The Iraq war has resulted in many human casualties that make any humane person want to weep. I hope the human sacrifice will have been worth it; certainly Saddam’s regime was virtually genocidal and it is a great good thing that it is gone. But the continued urban looting is an indictment of Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz’s carelessness. The biggest cultural tragedy in this regard is the complete loss of the thousands of treasures and artifacts at the Baghdad Museum. Piotr Michalowski points out that this would be like the loss of the Louvre in a single day. Apparently all of Iraq’s more recent historical documents are also gone. The country has been robbed of the key sources of its historical identity by US insouciance. This is a war crime under the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. No one who cares about the history and sources of world civilization can fail to weep today, and to rage against Rummy’s glib dismissal of the travesty as a little “untidiness.” Now many Baghdad merchants are saying they lost so much inventory they cannot even open. So much for ‘getting back to normal.’
It was suggested on a list I’m on that some of the motives for the infighting among clerical families in Najaf has to do with payment of religious taxes by lay followers.
It seems to me as a distant observer that this motivation is less likely than others in the current Iraqi context. As I understand it, when Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr was assassinated in 1999, some of his followers in Najaf remained loyal to him and became known as Sadriyun. They developed a doctrine that it was forbidden to follow the rulings of anyone but al-Sadr. Since in Usuli Shiism it is forbidden to follow the rulings of a dead jurisprudent; and since multiple objects of emulation are the norm, the Sadriyun were here behaving in an unorthodox way.
Over time they came to give some loyalty as well to al-Sadr’s son Muqtada [this is the correct spelling], who is now 22 and therefore was just a teenager when his father was killed by Saddam’s agents. This investment of such a young man with a cult of personality strikes me as extremely odd. One report I read said that Muqtada organized especially among the very poor Shiites in Najaf (a city of about 560,000). Muqtada is said to be pro-Iranian and virulently anti-American, and to have deeply opposed the US invasion. That is, he is closer with regard to international politics to the positions recently taken by the Iran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
So if these various reports, which I have combined, are true, then what we have in the Sadriyun is a sect in the classical Weberian sense of the word–a lower-class charismatic community centered on absolutist doctrines and authoritarian leadership that would be viewed as heterodox by the mainstream “church” of the upper middle and wealthy classes.
The Sadriyun could have been expected to react violently to the appearance of Abd al-Majid Khu’i in Najaf and his attempt to secure control over the Mosque of Ali (by reconciling the population to Haydar Rafi`i Kalidar, the shrine keeper whom they viewed as a collaborator with Saddam). Khu’i represented the old comfortable mainstream of Najaf society and was clearly working for a reconciliation with the Americans as well as with local traditional elites like the Kalidars. His positions were “church-like” in sociological terms. He was positioning himself as a spokesman for Grand Ayatollah Sistani, now the main object of emulation and therefore a man especially objectionable to the sectarian Sadriyun, who want to enshrine al-Sadr as the only legitimate source of religious authority.
I suspect that the deportation by Saddam of over 100,000 Iranian-heritage Iranians, many of them from great-merchant families; and the impoverishment of the shrine cities since the rebellion of 1991, has rather weakened the religious-tax system and greatly reduced its income. I don’t have a sense that it means that much for rural Iraqis.
My guess is that Muqtada al-Sadr is competing for power and charisma, and for a chance to shape the future of Iraqi Shiites, not just for staid collection plates.