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September 2004 / No. 31


Trade & Business

It is a sign of real political astuteness that Iranians have recognized the need to iron things out with Baghdad now. Allawi must also recognize that he cannot achieve stability in Iraq without cooperation with Iran.

Crucial Iran-Iraq Relations

It is a sign of real political astuteness that Iranians have recognized the need to iron things out with Baghdad now. Allawi must also recognize that he cannot achieve stability in Iraq without cooperation with Iran. There are many possible grounds on which Iraq and Iran could forge better relations, ranging from a relationship based on a shared majority-Shiite culture to an alliance between two independent neighboring states. Between these two options lies the chasm where the Iraqi experiment can either come crashing down or the two states will find a political passage. What is certain is that Iran must take the government of President Ghazi al-Yawer and Allawi seriously, on the basis of their own merits. And Iraqis must recognize that their existence after the U.S. leaves depends on good relations with their neighbors.

In the midst of an escalating war of words, Iran has extended an invitation to Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to visit Tehran to defuse what has the potential to become a dangerous row. Accusations of Iranian involvement in the Iraqi insurgency are mounting, and the abduction of an Iranian diplomat by a group of Iraqi militants has served to increase tensions between the two countries and threatens to unravel an already delicate regional balance.

Iraq is increasingly faced with negotiating what seems to be an impossible high-wire act: balancing relations with its neighbors against the Middle East’s tenuous political backdrop. Iraqis have recognized the value of maintaining and tending such alliances. Allawi recently completed an eight-nation regional tour in which he held talks with leaders of neighboring countries. But Iraq must go a step further to solidify good relations with Turkey and Iran. Just as a problem in the relationship with Turkey could shatter Iraq, a wrong turn in its relationship with Iran could cause Iraq to implode.

There are many possible grounds on which Iraq and Iran could forge better relations, ranging from a relationship based on a shared majority-Shiite culture to an alliance between two independent neighboring states.

The delicate balance with Iran is frustrated by external factors. The Iranian political interest in Iraq has coincided with the U.S.-led invasion, resulting in friction, mishaps and sourness for both Iranians and Iraqis. But eventually the U.S. occupation of Iraq will end, and Iraqis and Iranians will be left to negotiate among themselves.

Sistani Ends the Siege: Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has struck a deal to end the bloody three-week siege of Najaf’s Imam Ali shrine. But the agreement leaves rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr at large and confirms Sistani as a figure who wields uncomfortable influence over the Iraqi government.

All the force of the American marines couldn’t do it. Nor could Iyad Allawi, Iraq’s interim Prime Minister. But the moral authority of the frail, 73-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was enough to persuade the armed followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, a young firebrand cleric, to leave the holiest of shrines in the holy city of Najaf. On August 27th, Sadr’s Mahdi Army militiamen, who had been engaged in a bloody stand-off with American and Iraqi government forces for three weeks, were reported to have handed in their weapons and left the Imam Ali shrine, melting in with the thousands of pilgrims flocking there.

The deal was negotiated during a 24-hour ceasefire ordered by Allawi. Sistani, Iraq’s most respected Shia cleric, had swept into Iraq from Kuwait hours earlier, at the head of thousands of pilgrims, having flown into the region from London, where he had undergone heart surgery. His absence had left a vacuum in which Sadr, a relatively junior cleric whose father and uncle were killed by order of Saddam Hussein, was able to present himself as the leader of Shia resistance to the coalition occupation. When he called on his supporters to occupy the shrine, they followed in their hundreds. Marines were sent to defeat the insurgents, but though they advanced to within 400 meters of the shrine, concern about inflaming Muslim opinion kept them from attacking the building.

Various members of Iraq’s religious elite and its government tried to persuade the Mahdi Army to leave the mosque, but Sadr proved a tricky and elusive negotiator—indeed, he has not been seen in public for some time and may have fled several days before the agreement was struck. But though several recent reports of a breakthrough in Najaf have proved false, the latest deal seems to be holding, for now, and may even be expanded.

Under the agreement, Sadrist fighters were to lay down their arms and to leave the holy compound. Those who did so were to be given an amnesty. Sadr himself, who is wanted on charges of murdering a fellow cleric last year, was also to be allowed to go free. And the American marines too were to withdraw from Najaf. The safety of the city, and of the neighboring city of Kufa, is to be the responsibility of Iraq’s fledgling police and security forces. The government has agreed to pay compensation to the victims of the fighting.

Despite the deal on Najaf and Kufa, fighting continued in the Shia slum of Sadr City (named after Sadr’s father) in Baghdad, and there were worries that the truce could unravel. But an aide of Sadr’s called on the Mahdi Army across Iraq to cease fire, speaking on a Lebanese television station, al-Manar. The aide said that Sadr would be joining the political process. Allawi demands that the Mahdi Army disarm and disband, a condition Sadr has long refused to accept. Nonetheless, all sides are hopeful that the guns will remain silent for now, while a way for Sadr to be peacefully incorporated into Iraqi politics is found.

The deal appears to herald a victory for Sistani’s moderate, collegiate brand of Islam over the more confrontational, demagogic type practiced by Sadr. Sistani, unlike his younger rival, believes that clerics should not run countries. However, despite his avowed desire to remain above the political fray, the grand ayatollah has had a strong influence over the evolution of post-war Iraq. Most importantly, his insistence on early elections forced the United States to change its plans.

If Sistani adopts the same stance with Allawi as he did with Paul Bremer, America’s former proconsul in Iraq, the Interim Prime Minister will have a lot to contend with. The deal in Najaf has re-established Sistani as the country’s most influential political figure. If the ayatollah chooses to reassert himself in everyday politics, Allawi will probably have to send emissaries to Najaf to consult with him every time he wants to float a new initiative. The Prime Minister is unlikely to relish such a prospect.

Moreover, despite Sistani’s assertions that he does not want a role in politics, some Kurds and other secular Iraqis worry that they might just be exchanging one would-be theocrat for another. Sistani may be less of a rabble-rouser than Sadr, but he is equally hostile to federalism and anxious to impose an Islamic identity on the rest of Iraq, they fear.

For now, though, debates about federalism and secularism seem moot. More than 100 people were killed, and more than 500 injured, in shootings and mortar attacks around Najaf and Kufa on August 26th, even as Sistani and his supporters were marching on Najaf to end the conflict. On the same day, an attack by insurgents on oil facilities near Basra helped reverse the fall in oil prices from a peak of almost $50 a barrel. On August 27th, the Italian government confirmed that a freelance journalist, Enzo Baldoni, had been killed by his kidnappers because of its refusal to withdraw its troops from Iraq. With much of the country still lawless, the level of influence wielded by an elderly cleric is not the most immediate of worries.

 

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