A Delicate Matter

Clerics Vie With U.S. For Power (washingtonpost.com)
It almost sounds like the clerics are starting a mafia-type relationship with the unions. Clearly, in a free country people can associate with whom they choose but we need to be vigilant in seeing that the clerics in Iraq don’t act as a substitute for the government. It’s one thing to do good works, quite another to try to impose an Islamic state. They could be positioning themselves to do exactly that.

I don’t know how we handle this other than to make sure that the occupying administration has control of the oil revenues — which will pass to the civilian government in time — and all of the police forces. By controlling the money and police we will have tremendous influence over the shaping of a new Iraqi government.

At least they are wary of the Ba’ath Party and not afraid to speak out against it. That alone represents progress because they are beginning to believe we are there to stay.

At Baghdad’s Mohsin Mosque, with white paint peeling from its roof and walls, hundreds of engineers gathered on cheap Persian rugs to plot a revolt against the leadership of the Iraqi Engineers Union. The leadership, they contended, was elected in a rigged vote and tainted by Baath Party members.

“We could go to the Americans,” one engineer shouted.

“God forbid! God forbid!” said another.

“Should we use violence?” one asked. “No, we should not,” the moderator answered.

“We need an alternative!” another shouted.

Three Shiite Muslim clerics sat in the front of the meeting Wednesday in pressed tunics, or dishdashas, and black robes, listening intently to the raucous debate. Given the chance to organize their meeting under the auspices of the Americans or the union leadership they despised, the engineers instead approached the clergy.

The clerics responded in earnest. They invited the disenchanted engineers to meet in the run-down mosque, closed for four years by the now-ousted government of President Saddam Hussein. They offered to announce the meeting during Friday prayers. And they expressed a willingness, in the words of one union organizer, “to provide spiritual guidance.”

The clerics also offered to send a representative to meetings of the engineers. And as Iraq’s reconstruction gets underway, the engineers granted the clergy’s request not to build jails or liquor stores, or to appropriate property. The engineers agreed to submit to the clerics the names of candidates for union leadership, and with that, the clerics and engineers forged a nascent relationship.

In the latest contest over Iraq’s uncertain future, the most activist and influential of Baghdad’s Shiite clergy have declared their intention to begin shaping a civil society that is tentatively emerging in the capital.

In recent weeks, the clerics have reached out to universities and schools, offering assistance and pushing for dress they deem moral. In an increasingly crowded field of newspapers, they have set up two of their own, with plans for more. Under preparation are television and radio stations. In their most aggressive campaign, they have begun courting professional unions.

The work marks a strategic shift from the days after the government’s collapse on April 9, when the clergy raced to fill a chaotic void by delivering sometimes heavy-handed security in the streets, confiscating stolen goods and delivering food and money to Baghdad’s poor. After three decades of repression, they contend they now have the opportunity to fill both a cultural and a political role, taking a page from the success of Islamic movements in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran and across the Muslim world.

“We want to see if America is sincere about democracy,” said Sheik Abdel-Rahman Shuweili, a 35-year-old cleric who was jailed for more than three years by Hussein’s government. “We’ve instructed our people to take advantage of democracy.”

Shuweili, a slight man with a prematurely gray beard, is a leader in a faction of the Shiite clergy that believes religious leaders should forgo a centuries-old tradition of refraining from political life, and instead work actively to bring about a more devout society. Headquartered in the Hikma Mosque, a tan-brick building crowded by a watermelon stand and a shack selling blocks of ice, the dozens of clerics aligned with him have provided the backbone of the clergy’s resurgence in Baghdad’s postwar landscape.

I would prefer the clerics hold to this tradition of foregoing political activity. I suspect I’ll be disappointed.

No comments yet.

Leave a Comment