Can Al-Sistani save Iraq?

Can Al-Sistani save Iraq?

Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani helped put the Iraqi Shia in power, but can he save Iraq from the scourge that has besmirched their leaders, asks Salah Nasrawi

It was Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani’s most scathing criticism of the Shia-led government in Baghdad since he helped the Shia to gain political power in Iraq after the US ousted the Sunni-dominated regime of former president Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Al-Sistani’s warning that the country faced dire consequences, including possible partition, if real reform was not carried out reflects Iraq’s top Shia cleric’s increasing frustration with the government’s efforts at fighting unbridled corruption.

The call also comes as the Iraqi security forces and Shia paramilitary units struggle to drive the Islamic State (IS) terror group from the large swathes of territory its militants captured during a major offensive in summer last year.

“If real reform by fighting corruption relentlessly and if social justice on all levels are not achieved, the situation could get even worse and might, God forbid, push [Iraq] to partition which no nation-loving Iraqi would like,” Al-Sistani said in a written response from his office to questions from the media posted on his website.

“Without rampant corruption in government institutions, in particular the security forces, and without the abuse of power by officials, the Daesh (IS) terrorist organisation would not have been able to control a large part of Iraq’s territory,” Al-Sistani said, using the Arabic acronym for the jihadist group.

Al-Sistani’s stern warning came as thousands continued to protest in Baghdad and in the Shia-dominated south of Iraq as they have done for several weeks, calling for reform and actions to be taken against corruption and the lack of services, especially poor electricity supplies.

Since the demonstrations started in late July, Al-Sistani, who has unmatched clout among the Iraqi Shia, has made several calls for reform that have played a major role in driving prime minister Haider Al-Abadi to launch a reform programme.

On 7 August, Al-Sistani gave an unexpected boost to the protesters’ demands through one of his senior aides by calling on Al-Abadi to take tougher measures against corruption, saying the “minor steps” he had announced the week before were insufficient.

The following week, Al-Sistani called, through another senior aide, for reform in the country’s judiciary which many Iraqis believe is deeply corrupt and has failed to fight graft and strengthen the rule of law and human rights.

Apart from the protests, Al-Sistani has been showing signs of concern about the incompetence and greed of the Shia-led government and has spoken out in a political perspective about the need for change.

He has repeatedly called on Shia politicians to think of Iraq’s interests, not their own. Last year, he urged the leaders to refrain from clinging to their posts after a government crisis triggered by former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki who was seeking a third term in office despite his failure to muster enough support in parliament.

Since the overthrow of Saddam, the Iranian-born Al-Sistani, who is revered by millions worldwide, has played a key role in the emergence of Shia power in Iraq. The Shia had always perceived themselves as excluded under Sunni-led governments since Iraq’s independence from Britain in 1921.

Al-Sistani was keen that Iraq’s Shia majority would not be marginalised in the new political system. Shortly after the US-led invasion, he declared that an elected assembly should convene to write a new constitution and prepare the country for general elections.

Thanks to a fatwa, or religious edict, issued by Al-Sistani for the Shia to cast their ballots in Iraq’s first post-Saddam elections, the Shia groups came well ahead of Sunni and Kurdish rivals and gained a majority of seats in the new 275-seat parliament.

Last year, Al-Sistani took the unprecedented step of issuing a call to arms after Sunni-led insurgents seized more towns in Iraq. In his fatwa, Al-Sistani said that all citizens who were able to bear arms should volunteer to join the security forces to fight the terrorists, defend their country, their people and their holy places.

Thousands joined the Shia militias which played a crucial role in the defence of Baghdad and the two Shia holy cities of Karbala and Najaf as well as in retaking Sunni-populated cities and towns from the militants.

Now many Iraqis believe that without Al-Sistani’s call for “minor” jihad, most of Iraq, and probably the capital Baghdad, would have been lost to the IS terror group.

Today, however, the Shia-led government that Al-Sistani has supported with vigour and near-religious zeal is showing signs of a total slump, bogged down in dysfunction and infighting. There are fears that the damage done by the government is irreparable and could threaten the entire country’s future.

The situation has reached the point that most of those who have been protesting against the government are Shia. In many demonstrations, protesters have been shouting slogans against the religious Shia groups and their leaders who have created Iraq’s post-Saddam ruling oligarchy.

Al-Abadi has ordered cuts in cabinet and government posts and in the number of personal guards for officials. He has also ordered the reallocation of the funds budgeted for the positions and proposed cutting vacancies.

Still, to many Iraqis, Al-Abadi’s reforms seem unsubstantial and even cosmetic. Some believe that they are too little, too late. Others say that a major gap remains between statements and implementation.

The increasing public frustration with Al-Abadi’s foot-dragging could transform the peaceful protests into a more broad-based social and political revolt that would pit the demonstrators against the Shia ruling oligarchy, probably in a violent battle.

On Monday, the government deployed the army to quell a large sit-in the mostly Shia-populated city of Hilla south of Baghdad after police failed to disperse protesters who wanted to storm the governor’s offices.

A day earlier, protesters demanding jobs closed roads in many southern cities, including by blocking access to Iraq’s main commodity port in Um Qasr. In Karbala, demonstrators stormed government buildings and clashed with security forces.

The escalation of the protests will put Al-Sistani in a frustrating dilemma: a reclusive religious leader who avoids being engaged in politics is finding himself publicly handling one of the most serious crises that has faced Iraq since the US-led invasion.

There are daunting challenges that Al-Sistani will have to face if the protests in Baghdad and in the southern Shia provinces develop into a large-scale protest movement, or even an uprising against the Shia-led government.

Many protesters are accusing Al-Abadi of being weak and scorning him as being incapable of resisting the Shia political groups, including his own Dawa Party, which benefit from corruption and even from prolonging the war against IS.

These protesters believe that even with Al-Sistani’s backing for reform, the entrenched and corrupt Shia political leadership will make changes extremely difficult.

This is even more daunting because it means that Al-Sistani will have to work hard to ensure that the Shia oligarchy and the religious groups do not continue to take advantage of his standing at the expense of the moderate and secular Shia who are behind the current wave of protests.

There are signs that the protests have been creating a new cross-sectarian secular culture and a dynamic of citizenship that the Shia Islamic-oriented political leaders who feed on the Shia-Sunni divide fear will put their power at risk.

It is not yet clear just how far Al-Sistani, who has been carefully shielding the hard-won Shia power in Iraq, is prepared to go in support of the protesters, especially if they escalate their demands and call for dissolving the government, the parliament and the constitution.

One thing is crystal clear: the gulf that has opened up between Iraq’s silent Shia majority and its rulers has been highlighted by the recent protests and any misstep in handling the crisis will perhaps create greater dangers.

Al-Sistani, however, can seize an opportunity from the crisis by taking bold steps, including by isolating the entrenched Shia oligarchy which has been emboldened by the support of religious groups and encouraging the role of the secular Shia and their civil organisations in power.

This will also help to ease the sectarian polarisation in the country and facilitate a national rapprochement by isolating radical Sunnis and building bridges with moderate Sunnis who feel excluded by the Shia predominance.

How Al-Sistani will handle the crisis will be crucial not only for the Shia but also for the future of Iraq.

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