I asked Babak Rahimi, a UCSD scholar and expert on Iraqi Shiite politics formerly with the United States Institute of Peace, to comment on this week's news that Iraq's powerful Shiite party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, had dropped the world "revolution" from its name and apparently ditched Iran's Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei in favor of Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Here's his very interesting response:
Rahimi: SCIRI's move to embrace Sistani (and they have already done this before) is to position the party against their arch rivals, the Sadrists. SCIRI is gradually losing popular support in Iraq and the Sadrists (including the Fadhila party in Basra) are gaining influence among the urban poor and even the middle-class Shi'is in Baghdad and other southern provinces—especially Basra. SCIRI needs the support of Sistani in order to compete with Moqtada. This is because Sistani remains the ONLY major source of authority in the Iraqi Shi'i community that can contain the spread of Sadrism.
SCIRI is reading between the lines: that with the increasing pressure from the U.S. public for troop withdrawal, many Shi'i militias will also increase their efforts to compete with other rival Shi'i groups for power in the south. SCIRI is preemptively making sure that it will maintain its power in Baghdad and the southern region and especially in Basra, where the Iranian-backed group is losing power to the Iraqi nationalists and Sadrists.
This also means that Sistani's status in this competitive political landscape is likely to increase. Sistani will try to be the mediator between these groups (a role he has been playing since 2003), and those that oppose the Sadrists (who hold a grudge against Sistani) will side with his Najaf-based Hawza.
But Sistani will most likely find himself in the middle of an intra-sectarian war zone. He has a great deal of authority among Shi'is, but he cannot control the militias through sheer force of negotiations and mediation. The Iraqi state will obviously have to play a role here as well. But with this unstable Baghdad government, I am not sure if the future of Sh'i politics will be a bloodless one.
Editor's note: Rahimi is giving a talk on Iraq's Shiite militias tomorrow morning, so check it out the Jamestown Foundation's event if you're in town.