IRAQ: Shiite and Sunnis to unite against occupation?

February 16, 2005

Doug Lorimer

"I call on all religious and political powers that pushed towards the elections and took part in them to issue an official statement calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of the occupation forces from Iraq", Moqtada al Sadr, the popular young Iraqi Shiite cleric who last year led an armed rebellion against the US-led occupation, declared on February 4.

Sadr's call was read out by a spokesperson to thousands of Shiite worshippers at traditional weekly prayers in the grand mosque in Kufa, 150 kilometres south of Baghdad. It was a direct challenge to the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the electoral bloc of Shiite politicians and clerics put together and backed by Iraq's top Shiite cleric, the Iranian-born Grand Ayallotah Ali al Sistani.

Sadr is living refutation of the corporate media's claim that the occupation is supported by the Shiite majority, and it is only Sunni muslims who want the foreign troops to leave. The occupying regime's own surveys last year indicated that Sadr was, after Sistani, the most popular figure among Iraq's majority Shiites.

It is mainly the fear that Sadr's Mahdi Army will cooperate with the largely Sunni-based armed resistance movement that led US officials to vow to "kill or capture" Sadr. This plan was only abandoned after the Mahdi Army proved remarkably strong, repulsing US military assaults on Najaf and the Baghdad Shiite slum district Sadr City. Instead, Washington agreed to a Sistani-arranged cease-fire in September.

Right up until five days before the January 30 election for a 275-member Transitional National Assembly, the UIA had called for Washington to announce a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops. Then, it dropped the call. "The promise of putting US troops on a timetable is not out of sincerity, it's only for campaigning. These major lists know their existence is linked to the presence of the troops", Amer Hassan Fayadh, a political-science professor at Baghdad University, explained to Knight-Ridder on January 26.

The parties making up the UIA — the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Dawa Party and the previously Pentagon-backed Iraqi National Congress of Ahmed Chalabi — are expected to hold a majority of seats in the transitional parliament.

The January 30 elections — designed to give the US-led occupation a "democratic" facade — could not have taken place without Sistani's collaboration. He even issued a fatwa (religious edict) making it a religious duty for Shiites to vote.

Salim Lowe, who was director of communications for Sergio de Mello, the UN special representative killed by an Iraqi resistance attack in 2003, observed in a January 31 British Guardian article titled "An Election to Anoint an Occupation": "The US has little support in the country. It has, however, won the support of the extremely influential Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, who tolerates the occupation most of his followers hate."

Sadr's February 4 statement was an announcement that he had ended his months-long silence about political developments in Iraq. "I stood aside for the elections and did not stand against them, as I did not want to show disobedience toward the marjaiyah [the senior Shiite clerics headed by Sistani]", Sadr explained, adding: "I did not join these elections so that I wouldn't be one of the West's pawns." His comments were clearly meant to remind listeners of Sistani's collaboration with the US.

Sadr's campaign to build opposition to the occupation was strengthened by talks between members of his office and the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), the organisation of 3000 Sunni clerics that spearheaded the highly successful boycott of the elections by Sunni Muslims.

Sadr spokesperson Abdul Salam al Kubaisy told a February 7 Baghdad press conference that the talks with the AMS were aimed at promoting a "national dialogue" aimed at "the withdrawal of the Americans from our country". With the elections, over, Washington's worst nightmare looks closer than ever.

From Green Left Weekly, February 16, 2005.
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