by Al Qaida operatives and other non-Iraqi jihadists based in neighbouring states like Syria, which became a hub for terrorists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his network of operatives.

In 2006 Iraq and Syria restored diplomatic relations and have since established a number of economic agreements.

But relations have broken down once again, despite PM Maliki’s security focused visit to Syria less than two weeks ago.

Maliki’s government accuses Syria of harbouring terrorists behind the August 19 attacks in Baghdad which killed more than 200 and injured many hundreds more. In a televised confession, Wisam Ali Khazim Ibrahim, the so-called mastermind behind the attacks, issued a televised confession in which he detailed the order to execute the operation by a man in Syria who wanted the attacks “to shake the administration.” Information leaked by Iraqi security to the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai says that one car used in the explosion is registered in Syria.

Syrian facilitation of militants across its borders and into Iraq and its safe haven for them is therefore still a problem.

The tit-for-tat rhetoric and aggressive posturing is taking place as usual. Maliki has told Syria that it could harbour anti-Syrian elements just as Syria hosts anti-Iraq militants, according to yesterday’s Al-Sharq al-Awsat. According to Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, writes the paper, Syria has rejected an Iraqi government proposal for a strategic agreement which provides for the extradition of terrorist groups operating in Syria. Iraq has a list of names for extradition but Syria has rejected it.

Tensions will not have helped US-Syria relations either. Washington has been concerned about terrorists infiltrating Iraq from Syria since 2003. A senior delegation of U.S. military commanders visited Damascus on August 13 for talks on curbing the flow of terrorists into Iraq; tellingly, Syrian state-television didn’t even report the visit. But with both states recalling their ambassadors, it is unclear whether any such dialogue between the three states will be resumed any time soon.

Also possible is that this is all just Maliki’s attempt to cover up his government’s security failures. Taking away security barriers that could have saved lives was a complacent and negligent act. Speaking to Al-Arabiya, Amman Salman al-Jumayli, member of the Foreign Relations Committee at the Iraqi Council of Representatives, believes Iran may be complicit in the attacks. Iran sponsors, supports, funds and influences most of Iraq’s Shia movement, political or otherwise. Countless weapons caches, missiles, and IEDs are believed to have emanated from Tehran.

The matter could become an electoral issue come the national elections in January, should it continue unresolved that is. Iraqiya news channel reported Al-Fadila (Islamic Virtue Party) calls for Syria to extradite Baath party leaders exiled in Syria. Al-Fadila is a discredited Shia offshoot Sadrist movement led by Abdelrahim Al-Husseini. It’s notorious for being a mainly thuggish group responsible for robbing and extorting the population of Basra province where senior Fadila leader Mohammed al-Waili served as governor until April 2007 when ISCI successfully brought a no-confidence motion against him. Basra’s electorate punished and marginalised Fadila in last January’s provincial elections; the party won only 1 of 35 seats. Fadila will not be part of the new Shia coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance.