Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iraq: Radical Cleric Challenges Shi'ite Establishment

Mahmud al-Hasani al-Sarkhi in a photo reproduced in October 2003 (AFP) PRAGUE, August 24, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Mahmud al-Hasani al-Sarkhi grabbed the spotlight last week when he challenged the authority of Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani through a brazen attempt to gain access to Karbala's sacred Imam Husayn Shrine.

In his attempt to wrest a greater role for himself and his followers in Karbala, the cleric's militia clashed with government forces, leading to the arrest of some 300 militiamen, according to a statement issued by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office on August 16. While observers say the cleric poses no real threat to Iraqi security, al-Hasani claims thousands of supporters across southern and central Iraq.

Against All Foreigners

Al-Hasani appears to have risen to prominence following the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003 through his staunch opposition to the U.S. invasion and the subsequent establishment of the Iraqi Governing Council. He later opposed the interim and transitional governments, as well as the December 2005 election that brought the current government to power.

Al-Hasani stands strongly opposed to Iranian influence in Iraq, and has criticized Iranian-backed political groups operating in Iraq, such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Al-Da'wah Party, which is led by Prime Minister al-Maliki.
While he opposes Iranian influence, al-Hasani does support the establishment of an Iranian-style Islamic theocracy in Iraq.

While he opposes Iranian influence, al-Hasani does support the establishment of an Iranian-style Islamic theocracy in Iraq. A former student of Iraqi Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, al-Hasani subscribes to vilayat al-faqih, or rule of the jurisprudent, as practiced in Iran.

His spokesman Haidar al-Abadi claimed in 2004 that the cleric had some 25,000 to 30,000 supporters. In April 2005, al-Hasani announced the creation of his religious seminary and the establishment of his militia, called Husayn's Army, apparently named after Imam Husayn, over whose tomb he recently clashed with the government in Karbala.

Former allies, Muqtada al-Sadr (pictured) and al-Hasani have parted ways (AFP)

Al-Hasani believes himself to be the supreme religious authority, above all other ayatollahs, including al-Sistani and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Meanwhile, his detractors have questioned the 40-year-old cleric's elevated status of ayatollah, and have balked at his delusions of grandeur. Indeed, as a Lebanese cleric pointed out in June, al-Hasani has crossed the line, going so far as to claim he has shared tea with the revered hidden imam, al-Mahdi.

Back on earth, al-Hasani has even clashed with his onetime ally Muqtada al-Sadr, the son of his deceased former teacher Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr. Once described as the religious authority for the majority of al-Sadr supporters, al-Hasani's relationship with the younger al-Sadr today is severely strained.

Al-Hasani's supporters backed al-Sadr militiamen in their clash with Ayatollah al-Sistani in Karbala in October 2003 and again against U.S. forces in Al-Najaf in 2004.

But in recent months al-Hasani has grown critical of al-Sadr, particularly after the latter's decision to allow his supporters to take part in the December parliamentary elections. Subsequent differences have further strained the relationship.

Drawing Ire Of Police, Religious Authority

While al-Hasani claims to have a base of support in Karbala, he was widely criticized in Karbala as early as 2003 for confrontations between his supporters and coalition forces. At least one Iraqi newspaper, "Al-Nahdah," blamed al-Hasani for the October 2003 standoff between al-Sadr forces and the U.S. military there.

In August 2005, his supporters demonstrated in Baghdad and Karbala, demanding that the Interior and Defense ministries close the file against him and drop an arrest warrant.

Al-Hasani's supporters rioted over a role in Karbala's Imam Husayn Shrine (epa, file photo)

Al-Hasani's most recent clash with the government follows demands for a greater role for him and his supporters in Karbala. The cleric's supporters have held several demonstrations in the holy city in recent months, including at least two in June, demanding an end to Iranian interference over Iraq's holy shrines and the closure of the Iranian Consulate in the city.

Earlier this month, al-Hasani and his supporters demanded the cleric's participation in daily and Friday Prayer sermons and in the caretaking activities of the Imam Husayn Shrine after guards at the shrine denied entry to al-Hasani's supporters on several occasions, the cleric claimed.

Since 2003, a committee appointed by Ayatollah al-Sistani has been responsible for the assignment of shrine duties and the prayer leadership in the holy city. The committee is headed by al-Sistani representatives Ahmad al-Safi and Abd al-Mahdi al-Karbala'i. The committee was responsible for security for the shrines and security teams were reportedly staffed by Shi'a with diverse political leanings. Members of SCIRI, Al-Da'wah, and Iraqi Hizballah provided extra security support during religious festivals and holy days.

After al-Hasani questioned al-Sistani's authority in Karbala in early August, al-Sistani reportedly asked Salih al-Haydari, the head of Shi'ite Endowments in Baghdad, to officially deem al-Safi and al-Karbala'i guardians of the Imam Abbas and Imam Husayn shrines, respectively.

Clashes subsequently erupted on August 16 between al-Hasani and his supporters and shrine security forces, with the latter eventually seeking backup from Iraqi security forces. Ten militiamen loyal to al-Hasani were killed and 281 arrested, Prime Minister al-Maliki's office said in a statement.

According to a correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq in Karbala, militiamen connected with SCIRI's Badr Forces and al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army did not take part in the clashes with al-Hasani loyalists on August 16, but both militias were present in the city, offering protection to administrative buildings.

Calm was eventually restored but not before pro-al-Hasani protesters took to the streets in Karbala, Al-Nasiriyah, and Al-Hillah on August 16 and 17. Al-Hasani spokesman Mustafa al-Thabiti told Al-Sharqiyah television on August 17 that the cleric's supporters would continue to rally against Iran's influence in Iraq. Al-Thabiti claimed that the majority of Karbala Governorate Council members were Iranians "who hold both Iraqi and Iranian passports" and who take their orders from clergy in Qom. Al-Hasani has more than 500 "martyrdom seekers" at his disposal in 10 different governorates ready to die for his cause, al-Thabiti added.

Fringe Player

While al-Hasani's profile has certainly been elevated in recent months following his campaign to eliminate Iranian influence in Iraq, the cleric currently poses no real threat.

While he arguably garners sizeable grassroots support, particularly among Iraqi Shi'a weary of Iran's growing influence in Iraq -- "Al-Zaman" reported on August 20 that Persian is steadily replacing Arabic as the dominant language in Al-Najaf, Karbala, and Al-Basrah -- he has seriously damaged his own credibility by claiming elevated religious status and otherworldly contacts with the long-awaited Imam al-Mahdi.

Moreover, al-Hasani's strained relations with nearly every Shi'ite political party have elicited more criticism than respect, and further delegitimized his cause in several cities, including Al-Basrah, where he has clashed with security services on several occasions. Al-Hasani maintains the clashes were the result of a campaign by the Iranian-sponsored political party Al-Fadilah.

It is difficult to discern whether al-Hasani could ever rise to the level of al-Sadr in terms of on-the-ground support. While his message is one that resonates -- no to occupation, no to Iranian influence -- his opposition to federalism and the constitution and his desire to establish a theocracy would draw little popular support in the south.

Al-Hasani also poses no real threat to the Shi'ite militias that currently hold power over much of central and southern Iraq. Although the cleric has accused the Iranian religious establishment in Qom of trying to assassinate him, it is likely that Iran views al-Hasani as little more than an annoyance.

Al-Hasani will garner no sympathy from multinational forces should he run into trouble with his Shi'ite rivals, and not just because of his declared antipathy towards the U.S. military presence in Iraq. U.S. forces pledged a $50,000 reward for al-Hasani's arrest in October 2003 after the cleric's bodyguards allegedly gunned down three military policemen.

With little Shi'ite support, a U.S. arrest warrant against him, and Iran as his enemy, it seems al-Hasani's star will soon burn out.

Iraq And Iran

Iraq And Iran

Iranian Shi'a protesting the Golden Mosque Bombing in Iraq on February 24

WHAT IS GOING ON? On March 8, RFE/RL's Washington office hosted a roundtable discussion on relations between Iraq and Iran. Although most analysts agree that Iran has been actively involved in Iraq since the U.S.-led military operation to oust former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, they continue to debate the nature, extent, and intent of that involvement.
The RFE/RL briefing featured WAYNE WHITE, former deputy director of the U.S. State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research's Office of Analysis for the Near East and South Asia, and A. WILLIAM SAMII, RFE/RL's regional analyst for Iran and editor of the "RFE/RL Iran Report."


Listen to the complete RFE/RL briefing (about 75 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media


Iran/Iraq: Bilateral Ties Improving Despite U.S. Worries

Renewed Speculation About Tehran And Instability In Iraq

Iran/Iraq: Neighbors Mending Ties, But Outstanding Issues Remain


RFE/RL's coverage of Iran. RFE/RL's coverage of Iraq.