Has the Shrine been Looted?
The shrine of Ali was not only a tomb with an attached mosque. It was also a museum. Since being built in its modern form in the seventeenth century, the shrine has been the recipient of bejewelled swords, glittering gems, and other priceless gifts from Muslim monarchs and notables from all over the world. And we all know what has happened to museums in American-ruled Iraq.
The fate of the priceless treasures stored at the Shrine of Ali has proved an intractable sticking point in the negotiations between Muqtada al-Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, according to al-Zaman. Since 1845 or so, the shrine keeper has been in a single family. Under the Baath, he was under the authority of the state Board of Pious Endowments. Haydar al-Rufay’i al-Kalidar was viewed by the Sadr movement as a collaborator because he worked with this board. He was killed by a Sadrist mob on April 10, 2003, along with Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khoei, who had just flown in from exile in London. His place has been taken by Ridwan al-Rufay’i al-Kalidar, a 23 year old engineer from the U.K. For most of the period after the fall of Saddam until 1 April, 2004, the shrine of Ali came under the control of the Badr Corps, the paramilitary of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, now headed by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, an ally of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
Up until April 1, the treasures of the shrine were intact and accounted for. But when the ragtag Mahdi Army militiamen took over the shrine as part of their first anti-American insurgency, which responded to sudden American threats to kill or capture Muqtada al-Sadr.
Sistani appears to fear that in the past five months, the Sadrists may have looted the treasures of the shrine. (If they did, it would have made them enormously wealthy and helped to bankroll the further expansion of the movement.) He fears for his good name if he takes the keys to the shrine from the Sadrists and then later an inventory is done, and treasures are missing. It would be impossible to know at that point whether Sistani’s men had stolen them, or Sadr’s.
So apparently an inventory would have to be done first, before Sistani will take possession. One of Muqtada’s spokesmen suggested that the Shiite Board of Pious Endowments be charged with carrying out a quick inventory, so that the transfer can go forward.
Another Sadr spokesman said that the surrender of the shrine by armed militiamen has been exaggerated. He said there are still Mahdi Army volunteers in the shrine, but that they are armed only with their personal (light) weapons.