Of the more than 1 million Shiites assembled in Karbala on March 2 to commemorate the death of their revered Imam Hussein (d. AD 681), an estimated 100,000 had come from Iran, and of some 185 pilgrims killed by the terrorist blasts that day, more than forty-nine were Iranian. These figures underline the affinity that exists among the Shiites of Iran and Iraq–a crucial factor in the shaping of post-Saddam Iraq. Bush officials find this religio-political fact so unpalatable that they refuse to acknowledge it publicly. At the same time, it is this factor that explains their present approach toward Tehran.
All three leading Iraqi Shiite clerics–Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Ayatollah Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr–are beholden to Iran. Sistani was born and brought up in the Iranian city of Mashhad, and despite his fifty-three years in Iraq, speaks Arabic with a Persian accent. Most of the nine charitable ventures listed on his website, which primarily provide housing for pilgrims and theology students, are in Iran. So too are the four religious foundations he sponsors.
Hakim, an important Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) member, is leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), established in 1982 in Tehran by the Iranian government. Its 10,000-strong militia, called the Badr Brigade, has been trained and equipped by Iran. Hakim underscored his continued closeness to Iran on February 11, the twenty-fifth anniversary of Iran’s Islamic revolution. Unveiling a book fair in Baghdad sponsored by the Iranian Embassy, he praised the Vilayat-e Faqih (Rule of Religious Jurisprudent) doctrine on which the Iranian Constitution is founded.
Muqtada al-Sadr, the only surviving son of the assassinated Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, has a wide following among working-class Shiites. His religious standing rose sharply when, on April 7 of last year, the Iraq-born Grand Ayatollah Kadhim Husseini al-Hairi, based in the Iranian city of Qom, appointed him as his deputy in Iraq. Hairi had gone to Qom as a protégé of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, the grandfather of Muqtada, for further studies in 1973, never to return home.
Hakim joined the US-sponsored Iraqi opposition before the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, with a tacit nod from Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, in August 2002. After the overthrow of Saddam’s regime, he agreed to join the IGC. By contrast, Sadr has been unfriendly toward the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the CPA-appointed IGC. And Sistani has refused to meet CPA chief Paul Bremer or his envoys, limiting his contacts strictly to IGC members.
Tehran has also forged links with al-Daawa al-Islamiya (The Islamic Call), a Shiite group that split from SCIRI in 2002 when the latter decided to cooperate with the US-sponsored Iraqi opposition groups. But al-Daawa decided to join the IGC and its former partners after the US conquest, considering that to be the best chance to wield influence over Iraq’s future.
Outside official circles, there are signs of growing Iranian influence among Iraqi Shiites. The religious foundations run by pre-eminent clerics in Iran are partially funding the social welfare services being provided to Iraqi Shiites by their mosques at a time when Iraqi unemployment is running rampant.