NAJAF, Iraq – Ammar Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, white-turbaned, with horn-rimmed glasses, is polished, soft-spoken, as he sits on a cushion in a secluded chamber to receive Asia Times Online at the Najaf office of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

Across the blinding-white compound where, under ultra-strict security, streams of clerics, merchants and powerful sheikhs traipse, a group of workers prepares what will be a shrine erected over the tomb of slain grand ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, the high-profile victim of a car bombing in front of the sacred Imam Ali Shrine on August 29.

Ammar Abdul Aziz is a crucial player. He is the son of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, arguably the most powerful Shi’ite member of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. He is a nephew of the murdered grand ayatollah. And until recently, he was commander of the Badr Brigades, the military wing of the SCIRI.

Ammar makes it clear that the SCIRI is “a council of many parties, including religious people, officers, women, volunteers, like a parliament. We think that if the occupation forces want to leave Iraq as occupiers, so the UN may take charge, then we can support them. But they have to give us a calendar for the end of the occupation.” This is “very close” to the French proposal at the United Nations Security Council: “It is in Iraqi people’s rights to be totally free in our own land.” The SCIRI considers that the Governing Council is “trying to take independent decisions. If we feel that this council cannot be totally independent, we will leave. We don’t feel like this yet.”

Ammar Abdul Aziz confirms that the all-out privatization of Iraq was a Governing Council decision: “Most members agreed. There was a lot of worry before, because of the ethnic representation. But now we feel the council is almost homogeneous.” The 25-member US-appointed council is constituted mostly to reflect the country’s Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish populations.

He is aware of US President George W Bush’s Executive Order 13315, signed on August 28, which in fact represents a US takeover of Iraq’s wealth: “He has signed many papers. But one day the occupiers will leave. The Iraqi people will not allow any of these contracts.” Ammar Abdul Aziz is adamant that as far as the calendar for elections is concerned, “it is not the Americans who take this decision, but the Governing Council.” The negotiation at this moment revolves around the probability of the council writing a new constitution in six months before a general election tentatively scheduled for April 19, 2004: “No one will say we need the Americans after that.”

The assassination of the grand ayatollah remains a very emotional topic in Najaf. Ammar Abdul Aziz says that for the SCIRI, the killers were “people from the Saddam [Hussein] regime cooperating with some tough people, Iraqis with relationship to other countries. The al-Qaeda declaration after the bombing proves they might have had a hand on it.”

The SCIRI’s basic message is that Shi’ites are waiting – but not forever: “We are waiting to hear from al-Hawza [the powerful Shi’ite ‘Vatican’, which sits in Najaf]. The Shi’ite scientifics have a special understanding of Islam. They believe that peaceful ways to reach what we want [are] better than using force. When we dealt with Saddam, we didn’t have weapons. When he killed us for just saying a word, we didn’t have any rights, we found that all peaceful ways were blocked. Then we established huge organizations like the Badr Brigades and other military units to defend us. We were stronger than him. A [large] area [near the Iranian border] was in the heart of the resistance. All this in spite of Saddam’s toughness, his use of all kinds of weapons, chemical weapons: he could not control this area. In the end he tried to evaporate the water of the rivers and marshes. Shi’ites are peaceful people, but if it is necessary, no one can stop them. Because they believe in God.”

Muqtada al Sadr: Punk hero?

The SCIRI’s conciliatory position – at least for the moment – toward the Americans, as articulated by Ammar Abdul Aziz, is being strained to the limit. Six months after the end of Saddam’s regime – which victimized the majority Shi’ites to an horrific extent – the key question is, who really appeals to Shi’ite hearts and minds.

When Baghdad fell on April 9, there were three candidates – all of them sons of very influent religious dynasties: grand ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim (now dead), Sayyed Abdul Majid al-Khoei (also murdered, in April) and Muqtada al-Sadr.

Khoei, son of the late grand ayatollah Abdul Qasim al-Khoei and a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, had returned to Najaf from exile in London. On April 10 he was holding a reconciliation meeting at the Imam Ali Shrine when armed men stabbed him, carried him 500 meters through the streets of Najaf, and killed him with a bullet to the head.

Grand ayatollah al-Hakim, who had also returned from exile in Iran, was killed along with more than 100 people in a car bombing beside the Imam Ali Shrine on August 29.

Al-Hakim’s tremendous influence and his message of democracy, freedom and tolerance of other religions are in stark contrast to the controversial Muqtada al-Sadr. Unlike the media-savvy people at the SCIRI, Muqtada remains extremely elusive.

Repeated requests by Asia Times Online for an interview were indefinitely postponed by his bureau in Baghdad. Muqtada is something of a working-class hero in Sadr City – the 2-million-strong Baghdad slum previously known as Saddam City. He claims to be thirtysomething, but some people in Baghdad estimate that he is not older than 28, and probably even younger. Even under Saddam’s regime, his network was infiltrated by multiple intelligence services. Established clerics and Shi’ite intellectuals consider him a punk – not only because of his trademark sneer, but because he speaks colloquial rather than classical Arabic sprinkled with slang. Some Shi’ites even implicate him in the murders of his rivals Khoei and al-Hakim.

There are many reasons for Muqtada’s widespread popularity, though. The main one is that he is the son of grand ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, murdered by Saddam’s regime in 1999. In addition, he delivers fiery speeches – widely available on video compact disc in Baghdad – against the occupiers: he derides the Governing Council as puppets; and he has nothing but contempt for the traditional Shi’ite religious leaders congregated at al-Hawza, which both Khoei and al-Hakim were. Muqtada insists that the marjaaiyya – the top Shi’ite clerics – have no popular base. His model is Ayatollah Kazim al-Husseini al-Haeri, an ultra-conservative Iraqi Shi’ite still based in Iran.

Immediately after the fall of Baghdad – with no Ba’ath Party structure and no security left in place – Muqtada acted with lightning speed to fill the power vacuum. From his base in Kufa, near Najaf, he dispatched the Muqtada faithful all over the Shi’ite south to set up neighborhood committees and take over local hospitals, collect garbage, protect warehouses, establish roadblocks to deter looters, protect electricity and water stations and transform Ba’ath Party offices into religious centers.

Muqtada commands a militia called the Jaysh al-Mahdi: on a recent religious holiday in Najaf, Asia Times Online experienced face-to-face its thuggish behavior. The militia is not nearly as well disciplined as the Badr Brigades. Both militias anyway remain infinitely more powerful than the badly equipped Iraqi police. Muqtada’s acolytes and the Jaysh al Mahdi enforce a policy according to which no Iraqis may drink alcohol, and all Iraqi women should be veiled.

Muqtada’s key rhetorical missiles are directed against Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, arguably the top Shi’ite religious authority in Iraq, born in Iran, discreet and overtly apolitical. If Muqtada is the punk, Sistani is the pope. Sistani is a traditionalist, according to which the role of a Shi’ite cleric must be strictly spiritual. Muqtada is a militant. His base remains the desperately poor urban proletariat of Sadr City in Baghdad. But he has practically no support in holy Najaf – which is literally inundated with posters and photos of grand ayatollah al-Hakim. The Shi’ite middle classes in Baghdad regard Muqtada as no more than a street upstart.

The issue is, though, that Muqtada is getting increasingly strong support from Iranian hardliners. Unlike grand ayatollah al-Hakim and the SCIRI, who are in favor of a secular, democratic system for Iraq, Muqtada is very much aligned with Iranian supreme guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the ultra-hardline head of the Iranian judiciary, Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, both recently visited in Tehran by Muqtada. This visit left Muqtada with a lot of money to engage in a two-pronged strategy: to fight the traditionalists al-Hawza, Sistani in particular, and to fight for an Islamic regime in Iraq.

At least for the moment, the chief US administrator in Iraq, L Paul Bremer, the Iraqi Governing Council and the marjaaiyya in Najaf are all adopting a “wait and see” attitude toward Muqtada. They know they cannot neutralize him at the moment because he is capable of putting a million very angry people on to the streets of Baghdad: nobody else can. The Shi’ite middle class also knows very well that although Muqtada is intolerable, he cannot be easily dismissed. It’s even possible that the controversial Turkish decision to send troops to Iraq – as the Americans badly wanted – might be the opening Muqtada and his backers in Iran were waiting for. Sunni Sheikh Abdel Sattar Jabar, a member of the Governing Council, went straight to the point: “Turkey, a Sunni country, is called for a military intervention in a Sunni area. So the Shi’ites also may have the right to demand Shi’ite troops deployed in their area.” Which means troops from Shi’ite Iran.

All Iraqis know that if Turkey sends troops to Iraq, this will mean the dreaded opening of a Pandora’s box. Shi’ites may have been very patient so far, but not a single one of them has forgotten that the Turks are descendants of the hated Ottoman colonial power.

Waiting on al-Hawza

Six months after the end of nightmare Saddam, what is al-Hawza to do? Reclusive Grand Ayatollah Sistani never talks to the press. But Sheikh Saleh al-Tahee, a respected marja (spiritual reference), author of many Koranic studies (including a non-Freudian interpretation of dreams) and a key member of al-Hawza, does talk. A Najaf poet, one of his close friends, directs Asia Times Online to a room in a medieval Najaf back alley filled with white-turbaned students of the sheikh, a man revered as holy in this holiest of Shi’ite cities.

Sheikh Saleh says, “Islam is a religion of political and religious problems. There’s no separation. Islam is a religion of politics.” He defends the legitimacy of al-Hawza against Muqtada’s tirades: “Al-Hawza is a school 1,000 years old. There are many references in charge. Every reference is independent. We now know that we got rid of the previous regime and suffering. And we know Americans are promising they will leave Iraq. Even if they don’t see themselves as occupiers, they should tell us the date they will leave Iraq. The resistance will be peaceful during this time.”

Sheikh Saleh stresses that the occupation is fought “by our brains and by our religion … There is no difference between Sunnis and Shi’ites. What the media say is not real. We do have many objections regarding this Governing Council, established under ethnic lines. Most Iraqis suffered from the previous regime; now there’s a relaxed period, as if they were released from hospital after surgery. But we are daily watching events, and it’s getting worse. Prices have doubled. The occupation is printing a new kind of money, selling industries and commercial establishments. Iraq is a very rich country, but the population is one of the poorest anywhere. The previous regime lost a lot of money. It’s not wise to get Iraq straight back into the world system.”

Bremer, in line with Pentagon thought, has repeatedly said that Iraqis are disqualified from managing themselves. Sheikh Saleh says, “Iraqis have been qualified to do it since the first month of the occupation, [but not being able to] has brought all sorts of problems to the Iraqis and also to the Americans.” The sheikh insists that “we still don’t know the political and economic reasons for the occupation. They have used us as a training field, in the beginning of a big strategy.”

But will Shi’ite patience run out? The sheikh answers with a beatific smile, “The English left Iraq after the revolution in the 1920s. It started with only five words, here in Najaf.”

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