Correction To Nyt Re Sistani Alex

Correction to the NYT re: Sistani

Alex Berenson’s otherewise fine article on the situation in Najaf contains an important error. This mistake may well not be Mr. Berenson’s fault. We professional writers know that between the time we submit something and it appears in press, it is massaged, edited and copy-edited, and with all the professionalism in the world mistakes sometimes slip in. Moreover, in a place like Iraq often more than one reporter contributes to a piece. Berenson is brave to be in Baghdad at all, and people such as I depend heavily on his reporting, which hasn’t pulled any punches in the past few weeks. And, I (not having those helpful fact checkers and often writing when sleepy) sometimes make silly mistakes, too (which my helpful readers generally correct the next morning).

But this is not right:


The fighting this week coincides with the rare absence from Najaf of the most revered Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who is a mainstream cleric wary of the American role but not in violent opposition to it as Mr. Sadr is.

It is worth correcting both because the NYT is a paper of record and we don’t want anyone misled about something important like this, and because it is an opportunity for me to repeat some historical points that readers sometimes ask for.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani does not belong to or head up any political party. He was born in Mashad, Iran, in August 1930, studied in Mashad seminaries and then in Qom with Ayatollah Boroujerdi, and then came to Iraq in 1952. He has always stayed in the seminaries and never entered politics.

He is in London for medical treatment now. Al-Sharq al-Awsat says today that Sistani will not need a heart operation, and that his clogged arteries will be treated by coronary angioplasty (inflating a balloon in them). He is said to be very worried by the situation in Najaf and eager to return to Iraq. He told people around him that he never expected affairs to reach this pass.

The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI or SAIRI) was formed as an umbrella group by Iraqi Shiite exiles in Tehran in 1982, in the wake of Saddam’s big crackdown on the Shiite al-Dawa Party and other similar groupings. In 1984 it came to be headed up by Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, and was until his death in Najaf in a huge car bombing on August 29, 2003. During the 1980s SCIRI developed a paramilitary wing, the Badr Corps, headed by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the brother of Muhammad Baqir. Both were sons of Muhsin al-Hakim, who had been the leading authority in Najaf (the equivalent of Sistani today) circa 1960-1970.

Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim came back to Iraq in May of 2003. His SCIRI developed a keen rivalry with the Sadr movement, which was also bucking the authority of Sistani. So Sistani made a behind-the-scenes tacit alliance with Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim and SCIRI, and the Badr Corps helped Sistani keep control of the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, thwarting the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr. SCIRI and Sadrist missionaries have been competing for the souls of the Shiites in the South, and both have much extended their sweep, from all accounts.

So, Sistani doesn’t belong to SCIRI and doesn’t head SCIRI. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim does. Despite its relative popularity, SCIRI was only given one position in the caretaker government, the Finance Ministry.

Ideologically, I suspect Sistani is closer to the al-Da’wa Party than to SCIRI. Sistani rejects the notion of clerical rule promulgated by Khomeini, though he accepts it with regard to “social issues.” When they were in Tehran, at least, the al-Hakims had accepted this theory from Khomeini, and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim was talking about a future Islamic state in Iraq as recently as last spring.

Western reporters keep saying that Sistani believes in the separation of religion and state, but this is not true. Sistani wants religious law to be the law of the land and when parliament takes up legislation related to moral or social matters on which Sistani has a position, he expects the Shiite members of parliament to do as he says.

I suppose it is the sort of system that the Christian Coalition and the religious wing of the Republican Party would like to implement in the United States. Indeed, it is because the Republicans have elements of this sort of system in place that President Bush limited stem cell research and pushed for a constitutional amendment forbidding gay marriage. Some people warn that because Sistani wants religious law and clerical influence, he is a Trojan Horse for theocracy. If so, then so are Tom Delay and George W. Bush and their allies among the evangelical Protestant ayatollahs.

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