Shiite Conflicts Stem from Longstanding Schism

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Rival Shiite groups have clashed in Iraq in the past week, driven by longstanding conflicts. Robert Siegel talks with Vali Nasr, professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and author of the forthcoming book, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future.


More now on those divisions among Shiite Muslims. We're joined by Vali Nasr, professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

Professor Nasr, we hear about fights among the different Shiite factions in Iraq. Obviously it tells us being an Iraqi Shiite is not to be part of a monolith.

Professor VALI NASR (Naval Postgraduate School): No, they are not a monolithic group. And, in fact, the two largest militant factions, if you would, the SCIRI and its battle corps and Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army, are now engaged in a very severe turf war for control of Shia politics.

SIEGEL: And what would it mean, say, if SCIRI, which is--that's the Supreme--why don't you tell us what that stands for?

Prof. NASR: The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

SIEGEL: What would it mean if they were to prevail, let's say?

Prof. NASR: They are already the dominant force. They control the municipalities in large cities, like Basra and Baghdad, and have been much more prominent in the parliament and the negotiation over the constitution. This current clash is really an effort by Moqtada al-Sadr to get back in the game after he was expelled from Najaf in August of 2004.

SIEGEL: Who among these groups stands for a highly federal, autonomous southern Shiite region of Iraq? And who, if anyone, stands for a more centralized Iraq?

Prof. NASR: Moqtada al-Sadr stands for a centralized Iraq. From the very beginning of US invasion of Iraq, Moqtada al-Sadr tried to portray SCIRI and Ayatollah Sistani as outsiders, as Iranians and beholden to the Iranian regime. And he has been exploiting that point of view ever since. He's using the federalism issue to put the SCIRI on the defensive, arguing that SCIRI in a sense, on orders from Iran, is betraying Iraq and is going to divide Iraq, and he among the Shia alone stands for a united Arab Iraq.

SIEGEL: Realistically how much influence do the Iranians have with SCIRI or with the Badr Brigades for that matter?

Prof. NASR: They do have an enormous amount of influence. They harbored these groups in Iran for decades. They provide them with sustenance, training. And SCIRI and Badr corps are the most prominent pawns that Iran has in Iraq in order to be able to influence Iraq's future in a manner that benefits Iran's national interests.

SIEGEL: And you're just assuming that Moqtada al-Sadr's problems are with other Iraqis. Don't the Americans still regard him as a man with blood on his hands?

Prof. NASR: Yes, they do. He has used attacks on Americans as a way of making Ayatollah Sistani and SCIRI look bad because they were at that point talking with the Americans. And, also, attacking Americans was a way for Moqtada al-Sadr to make common cause with the Sunni insurgency by arguing that that ...(unintelligible) Iraqi insurgency, which is both Shia and Sunni. And as a result he may continue to attack the Americans as a way of pushing this kind of an agenda.

SIEGEL: So it sounds like Moqtada al-Sadr is hedging his bets on being a player while the US is in Iraq and--very importantly--and, also, conceivably after the US leaves Iraq when those who are currently in the insurgency might be more important.

Prof. NASR: Absolutely. In many regards, the larger battles within the Shias and between the Shias and Sunnis have not yet been fought in Iraq. What we have been witnessing with this constitution is that all of a sudden the prospects of a federal Iraq has changed the rules of the game drastically. So the clashes that we've been witnessing in the past week are attempts by Moqtada al-Sadr to respond to the sudden change in the reality of Iraq; that it may well not have a very powerful center at all, and all the financial oil resources, political decisions for the Shias will be made in Basra and Najaf, where he's actually very weak right now, and he needs to actually shore up his presence.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Nasr, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Prof. NASR: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Professor Vali Nasr, professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, the author of the forthcoming book "The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future."

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