Authority of Sistani versus Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq
Alex Berenson argues in the NYT that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has much wider support among Iraqi Shiites than Muqtada al-Sadr, and that the latter has actually lost some enthusiasts through a set of recent missteps, including proclaiming a shadow government and trying to take over shrines in Karbala by force.
I don’t doubt that Berenson has a point, but I think it is a mistake to underestimate Muqtada. If you listen to the mainstream Iraqi Shiites, he is just a young ignoramus surrounded by some hooligans, with little popular support. That image seems to me just propaganda. Muqtada is followed in a sectarian way by two sorts of follower, cadres and sympathizers. Many of the sympathizers have so far not been willing to risk conflict with the US, having been brutalized by Saddam. But if the US overstays its welcome in Iraq, or pursues policies perceived as harmful by a large number of Shiites, the sympathizers could easily shift over to become cadres, and you get a mass movement. The Muqtada sympathizers tend to be young and poor, whereas the Sistani followers are typically somewhat better off and older. In some ways this is like the contest in the US between the WB television network and CBS (the latter gets the older, better-off viewers). I have a sense that Berenson is mainly talking to the equivalent of CBS viewers.
Incidentally, Muqtada is interviewed on 60 Minutes II in the US at 8 pm Weds. 10/22.