Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Rival Clerics Join Forces

The followers of rival Shia clerics find common cause during this week’s protest marches.
By Mohammed Fawzi

Men carrying the portraits of the murdered Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr and his son, Muqtada, were among the marchers in demonstrations called for this week by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in support of direct elections for the next Iraqi government.


Overcoming old rivalries, the demonstrators centred on common Shia demands for general elections; delegates to a constitutional convention; trying Saddam Hussein as a war criminal; and not using federalism as a fig leaf for obscuring efforts to divide Iraq.


It was a remarkable development, given the rivalry between the Sadr and Sistani, which has gone back at least a decade. During that time, followers of the two leaders have often bitterly criticised each other and sometimes engaged in armed clashes.


Last October, followers of Sadr were said to have engaged in a gunfight with guards loyal to Sistani in the Shia holy city of Karbala. The Sadrists were accused of trying to take over the shrine of Imam Hussein, one of the most sacred sites in Shia Islam.


The differences between the two sides stem from the time of Muqtada's father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr.


Mohammed Sadiq encouraged Shia to join in groups for Friday prayers. This stance, and others that defied Saddam Hussein's attempts to suppress the Shia faith, is thought to be the reason why unknown assailants assassinated Mohammed Sadiq in 1999.


Sistani, by contrast, was viewed as a quietist and as unwilling to adopt any political stances against the regime.


His stance continued even after the recent war, when Sistani took a relatively neutral stance position towards the Coalition.


By contrast, Muqtada openly denounced the Coalition-appointed Governing Council as illegitimate, and he assembled the "Army of the Mahdi", a militia that threatens insurrection against the Coalition.


There are also differences in style between the two men.


The 75-year-old Sistani is an immensely respected religious scholar who hasn’t left his home in 12 years. Iranian-born, he speaks Arabic with a Persian accent, and – until recently, at least – has shown very little interest in grassroots politics.


Muqtada, said to be 30, may be just a junior religious scholar by comparison, but already he is seen as a skilled political leader. Muqtada has maintained – and now presides over – a widespread network of mosques originally built up by his father.


Whatever their former differences, though, representatives of both leaders are proud of their newly found unity, apparently instigated by Sistani's new activism on shared positions across the Shia political spectrum.


“The demonstrations, and all the inhabitants of this area, are united behind their demands - despite the interference of some corrupters who try to destroy Islam, and who bet on the differences between religions," said Sheikh Dhafir al-Qaisi, a representative of Sistani's from the southwest Baghdad neighbourhood of al-Bayaa.


"The demonstration paints the picture for the whole world - there is no difference between Shia and Sunni, or Shia and Shia, when it comes to the Iraqi future," said Sheikh Ali al-Yaqubi, a Sadr supporter in the slum of Madinet al-Sadr, named after the murdered Mohammed Sadiq.


"Yes, Yes to Islam!" the demonstrators chanted, just as they always do. But to this week's chants, the powerful new alliance between the followers of Sadr and Sistani has perhaps inspired a special touch of fervour.


Mohammed Fawzi is a trainee journalist in Baghdad.