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Sistani Will Hold Key to Shia Unity
When Post-Occupation Iraq Leads to Sadr-Hakim Power Struggle
05/24/2007 5:49 PM ET
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - SEPTEMBER 24: Shiite cleric Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a main Shiite political party, talks to supporters as a picture of Ayatollah al-Sistani is seen September 24, 2005 at
Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - SEPTEMBER 24: Shiite cleric Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a main Shiite political party, talks to supporters as a picture of Ayatollah al-Sistani is seen September 24, 2005 at

SCIRI's recent name change--dropping the "Revolution" from their movement--was only the most obvious of recent signals of a simmering shift in the Iraqi political landscape.

Some of the political wrangling no doubt results from a pervasive impression of the Maliki regime's ineffectiveness, but to a larger extent, Iraqi leaders appear to be readying themselves for an imminent reality of life after occupation.

Moqtada al-Sadr and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, two of the most influential actors to watch as Iraq rolls from occupation into sovereignty, are both making overtures intended to move their own parties into a position of supremacy. In this power wrangling, Babak Rahimi views the looming potential for a storm of confrontation in a new piece for the Jamestown Foundation.

Both factions are taking new positions in a shifting political landscape. Due to the failure of the constitutional drafting process, tensions over key political issues, such as federalism and the distribution of oil, are paving the way toward a major Shiite-on-Shiite conflict. The two parties appear to expect some sort of a political confrontation over the constitution after the future collapse of the al-Maliki government. What these new strategies also indicate is how the weakening of the Iraqi government is forcing Sadrists to expand their military prowess for control over cities and regions that are at the moment dominated by the SIIC's militia group, the Badr Organization. A major clash between the two Shiite parties can be expected in the future, and only a viable political solution can prevent a full outbreak of conflict.....

The potential descent into an intra-sectarian civil war poses a serious danger to Iraq and the region. This sort of civil war could contribute to the formation of new Shiite groups, destabilization of the Iraqi government and the southern provinces, especially Basra, and lead to serious humanitarian catastrophes. Although such intra-sectarian conflict is essentially a political one, it also includes a significant religious component. Iraq is undergoing a shift in the balance of power among Shiite militant groups, and the best Washington can do is to hope for the victory of the orthodox Shiite institution in Najaf. It is with the authority of al-Sistani that fighting between these two militia groups can best be prevented.

The most practical strategy that the United States could adopt at this stage is to prevent the meltdown of the Iraqi government into a state of political factionalism; in reality, Iraq's worst enemy at this moment is the Baghdad government itself. The reason is that with the absence of a relatively centralized state, militias (regardless of their ethnic and sectarian associations) are bound to expand and continue to fight among themselves (and Iraqi and U.S. troops) for power. This general strategy also means that Washington should recognize the pivotal role of political integration, rather than military operative tactics (like the troop surge), against the radicalization of Shiite groups.

Regardless of the success or failure of the surge, the post-coalition era would need to see the formation of inter-sectarian political parties. In light of his recent call for the creation of a "reform and reconciliation project," al-Sadr could possibly lead the country to a new post-Baathist political era, in which Shiite and Sunni nationalists, who remained in Iraq during Saddam's reign, could unite against former exiled Shiite and Kurdish parties like the SIIC and the Kurdistan Democratic Party. The United States should encourage such political coalitions, despite its obvious anti-occupation (or anti-American) fervor. Nevertheless, although this new coalition can lessen sectarian tensions, it will not, however, do away with the Shiite militia competition over power and prestige. An SIIC-Sadrist clash looms ahead, and the best Washington can do is to contain it through an already fragile Iraqi government.

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