The most influential man in Iraq is an octogenarian Shiite cleric who rarely ventures out of his modest home in the holy city of Najaf. His scowling portrait hangs on walls, storefronts, concrete blast barriers, and cars throughout Iraq, yet he prefers to stay out of the limelight. But ever since early June, when an insurgent group of Sunni militants captured a large swath of northern Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has emerged from seclusion in a last-ditch effort to restrain the jihadists, persuade Iraq’s Shiite political elite to replace Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and preserve a unified state under a Shiite-led government.
One of the most revered clerics in the Shiite world, Sistani arose as a reserved but implacable leader during the American occupation of Iraq. He usually calls for moderation and calm. Even at the height of Iraq’s sectarian civil war, in February 2006, when Sunni militants destroyed the Askariya shrine in Samarra, Sistani did not appeal to his followers to take revenge.
“For Iran, the struggle over Iraq is not just a political or strategic one. It is also a theological battle over control of the Shiite narrative. At its heart, the argument is over competing visions of Shiism’s essence. Should the faith be defined by a diverse group of scholars living at seminaries and engaging in esoteric theological debates, while staying out of the political fray? Or should it follow the tradition of absolute political and religious rule advocated by the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini? “
The ayatollah had been relatively quiet since the American military withdrawal in 2011. But in early June, fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and announced that they would march onto Baghdad and the Shiite heartland in southern Iraq. “We need to settle our differences with you,” one ISIS leader warned the Shiites of Iraq, describing a messianic battle where the militants would massacre Shiites and destroy their shrines. “These differences go back a long way. We will settle our differences not in Samarra or Baghdad, but in Karbala, the filth-ridden city, and in Najaf, the city of polytheism.” Three days after Mosul fell, on June 13, Sistani issued a call to arms, urging all able-bodied Iraqi men to join the security forces or one of a growing number of Shiite militias.
The response was immediate. Tens of thousands of Shiite volunteers showed up at recruiting centers to sign up for militias or the Iraq security forces—two forces that are increasingly difficult to distinguish in the current crisis. Sistani’s representatives tried to frame the cleric’s message not as a call to arms for Shiites alone, but rather a broad appeal for all Iraqis to help the military and militias defend Baghdad, the southern Iraqi cities of Karbala and Najaf, and their religious shrines.
But while Sistani and his deputies have tried to distinguish between ISIS and the Sunnis of Iraq, few Sunnis are answering the ayatollah’s call. Many Sunnis cringe at the memories evoked by the reestablishment of Shiite militias, which carried out widespread kidnappings, torture, and killing of Sunnis during the sectarian war that raged in Iraq from 2005 through 2008. Sistani’s aides tried to downplay the specter of sectarian warfare by appealing to religious fervor and a sense of Iraqi national identity. “Iraq and the Iraqi people are facing great danger,” one of Sistani’s top deputies, Sheikh Abdul Mehdi al-Karbalai, proclaimed at Friday prayers in Karbala on June 13. “The terrorists are not aiming to control just a few provinces. They are targeting all other provinces, including Baghdad, Karbala, and Najaf. So the responsibility to face them and fight them is the responsibility of all Iraqis, not one sect or one party. Our responsibility now is saving Iraq and saving our holy places.”
Since the U.S. invasion in 2003, Sistani has competed with more radical clerics for leadership over the Shiite community in Iraq. This struggle reflects a parallel battle between Iranian and Iraqi clerics for dominance over the larger Shiite realm: the Shiite infighting, like Iraq itself, has been swept up in a wider regional proxy war between Iran and the Sunni Arab states in the Persian Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia. These competitions have ebbed and flowed as various Shiite factions consolidated power over the central government in Baghdad, and as the Iranian regime extended its influence in Iraq. The rise of ISIS, which views Shiites as apostates, and other Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq threatens the interests of all Shiite factions and of the Iranian regime.
For Iran, the struggle over Iraq is not just a political or strategic one. It is also a theological battle over control of the Shiite narrative. At its heart, the argument is over competing visions of Shiism’s essence. Should the faith be defined by a diverse group of scholars living at seminaries and engaging in esoteric theological debates, while staying out of the political fray? Or should it follow the tradition of absolute political and religious rule advocated by the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini?
Sistani represents the dominant theological school in Najaf, which rejects the Iranian model of rule by clergy. The Najafi clerics believe their role is to be spiritual leaders and not to participate directly in politics. Since the U.S. invasion, Sistani seized a more direct political role on several occasions, especially in 2004 when he lobbied for early elections and a constitutional referendum. But he never stepped into the political fray as forcefully as he has over the past two months, with his call to arms against ISIS and his leading role in Maliki’s ouster. Sistani’s actions could shift the historic debate regarding the position of clerics.
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If Sistani is Najaf’s éminence grise, his antithesis is Muqtada al-Sadr, a young, brash cleric who was the most outspoken opponent of the U.S. occupation. Sistani and his aides worried that if he remained on the sidelines at the start of the current crisis, he would be outflanked by Sadr and other more radical Shiite clerics. Sistani is also trying to outmaneuver the Iranian regime, which has significant influence over most Iraqi Shiite factions and especially Maliki’s government. Based on his actions and statements since 2003, Sistani will try to keep a veneer of Iraqi nationalism on the current conflict. But it will be an uphill struggle, since Iraq is at the center of several regional proxy battles: Iran is heavily involved in shaping Iraqi policy, while ISIS represents spillover from the Syrian civil war next door; the militant group is also a byproduct of the Gulf Arab states that support Sunni jihadists in both Syria and Iraq.
Among the Shiites, a struggle is unfolding between Sistani, Sadr, and Maliki. There are also several other Shiite parties and militias largely beholden to Iran, including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by the cleric Ammar al-Hakim, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq (the League of the Righteous), a Shiite militia led by Qais al-Khazali. The militia was created by the Iranian regime as a counterweight to Sadr’s movement, which has also received significant support from Tehran.
Sadr, a forty-year-old junior cleric, does not have the religious credentials of Sistani or other senior clerics, but he is the son of a revered ayatollah, and he has broad support among the Shiite masses. Sadr has emerged once again as the enfant terrible of Najaf, who challenges the religious hierarchy represented by Sistani. In the days after the ISIS takeover of Mosul, Sadr called for establishing “peace brigades” that would protect Shiite shrines, churches, and other holy sites in Iraq.
On June 21 it became clear that Sadr’s peace brigades were simply a new label for his feared Mahdi Army. This paramilitary force led a Shiite rebellion against American troops in Iraq starting in 2004, and it carried out kidnappings, assassinations, and an ethnic cleansing campaign against Sunnis during the subsequent civil war. In 2008 the Mahdi Army suspended fighting and supposedly disbanded. But in mid-June, in Baghdad’s Sadr City, the teeming Shiite slum where the cleric has his base of support, and in Najaf and Karbala, the militia staged its largest show of force in six years. Thousands of Shiite fighters marched through the streets with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and suicide explosives belts strapped to their chests.
Sadr is using the latest crisis to revive his Mahdi Army, which was an important source of his power. He announced that his militia would not operate under the control of the Iraqi military or Maliki’s government—in direct contradiction of Sistani’s appeal for all volunteers and militias to coordinate with the Iraqi security forces. In this open defiance of the central government and the clerical hierarchy, Sadr is back to his old disobedient ways. ISIS and its allies must be delighted to see the Shiites fighting each other once again.
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If there is one regional player that raked in the most from America’s gamble in Iraq, it is Iran. The United States ousted Tehran’s sworn enemy, Saddam Hussein, from power. Then Washington helped install a Shiite government for the first time in Iraq’s modern history. As U.S. troops became mired in fighting an insurgency and containing a civil war, Iran extended its influence over all of Iraq’s Shiite factions.
The Iranian regime has several interests: Iraq provides strategic depth and a buffer against Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states that are competing with Iran for dominance over the Persian Gulf. More broadly, Tehran wants to ensure that Iraq never again poses an existential threat to Iranian interests, as Saddam did when he invaded Iran in 1980, instigating the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that devastated both countries. Saddam was supported by the Sunni Arab states and most Western powers. Iran will do whatever is necessary to keep a friendly, Shiite-led government in power in Baghdad.
The United States also helped Iraq’s Shiite factions to compromise on Maliki as prime minister in 2006: another gift to Iran. As Maliki struggled to remain in office, he became more dependent on his neighbor. He grew more repressive and authoritarian, using the Iraqi security forces to intimidate political rivals and exclude Sunnis from power. For Iran, Maliki was a reliable ally, who allowed Iranian flights over Iraqi territory to transport weapons and manpower to Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. He also allowed thousands of Iraqi Shiites to cross the border and fight alongside the Syrian regime.
In many ways, Maliki’s personal history shaped his winner-take-all view of politics. He was an activist in the Dawa Party, a Shiite Islamist group outlawed and hunted by Saddam’s regime. Maliki fled Iraq in 1979, and lived in exile for twenty-four years, mostly in Syria and Iran. He became used to the secrecy and isolation of life as a dissident, ever fearful of assassination by Saddam’s secret police. He also grew dependent on support from two governments that used exiles such as him as bargaining chips in their battle against Saddam’s regime. He did not like being at the mercy of others.
Since ISIS swept through northern Iraq in June of this year, Tehran has mobilized to protect the Shiite-led government from the Sunni militant threat. General Qassim Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, traveled to Baghdad at the start of the crisis to coordinate the defense of the capital with Iraqi politicians and military officials. He also reportedly met with Iranian-trained Shiite militia commanders, including al-Khazali. U.S. officials say Tehran is providing tons of military equipment to the Iraqi security forces and is secretly directing surveillance drones from an airbase in Baghdad. Maliki’s aides warned that as long as the United States did not provide military assistance, they had no choice but to ask Iran for more help.
By appealing to Iraqi nationalism in his call to arms, rather than to sectarian sentiment, Sistani was challenging Iran in several ways. He was invoking the Iraqi roots and identity of Shiism. But he was also exerting pressure on Iran’s ally, Maliki, who has tried hard to secure a third term as prime minister despite his legacy as a divisive leader. After the last parliamentary elections in April, Maliki’s Shiite Islamist coalition won a plurality of votes, securing 92 of the 328 seats in the legislature. With his strong showing—Maliki’s coalition won three times as many seats as any other bloc—the prime minister quickly began laying the groundwork for another term, even as ISIS militants were amassing forces near the Iraqi-Syrian border to launch the assault on Mosul.
During Friday prayers on June 27, Sistani’s representative in Karbala called for a quick agreement on a new government. While at the time he did not explicitly call for Maliki’s ouster, Sistani essentially withdrew his support. The ayatollah’s representative also emphasized the importance of keeping Iraq unified—another example of Sistani’s appeal to Iraqi national identity. “Iraqis have surpassed bigger crises than this one in the past,” Sheikh Karbalaie said. “We must not think of dividing Iraq as part of a solution for the current crisis. The solution must protect the unity of Iraq and the rights of all its sects.”
As Maliki clung to power and ISIS grew stronger, Sistani became more forceful in his criticism of the prime minister. During Friday prayers on July 25, Sheikh Karbalaie conveyed a direct message from the ayatollah urging Iraqi politicians to “bear their national responsibilities, which require sacrifice, and not to cling to their posts.” When Sistani publicly chided Maliki for his intransigence, the prime minister started losing support within his own Dawa Party. Iran also began to view Maliki as a threat to its interests in Iraq, and he lost Tehran’s backing.
In early August, ISIS fighters routed Kurdish forces, stormed more villages in northern Iraq, and seized control of Mosul Dam, the largest in the country. That prompted President Barack Obama to order U.S. airstrikes against ISIS positions and prevent the militants from continuing their offensive toward Erbil, capital of the Kurdish autonomous region. Obama also authorized airstrikes to break an ISIS siege and provide humanitarian assistance to thousands of Iraqi Christians and Yazidis, a religious minority group, who took refuge on Mount Sinjar.
With the ISIS victories and renewed U.S. military involvement, more Iraqi leaders and political factions abandoned the incumbent Maliki. On August 11, Iraq’s newly installed president nominated Haider al-Abadi, another leader of the Dawa Party, to be the new prime minister. He has thirty days to form a government.
In Iraq’s bare-knuckle politics, Maliki was outmaneuvered by the octogenarian ayatollah in Najaf.
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Shiism has become associated in the popular imagination with Iran, but it was born in Iraq, of a battle between Arab factions. When the Prophet Muhammad died in 632, a schism arose over who would succeed him as caliph, the political and military leader of Islam. One faction argued that the prophet’s heir should be chosen from among his closest companions. The other insisted that succession preserve the prophet’s bloodline, and since Muhammad did not have any surviving sons when he died, his rightful heir was his cousin and son-in-law, Ali. The Shi’at, or Partisans, of Ali emerged out of this movement. The struggle over the caliphate led to the first fitna, or civil war, between Muslims—a term that is often invoked to this day to warn of sectarian divisions.
After the prophet’s death, his followers convened a shura, or consultation, to choose his successor. They passed over Ali and chose one of Muhammad’s companions instead. Ali was passed over twice more, until finally becoming the fourth caliph of Islam in 656. He was assassinated five years later, in the ongoing struggle over who would rule the faithful, as he prayed in a mosque in the Iraqi garrison town of Kufa. He was buried nearby in Najaf, and a mosque was built around the shrine. Shiite theologians later flocked to the city to establish seminaries, so they could be near their martyred amir al-mumineen, prince of the believers.
In 680, nineteen years after Ali’s death, his son Hussein led a rebellion against the Umayyad caliph Yazid, whose father had moved the caliphate to Damascus. Hussein set out from Mecca with a caravan of several dozen supporters. But Yazid sent a force of thousands to intercept Hussein in the Iraqi desert. According to Shiite lore, Yazid’s troops surrounded the caravan and cut it off from the waters of the Euphrates River. The commander of Yazid’s army gave Hussein an ultimatum: swear allegiance to the caliph and be allowed to return home, or face death. Hussein refused. Many of his followers starved or died from thirst during the ten-day siege in the blazing Iraqi desert. Yazid’s troops eventually overran the camp, beheaded Hussein, and displayed his severed head as they made their way back to Damascus—a warning to anyone else who would challenge the caliph’s authority. The place where Hussein was felled would become known as Karbala, from the old Arabic words for sorrow and calamity.
The violent deaths of Ali and Hussein became the defining factor in the split between the Shiite and Sunni sects of Islam. They also made martyrdom and rebellion among the most important tenets of Shiism. (The Battle of Karbala is commemorated every year by Shiite communities throughout the Muslim world during Ashura, a day of mourning that culminates with dramatic reenactments of Hussein’s martyrdom at Karbala.) Shiites believe that Ali was the first imam, or God’s spiritual representative on Earth, who was infallible and the rightful successor to Muhammad. Shiism assumed the role of a “pious opposition” to the Sunni majority, and throughout the Muslim world, the Shiites have been a perpetual opposition movement against what they see as unjust worldly political leaders.
For centuries, Shiite clerics have debated their role in politics. The quietist school—rooted in the sect’s tradition of acquiescence and avoidedance of powerful rulers—argues against direct engagement in political matters. The more activist school emphasizes the experience of Imam Hussein, who advocated rebellion and confrontation. But even within the activist trend, there is debate about the extent of clerical power.
According to Shiite doctrine, the faithful must choose a senior cleric whose edicts they follow, or emulate—in Arabic, taqlid. This cleric is known as marja al-taqlid, or source of emulation. He must be a mujtahid, a cleric who has studied long enough to hold the rank of ayatollah or grand ayatollah, which requires two or three decades of intense theological training. Literally, ayatollah means “sign of God.” A mujtahid does not need to emulate any other cleric: he can formulate original decisions on questions of Islamic theology and law.
The highest of these marjas is known as marja al-taqlid al-mutlaq—a supreme religious authority, who is essentially a “first-among-equals” in the clerical hierarchy. The position is informal; it is not like the College of Cardinals electing a pope. Rather, it requires leading mujtahids to reach a consensus around a candidate from their ranks. The candidate must also command a large following among Shiites across the world. During some periods of Shiite history, there has been no consensus on a candidate, and several marjas competed for the mantle of leadership. Today is such a time, and Ali al-Sistani is one of those leading marjas.
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In the early 1500s, as most of the Muslim world fell under the Sunni Ottoman Empire, the Safavid dynasty established Shiism as the state religion in Iran. Although the Safavid rulers tried to win legitimacy from Shiite clerics in Iraq and Lebanon, Shiism became identified with Persia. For several centuries, the Ottoman and Safavid empires struggled for leadership of the Muslim world.
Iraq’s Shiites, who did not become the majority until the nineteenth century, were largely excluded from power under centuries of Sunni Ottoman rule. In 1917, toward the end of World War I, Shiite tribes and clerics helped the British wrest control of Mesopotamia from the Sublime Porte. The British had originally promised to turn control of the territory over to Iraqis. But at the San Remo conference in April 1920, victorious Western powers instead granted Great Britain a mandate over the three former Ottoman provinces—Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul—that became the modern state of Iraq.
A month later, one of the leading Shiite ayatollahs, the marja Muhammad Taqi al-Shirazi, issued a fatwa forbidding Iraqis from serving in the British colonial administration. For a brief, heady period, Sunni and Shiite Iraqis worked side by side. They organized widespread popular demonstrations in Baghdad to demand a British withdrawal and Iraqi independence. When the British responded brutally, cracking down on peaceful demonstrators and arresting hundreds of dissidents, including the ayatollah’s son, Shirazi issued another fatwa that legitimized revolt against foreign occupation. The Shiite clergy of Iraq, long in the “quietist” camp, had stepped into the forefront of a battle against tyranny.
The revolution of 1920, and its alliance between Sunni and Shiite, became one of the founding myths of Iraqi nationalism. But this good will would not last long: The British crushed the rebellion easily by bringing in 40,000 additional troops, and used their time-honored method of divide and conquer to weaken the Shiite tribes and clerics that had threatened British hegemony. In 1921, they installed a Sunni monarch from the Hijaz coastal region of Arabia, a Hashemite named Faisal, and excluded Shiites from top political and military positions in favor of the more cooperative Sunni elite of Baghdad.
For the Shiites, the lesson of 1920 was this: they had spilled their blood and sacrificed for the greater national good, only to see others benefit by collaborating with the foreign occupiers. And that decision—to rebel against oppression, and take up arms against an unjust occupier—would mean their exclusion from power for the next eight decades.
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In 1979, the success of the revolution against the tyrannical Shah of Iran electrified the Muslim world, especially Shiites, who were the minority in several Arab countries, and a suppressed majority in Iraq. After the turmoil and exhilaration that followed the Islamic Revolution, the struggle between quietist and activist clerics entered a new phase. The model of absolute rule by the clergy that dominates in Iran today is just one of several competing doctrines within the Shiite clergy. Called wilayat al-faqih (velayat-e faqih in Farsi), or “guardianship of the jurisprudent,” it is modeled on the absolute rule exercised by the Prophet Muhammad and his successors in the early days of Islam.
The concept of wilayat al-faqih dates back to the early nineteenth century, when Shiite clerics began in earnest to debate models of political rule. But the idea triumphed under the leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who combined the roles of Shiite theologian and political leader of the Muslim community.
Khomeini reinterpreted the notion of clerical rule in a series of lectures in 1970 while he was exiled in Najaf. He grappled with the question of how to create an Islamic state in the absence of the Mahdi, or “hidden imam,” whom Shiites regard as infallible and the last rightful successor to the prophet. (Most Shiites believe that their twelfth imam vanished in the ninth century, remains in occultation, and will eventually return, like Jesus, to render final judgment on humanity.) Until the Mahdi’s return, Khomeini argued, a divinely anointed senior cleric has the authority to rule in his stead. Khomeini conceived this role as that of the “supreme leader,” an infallible cleric who carries out God’s will on Earth.
Khomeini’s charisma and political skill overshadowed the more moderate vision of Shiism centered in Najaf. But many Shiite clerics actually opposed Khomeini’s vision of an all-powerful leader. They did not want to seize political power directly, whether in Iran, Iraq or elsewhere: one faction believed that a group of senior clerics should oversee civilian rulers, while another faction argued that leadership should be left to politicians, who are devout but not necessarily clerics. The dominant theological school in Najaf rejects Khomeini’s model to this day.
Some clerics, like Lebanon’s Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, argued for a third way—greater political involvement, but not absolute rule by a single cleric. Other theologians dismissed Khomeini’s innovation, and argued that granting absolute authority to the supreme leader goes against the traditional system for choosing a leader within Shiite society. Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, who was executed by Saddam’s regime in 1980, proposed a more democratic form of Islamic governance, one that required the consent of the faithful and a consensus among Shiite clerics in choosing the preeminent religious leader. He also argued for some separation of power between the clergy and the state, with both remaining subject to the constitution and the law.
But the Islamic Revolution vested Iran with great authority in the Shiite world. In the 1980s, as thousands of Iraqi scholars fled to Iran to escape a crackdown by Saddam’s government, the Iranian city of Qom eclipsed Najaf as the leading center of Shiite study. With Khomeini’s vision of the faith ascendant, Shiism came to be viewed in many parts of the world as a zealous movement with a violent reach extending from Iran to Lebanon and beyond.
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In early May 2003, a few weeks after the U.S. invasion, I went to Najaf. In the warren of alleyways around the Imam Ali Mosque, fruit and meat vendors jostled with those hawking prayer beads, gold-leafed religious books, and faded postcards bearing the stern photos of various clerics. It is a place of religious intrigue, where men speak in whispers outside the homes of Shiism’s leading theologians. The rumors that emerge from Najaf’s dusty alleys make their way to the rest of Iraq, where they are carefully dissected by the Shiite majority.
One alleyway was more crowded than the others. The supplicants came from windswept villages, walking for many miles to the holy city. Some had their questions written down on folded pieces of paper. They crowded around the steel door, waiting for hours and sometimes stealing a glimpse inside. The men and women who flocked to this narrow alleyway were hoping to meet with Sistani, the most senior cleric in Iraq. It is like asking for an audience with the pope.
Like other countries with large Shiite communities, Iraq has several marjas; but Sistani emerged in the early 1990s as the marja al-mutlaq, or highest source of emulation. He has a large following throughout the Shiite world, and his word on religious matters carries the most weight. Along with other senior clerics, he controls the huge sums from zakat, the alms that believers must give to charity as one of the five pillars of Islam.
A trickle of people were allowed inside a bare waiting room, where they sat cross-legged on a carpeted floor. Some wanted guidance on personal and religious problems. Others wanted the grand ayatollah to pray for the recovery of an ill child or relative. And some came to plead for charity. This scene is repeated at the homes of many of Najaf’s senior clerics. It might take an entire day, but the faithful would eventually be able to pose their questions and appeals to one of Sistani’s disciples.
In Najaf, which is home to the Hawza al-Ilmiya, the oldest Shiite seminary, the answers carry more weight than anywhere else in the Shiite realm. Four of the grand ayatollahs based in Najaf, including Sistani, together comprise the marjaiyah, an informal clerical council that oversees the Hawza and sets the tone for theologians in the holy city. They are the leaders of the “quietist” trend.
During Saddam Hussein’s rule, fewer supplicants milled outside the homes of Najaf’s Shiite clerics. Saddam’s persecution of the Shiite clergy, many of whom he had imprisoned or executed, diminished Najaf’s standing in the Shiite world. After the start of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, thousands of Iraqi Shiite clerics fled to the Iranian city of Qom. From that point, Qom became the center of Shiite scholarship, and it has produced most of Iran’s conservative clerics. During Saddam’s reign, the ruling clerics in Iran had dismissed Sistani’s quietist position, saying he was under Baathist pressure. But with Saddam’s fall, many of the thousands of Iraqi Shiite scholars and students who lived in Qom returned to Najaf, making it once again Shiism’s most influential center.
Najaf’s reemergence would pose a threat to Iran’s hardline rulers. Indeed, while the clerics and scholars of Najaf grappled with everyday concerns of the faithful in 2003, they were also debating some of Shiism’s central tenets. The most divisive argument was over whether clerics should take on a direct political role. The young Muqtada al-Sadr—the inheritor of the Sadr family’s legacy—and his supporters argued that they must fill the void left by the Baathist system. Sadr’s followers also defied the American occupation and its plan to install an interim government made up mainly of exiled, secular Iraqi politicians like Ahmad Chalabi and Ayad Allawi.
In the Shiite world, it is unusual for a young cleric with Sadr’s limited theological credentials to garner such a wide following. Sadr is several ranks and many years away from attaining the title of ayatollah (normally, it can take two decades of study and research for a cleric to become an ayatollah). But he is the only surviving son of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was assassinated by the Iraqi regime in 1999. The elder Sadr was a leading Shiite scholar, and—unlike Sistani—he advocated a strong political role for the clergy. Sistani and the elder Sadr became rivals in the Shiite religious hierarchy.
Under Saddam’s rule, Iranian leaders and some exiled Iraqi clerics criticized Sistani for remaining silent about the Baathist regime’s crimes against Shiites. By contrast, the elder Sadr defied the regime in a series of sermons that ultimately provoked Saddam to murder him. Despite his lower clerical rank, many of the younger Sadr’s followers look to him as the inheritor of his father’s legacy.
While the Iranian regime maintains a good relationship with Sistani—as it does with most Shiite leaders in Iraq—there is some animosity between the ayatollah and Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini as Iran’s supreme leader. In 1994, the Iranian regime launched a campaign to displace Sistani and his allies in Najaf, and to promote Khamenei as marja al-taqlid al-mutlaq for Shiites worldwide. But Khamenei’s bid failed because he had modest religious credentials (he was only elevated to the rank of ayatollah after Khomeini’s death, so he could assume the post of supreme leader). Faced with Baathist persecution and an Iranian power grab, Sistani was able to retain his position.
After the U.S. invasion, Sistani took on a more prominent role as a stabilizing force in the Shiite community, while staying rooted in the “quietist” school of Shiism. In August 2004, he brokered a ceasefire between the Iraqi government and Sadr’s renegade militia. That deal averted a U.S. attack on the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf and paved the way for Sadr to join the political process a year later. It was a remarkable performance by Sistani, who negotiated the deal within two days of returning to Iraq after undergoing heart surgery in London. For a cleric who eschews the limelight and politics in general, Sistani affirmed his position at the time as the most important player in Iraq’s stability.
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The Najaf traditionalists and disciples of Sistani have long viewed political power as fleeting. One afternoon in 2003, I went to the home of Sayyid Muhammad Sadiq al-Kharsan, who was 42-years-old at the time and considered one of the best “young” theologians of Najaf. Like most Shiite clerics, he lived in a modest house, down an alleyway where sewage runs along the side of the street. The walls were bare, except for a Quranic verse and a framed poster of Sistani. “Politics involves getting ahead through tricks and deception; these are not the things that Shiite clerics should be involved with,” Kharsan said as we sat cross-legged on a floor covered with polyester Persian carpets, drinking sweet tea. As a cleric, he argued, one could ultimately hope to wield far more influence than a mere politician. “When you are a government minister, there is a prime minister above you. Maybe you can serve for four or five years, and then you are out,” he said. “People trust us with their lives, with their money, with their spiritual welfare. We want to win the hearts and minds of people forever. That is not something that politicians can do.”
Today, no one but Sistani holds the religious and moral authority to restrain Sadr and the other Shiite factions. He is also perhaps the only Shiite leader in Iraq who can provide some check on Iranian influence. There is no clear successor if Sistani dies or is incapacitated. In Najaf, there are four other grand ayatollahs who could succeed Sistani as the highest marja al-taqlid for Iraqi Shiites. But none of them has as wide a following, or the political deftness that Sistani has displayed since the U.S. invasion.
The Shiite political leadership that arose in Iraq after 2003 has largely failed, becoming mired in corruption and sectarian squabbles. It is also heavily dependent on Iran, as Maliki’s government has shown in recent years. In the current battle with ISIS—a fight that many Shiites regard as an existential threat—Sistani has emerged as the leader best able to galvanize and unify the Shiites of Iraq.
Mohamad Bazzi is Associate Professor of Journalism at New York University and former Middle East Bureau Chief at Newsday, where he was the lead writer on the 2003 Iraq war and its aftermath. A former fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, he is writing a book on the proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran.