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Iraq: Shi'a Holy Cities Regaining Their Former Prominence

The Iraqi holy cities of Al-Najaf and Karbala are centers of religious learning for Shi'a Muslims from all over the world. Their importance as sacred hubs of Shi'ism was suppressed during the rule of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. But now, many Shi'a clerics are returning to Iraq, and the holy cities are regaining their former prominence.

Prague, 26 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Iraqi cities of Al-Najaf and Karbala are home to the most sacred shrines of the Shi'a branch of Islam and are centers of Shi'a theology and learning. The importance of the two cities is acknowledged all over the Shi'a world.

The two cities compete with the religious learning center of Qom in neighboring Iran, which has different attitudes toward the role of clerics in politics. The Iranian influence was always strong among Iraqi Shi'a clerics. However, analysts say the importance of Al-Najaf and Karbala is likely to grow in the future, and that the Iraqi Shi'a may become more independent from Iran.

Karbala, some 80 kilometers south of Baghdad, is the site of the death of the great Shi'a Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Hussein was killed in Karbala in the year 680 in a fight with troops commanded by the caliph of Damascus. Hussein's father, Imam Ali -- the founder of the Shi'a movement -- is buried at Al-Najaf, some 160 kilometers south of Baghdad.

Muhammad Abdel Jabar is an Iraqi Shi'a and one of the organizers of a new party in Baghdad called For Reconstruction and Democracy. Jabar told RFE/RL it is natural that Karbala and Al-Najaf are re-emerging as spiritual and learning centers for Shi'a Muslims.

"We have to know that originally the spiritual leadership of the Shi'a was in Iraq, not in Iran, and it's only when [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini came to power in Tehran and when Saddam came to power and forced the Iraqi clergymen [and] the Iraqi religious students to leave Iraq and go to Iran, only then the center of influence moved into Iran [to Qom]. And now things are coming back to where they used to be before Saddam and before Khomeini," Jabar says.

Hassan Abdulrazak, a research fellow at the University of Exeter's Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in Britain, says sacred shrines in Al-Najaf and Karbala are not just buildings but symbols and a huge spiritual force mobilizing Iraqi Shi'a.

"Even for the Iranians, they look at Al-Najaf and Karbala as a sort of attraction for the Shi'a Iranians who come back to visit or to pilgrimage to these places. But [you need time] for these places to get [back their] past [importance and] reputation. The spirit of these places doesn't come back very quickly," Abdulrazak says.

Abdulrazak says Iraq today is more concerned with rebuilding and creating its own government than with its religious life.

Analysts say Iranian clerics are involved in what is happening among the Iraqi Shi'a clerics and that the Iranian spiritual influence was always strong in Al-Najaf and Karbala. After the fall of Hussein's regime, a number of Iraqi Shi'a clerics who had been living in exile in Iran returned home. The most prominent of them is Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which has close links with Iran. Al-Hakim spent 20 years in Iran.

Another prominent cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, resides in Al-Najaf and is considered to be a spiritual leader for Iraqi Shi'a. However, al-Sistani was born in Iran, not in Iraq.

Though Iranian clerics are influential in Iraq, relations between Iraqi and Iranian Shi'a are complicated. Historical competition between the Arab world and the Persian state, as well as eight years of war between Iraq and Iran, also cast a shadow on relations between the two communities.

There are other differences, Abdulrazak says. "Iraqi Shi'a, most of them are from rural areas. For example, they belong to tribes, to Arab tribes. They have their own tribal connections among themselves," he says.

He says Iraqi Shi'as are more influenced by tribal allegiances than by religious ones. The Iranians are different, he says: "The Iranians, they are just Shi'a. They don't have any alliance to tribes, like to a sheikh, for example, to the chief of the tribe like the Iraqi Shi'a do."

He says Iraqi clerics are less politicized and do not try to be as involved in politics as Iranian clerics. They do not accept the concept of Velayat-e Faqih, or Guardianship of the Jurist, developed by Khomeini in the early 1960s. The concept calls for an Islamic government and is applied in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Iraqi Shi'a political parties, such as SCIRI, say they will not apply the concept if they win political power in the country.

Abdulrazak says different Iranian and Iraqi traditions suggest that, although Al-Najaf and Karbala will re-emerge as spiritual centers of the Shi'a world in the future, Qom will retain its influence as a learning center in Iran.

Relations between Iranian and Iraqi Shi'as were poisoned by recent history. Jabar says Iraqi Shi'a who lived in exile in Iran during Hussein's rule have unpleasant memories.

"Their stay in Iran was not legalized in any way in Iran. They were not given, for example, refugee status. They were not given permanent residency. They were not even given citizenship," Jabar says.

He says Iran did not follow international norms in its treatment of the Iraqi Shi'a refugees and that many have not forgotten this.