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

Shia Parties Questioned Over Constitution

Rank and file members believe their political leaders should have followed the opinion of Ayatollah Sistani.
By Dhiya Rasan

Waleed Minahi al-Kabi, 58, a carpet seller in downtown Baghdad, describes himself as a “fervent supporter” of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, SCIRI, a Shia political party that for decades fought the former regime of Saddam Hussein.


After Saddam’s fall, Kabi stuck up metre-high posters of SCIRI party leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim and his elder brother, the late Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, on the walls of his shop.


But Kabi has recently ripped down all the posters as well as a sign on his door reading ”We support Abd al-Aziz as a leader”. ”I was upset with what the Council did in regard to the constitution,” he said.


Members of SCIRI and its fellow Shia party al-Dawa al-Islamiya say they face a revolt of rank and file members after Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim and al-Dawa leader Ibrahim al-Jaafari joined the rest of Iraq’s 25-member Governing Council to approve the country’s new interim constitution.


“The party popularity started to decline after signing the constitution,” said Majid Mahmoud al-Katab, a lawyer in the north Baghdad district of Baladiyat and a member of al-Dawa since 1986.


Signing the constitution ”served the highest interest of the country even if it affects [al-Dawa’s] popularity”, Katab said.


Dissidents complained not so much about the content of the constitution as the parties’ sudden reversal of stance, and the perception that they had acted against the wishes of the marjaiya, or religious leadership.


Hakim, Jaafari, and three other Shia council members, initially refused to sign the draft constitution. They cited the objection of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani to a clause that would allow any regional bloc to veto a permanent constitution.


Twelve out of the 13 Shia members of the council, including al-Jaafari and al-Hakim, issued a statement after the signing of the constitution claiming that they had signed without demanding changes to ”safeguard national unity”.


Now, they say, they must explain that position to the rank and file.


“Supporters of al-Dawa al-Islamiya party will understand in the near future the party’s situation, despite the noticeable uproar on the street,” said Jaafari’s spokesman Adnan al-Asawi. “We informed the people that the signature aimed to maintain national unity for Iraq.”


Asawi said the signature aimed to keep the transfer of sovereignty to an Iraqi government, scheduled for June 30, on course. ”I don’t expect any decrease in the number of supporters, because they understand the current political situation,” he said.


They eventually agreed to sign, saying that Sistani had backed down to avert a political crisis. But the grand ayatollah then issued a statement critical of the document, and Shia scholars have since led a campaign to amend it.


Divisions over the signing were evident at a March 10 meeting of Dawa activists in the town of Zaafaraniya south of Baghdad, where former political prisoner Ahmed Hasan al-Naserwi grilled senior party representative Jaafar al-Musawi on the leadership’s decision.


“Signing the constitution went against the decision of the marjas, the senior clerics,” Naserwi said. Then he asked Musawi, “What do you think of that?”


Musawi said, “The political stance of the party is not the same thing as the marja’s opinion. This was a political situation, and we don’t care if some marjas agree or disagree with it.


“The party does not use the marjas as a main source in political affairs, and does not allow such intervention in political stances, whether on big matters or little ones," al-Musawi said.


Hassan said this was a change from the years when Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, himself a marja, was a leader of al-Dawa.


“My position changed about the party, for which I had been imprisoned 11 years because I was a member,” Hassan said. “The party changed its values in which we believed.”


For some members of SCIRI and al-Dawa, the decision of the current leaders - most of whom lived for over a decade in exile – is a betrayal of the opinions held by those who remained under the rule of Saddam Hussein.


”The party took a stance different from what the majority of its supporters and members want,” said Salema Hamid, 37, the widow of a SCIRI activist who was executed by the former regime.


“They have sold in one night the rights of the [Shia] majority for which we struggled for decades,” Hamid said. “We were here for many long years resisting Saddam, then the party leaders disappointed us. I will refuse to let my son work with the party.”


Muhammad Mazin, 28, the owner of a sweet shop, describes himself as a supporter of the ”Shia leaders in the Governing Council”. Now, he says, ”their opinions differ with those of the marjas, so I find it difficult to work for or support them”.


One group that may stand to benefit from the parties’ possible decline in popularity is the Sadrist movement, loyal to young preacher Muqtada al-Sadr, who lived in Iraq through the Saddam years.


Indeed, Sadrists appear to be highlighting the difference in stances. “Formerly we were in accord with [SCIRI and Dawa] politically, intellectually and ideologically, but no longer,” claimed Jamal Ahmed al-Musawi, 32, a Sadrist representative in Zaafaraniya. ”We can no longer consider them Islamic parties.”


Dhiya Rasan is an IWPR trainee.