Al-Sistani Brokers a Peace Deal with Al-Sadr to End the Fighting in Najaf
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JIM LEHRER: For more on today’s deal, here now are: Eric Davis, professor of political science at Rutgers University, author of “Memories of State: Politics, History, and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq”; and Juan Cole, professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan, author of “Sacred Space and Holy War” about Shia Islam.
Professor Cole, knowing you know about al-Sistani and al-Sadr, do you think this deal is going to work?
JUAN COLE: I think initially it has a chance. Actually it is the deal that Muqtada Sadr himself earlier proposed. He’s the one who initially said that he wanted to turn the shrine over to Grand Ayatollah Sistani.
The negotiations on that turnover were stalled and Sistani coming back seems to have broken the bottleneck. But earlier on Muqtada also said things like although the Mahdi army would leave the shrine, it would continue to be among the guards of it. So whether he can be gotten really to leave Najaf with his armed men is still a question.
JIM LEHRER: Eric Davis, how does it look to you?
ERIC DAVIS: Well, I think this is an important breakthrough. You usually have a stereotype in the West that religious leaders really play an important role in politics in the Middle East, but here we see that Ayatollah Sistani, and let’s remember he just had very serious heart surgery, against the advice of his doctors, came back from England through Kuwait, through Basra and in a matter of 24 hours was able to do what other negotiators have not been able to do for weeks.
JIM LEHRER: Professor Cole, refresh our memories on al Sistani. Where does his power come from and how much is there of it?
JUAN COLE: Oh, well, Sistani is enormously powerful with regard to his moral authority. In Shiite Islam of the sort practiced in Iraq, each lay believer is to choose most upright and most the learned of the Shiite clergymen and follow his rulings on the religious life. He’s a kind of jurisprudent for them. And Sistani is widely recognized to be the most eminent and the most suitable for that position, both among other clergymen and among the laity.
So if Sistani gives a ruling, then something should happen. Very large numbers of people, hundreds of thousands would immediately come to do it and that can be seen in the way that people have responded to his call to come to Najaf. So he is able to put crowds in the streets, he’s able to have them stay home. He’s a key political actor as well as a religious one.
JIM LEHRER: Professor Davis, how would you describe his relationship with al-Sadr before today?
ERIC DAVIS: I think one of the important things is that he’s now being forced to do what he didn’t want to do initially.
JIM LEHRER: I mean Sistani’s relationship with al-Sadr.
ERIC DAVIS: Yes. I’m saying that after Saddam’s fall he really did not want to recognize Sadr’s political influence. I think he’s being forced to do that now.
But the fact that he’s been able to enter the scene so quickly and turn things around, the fact that he has, unlike Sadr, really called for the entire country to come and rescue Najaf, he called upon Kurds and Sunnis, not just Shias, I think really underscores the fact that he is truly a national leader.
JIM LEHRER: As a practical matter, Professor Davis, once Sistani decided to do this, al- Sadr had no choice?
ERIC DAVIS: I think al-Sadr is in an awkward position no matter what. On the one hand the power of his movement derives from the fact that he proposed radical solutions which appealed to his base. On the other hand, he is going to have to somehow transform the Mahdi army into a political force. Otherwise, there is no longevity for this movement.
The problem of course is that, I think, speaking from Sadr’s point of view, the Allawi government does not really want to give him any real political power, and I don’t think ultimately that Sistani wants to do that as well.
JIM LEHRER: Professor Cole, how do you see al-Sadr’s role from this day on, assuming this deal holds and he goes, part of the deal as I understand it on the wires is that he’s allowed to remain free, in other words, he’s not going to be arrested or charged with anything, he’s going to be allowed to be free. What do you think he gets from this in terms of the future and his role in Iraq?
JUAN COLE: Well, so far, Muqtada al-Sadr has taken a rejectionist position, which is that the American occupation of Iraq, as he calls it, is illegitimate, that the Allawi government is nothing more than an agent or puppet of the United States; it’s an anti- imperial position and he insists, he has insisted so far, that the Americans leave immediately and he has so far refused to participate in parliamentary politics under the shadow of an American occupation.
Whether this setback he has suffered in Najaf can change his mind is a real question. I expect him to continue to want to play the role of a spoiler. His base, as Professor Davis mentioned, is the very poor in the slums of the Shiite cities of the South, and they’re not happy with status quo and they’re not ready, I think, many of them to play ordinary politics.
JIM LEHRER: Professor Davis let’s go back to al-Sistani now. How would you describe his relationship with the interim Iraqi government?
ERIC DAVIS: Well, I think here there’s a very important marriage of convenience. Obviously Iyad Allawi is trying to position himself for next, hopefully next January’s elections, and I think that Sistani representing a very different approach to politics than al-Sadr would like to have the fatwa informal association of Shia clerics, I think that he would like to see them continue to have an important role in Iraqi politics, that they be consulted for example, on matters of personal status law on education.
So he does not want to exercise a direct role in politics. But he certainly does want to be consulted. And I think that actually what’s happened in the last 24 hours plays into Allawi’s hand because in effect it forces al-Sadr to really back down from his radical position.
JIM LEHRER: You read it the same way, Professor Cole, that this strengthens — Sistani’s deal, his intervention and this deal and if it holds it strengthens the interim government?
JUAN COLE: Well, I personally believe that nothing can save the interim government. I don’t believe any of the major figures in it could possibly win an election. I think when they decided to back marines bombing the holy city of Najaf, they lost an incredible amount of public important in the Shiite South. I don’t expect Mr. Allawi to do well in the elections for Parliament if he runs. I think all of the major candidates running for office in January, if elections are held then, will likely be running against the United States. I think that this entire episode has left a bad taste in the mouth of most Iraqis, and I know feelings are different in Najaf itself, which had to suffer with the Mahdi army. But outside of Najaf, most people were very opposed to this.
JIM LEHRER: But what about al-Sistani? I mean, does his role today, how does that affect the view of the average Iraqi toward the United States and the occupation and its relationship to the interim government?
JUAN COLE: Well, I think Sistani has now emerged as a genuine national hero. If he can make this deal and make it stick, he’s put himself on the Iraqi political map in a big way. He already had great authority among the religious Shiites. But I think he’s in a position now to be enormously influential, and what he wants is elections. He wants those elections to be held in January, he doesn’t think the current setup is legitimate. He wants the Iraqi people to have a voice. And if the elections are not held in January, I think that he will bring people out into the streets about it.
JIM LEHRER: Professor Davis, do you think that Sistani, if this all works, I hate to keep saying that, because we don’t know that yet, that it is going to work.
But let’s assume for discussion purposes it does work in some positive form over the next few days and weeks, even months. Does this expedite the prospect for U.S. and coalition troops leaving Iraq?
ERIC DAVIS: Yes, I think it does. But I think that we also have to look at this problem outside the realm of religious politics. I think we have to realize that as Professor Cole has reiterated, the base, the people who are attracted to al-Sadr are young Iraqis from their mid teens to their mid 20s who don’t see a future for themselves.
And on the surface it would appear that Iraq with its massive oil wealth, with the assistance it’s receiving from the United States, from other countries, from NGO’s, should be in a position to offer these young people some type of economic future. And I think unless that can be done, military action alone is not going to be able to suppress the Sadr movement.
JIM LEHRER: But al-Sadr’s agreement to this, does he not – he doesn’t have the ability to control these young people?
ERIC DAVIS: Well, I think that he does have the ability to control them. What I’m trying to point out is if the root causes that have led these people to support him in the first place are not dealt with, this problem is going to reemerge in other ways. Let’s just remember, it’s not just al-Sadr and his movement alone that opposes the American occupation forces in Iraq.
JIM LEHRER: Professor Cole, both of you have said now that al-Sistani now emerges as the single most powerful person in the country for all practical purposes. How do you see – Professor Davis said something about it earlier – how do you foresee al-Sistani now exercising this power, what is it do you think he wants and how will he go about trying to accomplish it?
JUAN COLE: Well, Sistani, wants a parliamentary government, he wants free and open, one person, one vote elections. But he also sees authority to flow from the religious hierarchy, and so he expects that elected parliament, when it is elected, to take account of his rulings or fatwas when he issues them on social issues. So if the Iraqi parliament ever took up gay marriage, Sistani would have a ruling on that and he would expect the parliament to bow to his wishes in this regard.
He will also want Islamic law to be incorporated as far as possible into the civil law of the country. So it’s not like the Iranian state where the clerics rule, but it is a hybrid of a western democracy and the Iranian style government in the sense that the clergy do have a commanding although not ruling presence.
JIM LEHRER: Professor Davis, you see it the same way?
ERIC DAVIS: Yes, I think that that’s certainly the case. But again as Professor Cole has pointed out, the good news is that we have here a revered leader who is in the camp of democracy.
The issues of the extent to which Islamic law will play itself out, and let’s remember that Islamic law is constantly in a state of change, it’s undergoing that even in such very conservative societies as Saudi Arabia – so even the fact that Islamic law will have to probably be an important component of policy-making in a future Iraqi government, I still think that there are possibilities which will allow all the interests of the various sectors of Iraqi society to be reconciled.
JIM LEHRER: In a word, Professor Davis, and then Professor Cole to you, Professor Davis, is this a very — do you feel positive about events of this day?
ERIC DAVIS: Yes. I mean, opinion polls show over and over again that Iraqis are committed to positive change, to democracy. They’re against violence, they’re all looking for a decent standard of living, and in that sense they’re no different from people in any other country and if people have good will if they come together, and I think that Ayatollah al-Sistani can help in this regard, can help bring about some very positive change over the next few years.
JIM LEHRER: Professor Cole, do you leave this day in a positive mood about things over there?
JUAN COLE: Well, I’m afraid I feel very pessimistic about the situation in Iraq; I think there are all kinds of land mines, the Kurdish issue, the issue of Islamic law, the issue of government policy reviving certain Baath-style restrictions on human rights. I think it’s a wonderful thing that Sistani has intervened as he has. If he can resolve this crisis, I think it’s a great, good thing for Iraq, but I don’t see the end of the story yet.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.