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The US and the Iraqi Shi'a: the morning after.

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Wednesday 23 July 2003

Rodger Shanahan, Visiting Fellow, Research Institute of Asia and the Pacific, University of Sydney


The US and the Iraqi Shi'a - the Morning After  


A key element in the success or otherwise of the United States political plan for Iraq will be the attitude of the majority Shi‘a population. A most influential group within the Shi‘a community are the religious scholars (‘ulama), who have been vocal in their condemnation of American political designs for the country. This group represents a sectarian form of political leadership whose ideological motivation the United States has trouble in understanding, let alone effectively countering. The ‘ulama are not clerics in the narrow Christian sense of the word. They are juristic scholars who, in the Shi‘a tradition, have the capacity to perform the role of community leaders as well as religious jurists, although traditionally they have adopted a quietist approach to political leadership.  


Although some Western observers fear an emergence of an Islamic state - similar to Iran - this is hardly likely given that the conditions that exist in Iran are unique and not transferable to Iraq. Regardless, the attitude of the ‘ulama to the future political structure of the country remains vitally important, as is their attitude to the presence of the US as an occupying force. There are generally considered to be three Shi‘a scholars whose views are the most influential within the broader Shi‘a community: Grand Ayatollahs Khamenei, Fadlallah and Sistani. 


As Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamenei’s credentials are different from those of Fadlallah and Sistani. However his official position and control of the Iranian security forces illustrate his importance to the future of Iraq. Many of his public sermons, as well as those of other influential ayatollahs within the Iranian government, have portrayed United States actions with respect to Iraq as part of a wider US-Israeli regional conspiracy.  


Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah is extremely influential within Lebanon, and has support amongst Shi‘a externally. He is particularly influential amongst Iraqi members of the Islamic Call Party that advocates Islamic, as distinct from clerical, rule. Although based in Lebanon for nearly 40 years, Fadlallah was born in Najaf, and lived there until he was 31. His opposition to both the Ba‘thist regime and the coalition forces was demonstrated during prayers in Beirut in March this year.  


The last of the influential clerics, and the only one living within Iraq, is the highly regarded Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali Sistani, who possesses impeccable scholarly credentials. He is not an advocate of clerical activism, preferring the traditional quietist approach to politics. Sistani did not provide any endorsement for the invasion despite the treatment accorded him by Saddam Hussein’s regime during the past two decades. Ayatollah Sistani has so far refused to meet the American administration, and his subsequent pronouncements will be crucial in determining the attitude of a large part of the Shi‘a community towards the occupying power.  


Whilst the Grand Ayatollahs’ pronouncements regarding US occupation forces are crucial, a younger generation of less credentialed ‘ulama are also actively seeking to shape the Shi‘a community. The Sadr Movement, led by the young scholar Muqtada al-Sadr has widespread acceptance particularly amongst the urban poor. The charismatic Muqtada’s youth (he is about 30) limits his scholarly reputation, and the group has recognised Ayatollah Kazim al-Ha‘iri as their marji’ (source of emulation) in preference to Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali Sistani. In April, Ayatollah al-Ha‘iri allegedly urged his followers in Iraq to “…raise people’s awareness of the Great Satan’s plans and of the means to abort them.”  


Another significant cleric is the Chairman of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim. Al-Hakim is an advocate of wilayat al-faqih and, while he welcomed US support for the toppling of the Iraqi regime, he has publicly opposed the formation of any US-led interim government. SCIRI’s position is that it is willing to work with the United States for the economic reconstruction of Iraq, but not on a political basis.  


Despite the range of opinions amongst the Shi‘a ‘ulama regarding the future governance of Iraq, one thing they are largely united on is a rejection of the United States as a long-term occupation force. Although happy at the demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime, leading Shi‘a clerics both inside and outside Iraq are less well disposed to a post-conflict political role for the United States or its Iraqi exile allies. The United States should be prepared for resistance to their presence from many of the Iraqi Shi‘a clerics, particularly the longer their forces remain in the country.  



Guests on this program:


Rodger Shanahan is a visiting fellow at the Research Institute of Asia and the Pacific, University of Sydney