Can quietist ayatollah save Iraq from collapse?


iraq - SistaniAfter the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani emerged as one of the most powerful men in Iraq, notes a prominent analyst.

Sistani was already known to Shia Muslims worldwide as the somewhat reticent leader of the religious establishment in Najaf. The fall of the Ba’ath regime thrust him on to the national and international stage, writes Hayder al-Khoei, an Associate Fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Despite his strong influence on Iraqi politics, Sistani, now 84, gets involved only in exceptional circumstances on strategic issues – such as the need to hold a general election during the early stages of the Iraq occupation and the need for an elected assembly to draft Iraq’s first permanent constitution.

More recently, he has called for Iraqis to mobilize and join the armed forces in their fight against the jihadists of Islamic State and he has moved to block former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki from clinging to power for a third term. Sistani’s influence in Iraq is the result of a decades-long process that saw him rise up the ranks of the religious hierarchy in Najaf, which alongside Qum in Iran constitute two of the most important centres of Shia scholarship.

The school of thought that prevails in Iraq is often referred to as the ‘quietist’ school in Shia Islam. Scholars debate whether Sistani is actually quietist given his powerful interventions in politics. There is no consensus on what quietism actually means, but it is radically different to the Iranian model of theocracy. In Iraq, Sistani has explicitly called for a civil state and not a religious state……


Remembering Anna: Iraqi Yazidi MP awarded Politkovskaya prize

Iraqi legislator Vian Dakhil on Monday received the Anna Politkovskaya prize for her denunciation of the jihadist group Islamic State over its brutal treatment of Yazidi women, AFP reports:

The award — handed out by London-based organisation RAW in WAR to honour women working to help those trapped in conflict — is named after crusading Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya who was gunned down in Moscow on October 7, 2006.

Vian Dakhil has given “a voice to the many Yazidi and Iraqi women and girls whose voices cannot be heard,” the organisation said in a statement.

“We are peaceful people, but our men are being butchered, and our women and girls are being tortured, raped and taken as slaves,” Dakhil told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“I must make the world aware that there are still people who want to rule with the laws of the Dark Ages, by forcing us to change religion or be killed.”

Dakhil stood up in parliament and made a desperate plea for help (above), warning that Yazidis, a non-Arab and non-Muslim community whose unique customs make them barely human in the eyes of the jihadists, faced genocide.

“We are being slaughtered, our entire religion is being wiped off the face of the earth. I am begging you, in the name of humanity,” she said, breaking down in tears during the televised session.


Anna politozskaya“We continue to be concerned that the mastermind of [Politkovskaya’s] killing still has not been brought to justice,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

We call on the Russian government to bring to justice those responsible for the murder of Paul Klebnikov, as well as those of Timur Kuashev, Akhmednabi Akhmednabiyev, Kazbek Gekkiyev, and several others in the North Caucasus,” she added. “Impunity for these crimes, as well as for many other acts of violence against journalists and activists in recent years, has only worsened the atmosphere of intimidation for those who work to uncover corruption or human rights abuses.”

In commemoration of the murder of Politkovskaya on October 7, 2006, Freedom House issued the following statement:

“The murder of Anna Politkovskaya has come to symbolize the grimmest aspects of life in Russia under Vladimir Putin,” said David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House.

“Politkovskaya was an uncompromising journalist whose courageous reporting on the military conflict in Chechnya embodied freedom of the press, a universal right that remains only an aspiration in Russia….”

Journalists honored the late Russian investigative reporter by bringing paper flowers to the headquarters of her newspaper, “Novaya Gazeta,” on the eighth anniversary of her murder, RFE/RL reports. The flowers were fashioned from pages of newspapers and other media outlets taking part in the commemoration organized by Amnesty International. Ceremonies were also held in other cities


It’s Iraq’s economy, stupid (as well as ISIS)

iraq isis spectatorThe Middle East may be sliding toward a warlord era, with nation-states increasingly struggling to control all their territory and millions living under the rule of emergent local chiefs and movements, Bloomberg reports:

Armed irregular forces hold effective power over growing areas of Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya where central government authority barely reaches. Motivated by religious ideology or regional separatism, they have grabbed oil facilities and weapons, imposed taxes or changed school curriculums, and fought each other as well as national armies.

“It is almost like the whole regional order that was built in the 20th century is collapsing,” Nadim Shehadi, associate fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House in London, said in an interview. “Non-state actors are filling the vacuum.”

Saudi Arabia, which pumps almost $1 billion-worth of crude every day, has expanded spending on jobs and welfare. Elsewhere, where governments are less flush with cash, efforts to rein in the militias and extremist groups will be difficult as long as there are few economic opportunities for Arab youths, said Eckart Woertz, a Persian Gulf specialist at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs. The region has the world’s highest rate of youth unemployment, according to the International Labour Organization.

“There is no shortage of angry young men,” Woertz said. “Sectarianism, religious intolerance and conspiracy theories are unfortunately widespread. Islamic State can thrive in such an environment.”

iraq ngosAfter months of political wrangling in Baghdad and advances made by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – also known as IS or ISIS – the Iraqi Parliament finally approved a new, more inclusive government led by a new prime minister, Dr. Haider al-Abadi, in early September, writes Ricky Chen, a Program Assistant for the Middle East & North Africa at the Center for International Private Enterprise.

At a recent roundtable event with Iraqi and U.S. experts, held under the Chatham House Rule, participants expressed cautious optimism over the new government. However, in the uphill battle to confront immediate threats to the country’s security, Iraq’s economic crisis has largely been ignored.

According to one participant, the fact that the new cabinet of ministers included members of Iraq’s various minority groups, and that three leading political rivals – former Prime Ministers Nouri al-Maliki and Iyad Allawi and former parliament speaker Usama al-Nujaifi – were given posts as vice presidents, was a good sign. ….In an exclusive interview conducted with a former ISIL fighter, he said that young recruits felt compelled to stay and fight because ISIL commanders “spent money, gave us food, clothes, cars and respected us so much that leaving the camp felt like betraying the good deeds of those people.” ISIL reportedly pays its members $400 USD per month, a good wage for Iraq, attracting disgruntled youth across the country and region.

ISIL is the symptom of two larger problems in Iraq – a youth bulge, and poverty. Today, nearly half of the population is under the age of 19 and 18 percent of young people (15-25 years) are unemployed, according to the UNDP. About a quarter of the 31 million people in Iraq live on less than $2.2 a day, the international poverty line, and the 1.8 million refugees and internally displaced people inside Iraq are adding economic burdens to their host communities. ….


Lessons learned from Maliki’s Iraq

Mideast Syria Militants Rise AnalysisThe formation of an inclusive, multi-sectarian government in Iraq was a key element of the Obama administration’s response to the fall of Mosul this past June and the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) as a strategic threat, notes Marc Sievers, the Diplomat-in-Residence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former political minister-counselor at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi’s new government appears to embody this policy goal, he writes for the Fikra Forum:

In 2010, the United States was deeply involved in the negotiations to form a similarly representative Iraqi government, which finally emerged in December 2010. The effort was serious and the outcome appeared at the time to represent a significant success. However, understanding Maliki’s subsequent failure to stabilize Iraq and especially the collapse of efforts to include Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish communities in the government, should yield critically relevant lessons.

Observers and local actors were taken aback by ISIS’s  emergence, said the National Endowment for Democracy’s Laith Kubba.

“All the signs were there. Nobody wanted to read them,” he told PBS. “They moved from being an offshoot, a terrorist group — and there, people might think we can live with terrorist groups and the skirmishes they create, but this has become an army of 10,000 to 15,000, very well-equipped with rocket launchers, some air missile — missiles, and they are so coordinated.’

“I’m not really sure if they can hold territory for long, but certainly they have achieved their objective in saying, we’re a force, and I think hundreds will join them, and this is going to become a regional problem,” he said.

Now, thanks in part to ISIS’s brutality and active U.S. and regional diplomacy, Iraq has a rare second chance at success, and there are critical lessons that policymakers should learn from the experience of the second Maliki government, Sievers contends:

The first is that filling the key security ministries with competent, broadly accepted ministers and deputy ministers must be a top priority. Nothing undermined the cohesion of Iraq’s first inclusive government more than the prolonged failure to reach agreement regarding the defense and interior ministries. Second, the Kurds’ mediating role is critical, and addressing the oil revenue issue along the lines of agreements already worked out in the past, but never implemented, should help preserve a sense of mutual interest and common cause between Baghdad and Erbil. Third, Iraq’s political class of all backgrounds shows positive signs of recognizing that they must hang together or they will surely hang separately.


ISIS’ Islamism is rooted in Saudi Wahhabi creed


For their guiding principles, the leaders of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, are open and clear about their almost exclusive commitment to the Wahhabi movement of Sunni Islam, David Kirkpatrick reports for the New York Times:

The group circulates images of Wahhabi religious textbooks from Saudi Arabia in the schools it controls. Videos from the group’s territory have shown Wahhabi texts plastered on the sides of an official missionary van.

This approach is at odds with the more mainstream Islamist and jihadist thinking that forms the genealogy of Al Qaeda, and it has led to a fundamentally different view of violence. Al Qaeda grew out of a radical tradition that viewed Muslim states and societies as having fallen into sinful unbelief, and embraced violence as a tool to redeem them. But the Wahhabi tradition embraced the killing of those deemed unbelievers as essential to purifying the community of the faithful.

“It is a kind of untamed Wahhabism,” said Bernard Haykel, a scholar at Princeton. “Wahhabism is the closest religious cognate.”

“Violence is part of their ideology,” said Haykel, who spoke on the issue at the National Endowment for Democracy this week (above). “For Al Qaeda, violence is a means to an ends; for ISIS, it is an end in itself.”

Islamic State ideologues often deem anyone, even an Islamist, who supports an elected or secular government to be an unbeliever and subject to beheading, Kirkpatrick adds:

“This is ‘you join us, or you are against us and we finish you,’ ” said Prof. Emad Shahin, who teaches Islam and politics at Georgetown University. “It is not Al Qaeda, but far to its right.”

Some experts note that Saudi clerics lagged long after other Muslim scholars in formally denouncing the Islamic State, and at one point even the king publicly urged them to speak out more clearly.

“There is a certain mutedness in the Saudi religious establishment, which indicates it is not a slam dunk to condemn ISIS,” Professor Haykel said.