In what I think is a very significant move, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) has changed its name to the Iraqi Islamic Supreme Council , and has indicated that it will now look to Ayatollah Sistani, rather than Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei, as a main source of guidance. As Juan Cole notes, just as important as the move away from Iran is the move away from Khomeinism, the rule by the jurist, in which a supreme jurisprudent can effectively overrule any government decision which he holds is not appropriately Islamic. Sistani has declared his support for a more limited, though of course still significant, role for clerics in an Iraqi Islamic republic.
President Bush received SCIRI’s leader, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, in the White House a few months ago. It seemed odd to me that Bush was cuddling up with Hakim while continuing to try, and failing, to marginalize Muqtada al-Sadr, Hakim’s main rival. I think it’s been apparent for a while now that Sadr is the key figure in the new Iraq, representing both Shi’i ascendancy, with a social activist program modeled on Hezbollah’s, and strong Arab-Iraqi nationalism, which always made charges of his being a pawn of Iran hard to believe. Muqtada has stridently opposed the U.S. presence in Iraq since the beginning, which, in the harsh light of Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, and Haditha, make him look prophetic to many Iraqis, even those who don’t particularly sympathize with his harshly conservative agenda.
The struggle for political power among Shi’i parties has, to a great extent, been a struggle between Shi’i scholarly families, most notably the Sadrs and Hakims. While Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim represents a clerical line as prominent and revered as the Sadrs, Muqtada has nationalist credentials that Hakim can’t touch. Muqtada’s uncle, Grand Ayatollah Baqr al-Sadr, is considered by many to be the most significant Shi’i scholar of the 20th century, and many Iraqi Shi’is had hoped that he would lead their own revolution after the success of Khomeini in Iran. Fearing this exact thing, Saddam did the unthinkable: He had Sadr executed in 1980, the first execution of a Grand Ayatollah in modern history.
Muqtada's father, Sadiq al-Sadr, assassinated by Saddam in 1999 along with two of Muqtada’s brothers, while not regarded as an intellectual equal of his cousin, nevertheless actualized Baqr’s theories about clerical activism, building a ministry and broad base of support among Iraq’s poor Shi’is. It was Sadeq after whom Baghdad’s Shi’i slum neighborhood Saddam City (originally built by Qassem as “Revolution City”) was renamed “Sadr City” after the fall of Saddam’s government and the neighborhood’s immediate takeover by activists and militants loyal to Sadeq al-Sadr, now represented by his son, Muqtada.
In the wake of Baqr al-Sadr’s death in 1980, scores of Iraqi Shi’i clerics, the Hakims among them, sought refuge in Iran. It was there that the Hakims helped to found SCIRI, with Iran’s support. Around the time of the U.S. invasion, Abd al-Aziz reentered Iraq as commander of the Badr Brigade, the militia wing of SCIRI, armed and trained by the Iranian Republican Guard. He took over as leader of SCIRI after his elder brother, Grand Ayatollah Baqr al Hakim, was murdered by a truck bomb in Najaf in 2003
Though both families suffered greatly from Saddam’s tyranny, the fact that the Sadrs stayed and struggled, while the Hakims fled, has been relentlessly hammered at by Muqtada’s adherents. That the Sadrists have been able to compete so well against the far better organized and funded SCIRI indicates just how effective this line of argument has been among Iraqis, and SCIRI's new name and redirection away from Iran and Khamenei indicate that they are trying to fix this.