Sistani Plays Tribal Card Demonstration

Sistani Plays the Tribal Card; Demonstration in Basra

According to al-Hayat newspaper, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani held a meeting in Najaf at which he encouraged visiting clan (“tribal”) leaders of Rumaitha and Samawah (az-Zaman adds other middle Euphrates areas) to insist on general elections as a means of achieving a new, sovereign Iraqi government. He promised the sheikhs of that region that they would exercise power, not “those who came from abroad.” He was referring to the members of the Interim Governing Council, many of whom returned from long years of exile in the West or in Iran after the fall of Saddam. Raghida Dergham quotes him in as saying, “Authority must be yours, and the coming parliament must be composed of elected children of the people.”

The tribal leaders from these areas had allied with the Shiite clergy in the spring, 1920, Great Rebellion against the British Mandate, which the British put down with difficulty and which led to a brief British colonial experiment in Iraq, ending in 1932, much earlier than hawks such as Churchill had desired.

Astonishing, Sistani invoked this history. He said, “We want you to be revolutionaries, just as we want you to exercise sovereignty.” He added, “You must play a great role, just as you played a role in the 1920 Revolt.”

In rural areas, the sheikhs still have substantial authority, though most Iraqis are now urban. Sistani appears to be determined to undermine the Interim Governing Council and the new transitional government that the US wants to hand-pick, as well. He demands free and open elections.

In Basra, a demonstration in favor of free elections was organized by the representative of Sistani in that city, Sayyid Ali al-Safi Abd al-Hakim. This is the first demonstration I know of staged by a close representative of Sistani. (Thanks to David Patel in Basra).

On the other hand, Muhammad Taha al-Husaini, a representative of Sistani, told seminary students in Kufa on Tuesday evening that Sistain felt that an opposition to the occupation of the country should be peaceful “at this time.” (-ash-Sharq al-Awsat).

I would not have thought Sistani, being a political quietist, would be stirring up clan leaders by invoking memories of 1920 or having urban demonstrations staged. He is emerging as a major political figure, and showing himself unafraid to play politics.

He is much more formidable than I had thought (during the late Saddam years he was painted as quite timid, though to be fair he survived a Baath assassination attempt in 1996). The game is afoot.

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