Sistani’s Silent Partners

The mysterious Al Dawa party, in league with head cleric Ayatollah Sistani, may be the new powerbrokers in post-election Iraq.

A Shiite Muslim boy kisses a poster of the Ayatollah Sistani. Iraq’s most powerful Shiite cleric has the political support of the Al Dawa party. / Photo Reuters/Ali Jasim

As Western pundits continue to laud or lament the United States’ occupation, Iraq’s Shiite leaders have been dealing with the more pressing matter of the election slated for the end of January. Estimated to represent 60 percent of Iraq’s population, the Shiites are struggling to capitalize on their numbers and form as large a bloc as possible out of their various parties. But predicting the results of Shiite political manoeuvring is like playing a game of blind man’s bluff—especially for the US, which went into Iraq blind to begin with and is still experiencing uncomfortable surprises.

One of those may well be the Al Dawa party. Observers are predicting that Al Dawa, with its massive yet silent network, will get the largest support in the election and form the backbone of the new government. If this is the case, the party would wield considerable influence over the extent of the American occupation.

Notoriously averse to publicity, Al Dawa has bided its time with an occasional, if opaque, presence in the press. Last November, for example, its leader, Ibrahim Jafari, cannily pointed to foreign jihadists as the main impediment to negotiating a settlement in the siege of Fallujah. The party has also emerged as an increasingly influential negotiator and intermediary. Party members were prominent in defusing the rebellion of Moqtada al-Sadr and his black-clad militia when Jafari took the bold step of bringing in Iran as a peace-broker. Al Dawa also helped negotiate an end to Sadr’s rebellion last August.

The party’s low profile, however, conceals a political agenda that comes close to an Iraqi common denominator: a nationalism that aims to keep Washington at arm’s length, a pluralism to include and placate the fractious Sunnis, and a moderate Islamic government run by the laity, as recommended by Iraq’s head Shiite cleric, the Ayatollah Sistani. In November 2004, Sistani endorsed a commission to broker a single 165-candidate slate with the hope of including all Shiite parties, thus unifying the Shiite vote. Al Dawa occupies a central place on a ticket which will pit a large Shiite bloc against Iraq’s secular, Sunni, and Kurdish parties.

Al Dawa is also favoured by the election rules adopted by the United Nations and Washington. With proportional representation, the parliamentary seats won by nation-wide candidates and party lists will reflect their share of the total vote. As a result, the election will be a contest of blocs and within the Shiite bloc, Al Dawa, in numbers alone, is a force to be reckoned with.

Al Dawa’s presence rises, like mist, from its roots in the past. Iraqis have long memories and for the Shiites, Al Dawa bore the brunt of persecution by Saddam Hussein, a fact which can only strengthen the party’s image. The party Al Dawa has also earned moral support, due to the political callousness of Washington in 1991, at the end of the first Gulf War. The Americans, having failed to give promised backing to the Shiite rebellion against Hussein, left thousands of rebels to perish at the hands of his army. Around the Shiite heartland town of Nasiriyah, and among the sun-baked villages of the south, are the mass graves of tens of thousands of rebels—many of whom were members of Al Dawa.

On April 15, 2003, after the second US invasion, the Bush administration, with typical ham-handedness, staged a conference in Nasiriyah. The better-known parties, such as Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord, Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (sciri), had co-operated to varying degrees, and even the radical Moqtada al-Sadr’s people remained silent. A thousand members of Al Dawa were almost alone in demonstrating against the US, using Nasiriyah, the place of betrayal, to rally opposition groups.

Al Dawa was founded after World War II, when secularism was spreading rapidly throughout Iraq. A cleric, Bahr al-Oloum, formed “action committees” to oppose religious persecution, and in 1958, the revered founder, Ayatollah Bakr al-Sadr (Moqtada’s uncle) named the movement “Al Dawa,” which means “The Call,” as in “The Call to the Faith.” Designed to oppose Communism in particular, Al Dawa distinguished itself by having the laity work alongside the clergy, a strategy which had wide appeal in an increasingly secularized world. With its policy of limited clerical rule through a secular, democratically elected government consistent with Islamic law, Al Dawa experienced a golden age throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Then, at the end of the seventies, everything changed. In 1979, after Hussein Hussein and his Baath party seized control of the country, Ayatollah Bakr al-Sadr sent student organizers all over Iraq to build Al Dawa. When driven underground by Hussein, the party created a classic revolutionary cell structure, which it still uses.

The other major change was the establishment of clerical rule in neighbouring Iran. Inspired by the Ayatollah Khomeini, Bakr al-Sadr abandoned his moderate doctrine for Khomeini’s radical style of clerical rule. Hussein had al-Sadr murdered, drove Al Dawa into seclusion, and forced its leadership to take refuge across the mountainous border in Tehran.

Inside Iraq, Al Dawa’s rank and file kept up the resistance. Meanwhile, in Tehran, the party’s exiled leadership joined sciri, which had been founded as an umbrella group for all the exiled Iraqi Shiite parties. When sciri declared its support of Iranian, Khomeini- style clerical rule, Al Dawa abruptly seceded in fealty to al-Sadr’s original, moderate approach to Islam and a pure, Iraqi national identity.

The break with sciri, combined with the inevitable toll of exile, prompted Ibrahim Jafari to transfer the party leadership to London, to protect it from further Iranian influence. A Khomeinist dissident branch stayed behind in Tehran. All the while, the cell network that had bravely remained in Iraq continued to be recognized as the main party. It was to those harried family men and women of the poor villages of the south, who had thousands of relatives murdered in the 1991 insurrection, that the Al Dawa leadership returned after the US invasion in 2003.

But many Iraqis, having suffered under the Baathists, still don’t trust political parties. To this day, according to Juan Cole, an expert on the Shiites who teaches at the University of Michigan, most of the Shiite groups are, like Al Dawa, still “cadre parties,” or parties supported by activists rather than by voters. In the ruins of the invasion, however, Al Dawa maintained a ghostly presence. In February 2003, an abc News poll found that while 61 percent of Iraqis preferred no political party, of those who did, Al Dawa consistently polled highest.

With a history of oppression and of splintering factions in exile, it’s not surprising that the party emphasizes strong leadership with centralized power in Iraq. This may, in fact, be the weakest plank of Al Dawa’s election platform in a nation of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds who are already working out the painful calculus of decentralization.

Al Dawa’s strong suit is its relatively tolerant position on religion and state. While Westerners generalize from images of Shiite radicalism, the reality in Iraq is, as always, more complicated. Historically, Al Dawa has held that moderate Islam is best for Iraq. Yitzhak Nakash, a leading historian in English on the Iraqi Shiites, states explicitly that, in contrast to Iran, there has never been sufficient desire for clerical rule among Iraqi Shiites, let alone the means or the conditions to bring it about. Al Dawa has, according to the Middle East Review of International Affairs, kept its laity powerful by building up its political bureau, keeping clerical jurisprudence separate, and insisting on Islamic government being delivered through a popular vote.

By contrast, the clerical leader of sciri, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, has declared that democracy is but a means to Iranian-style clerical rule. sciri is considered to be the party closest to the religious head of Iraq’s Shiites, the Grand Ayatollah Sistani. But once again, Shiite appearances deceive. Juan Cole suggests that their connection is due mostly to sciri’s prominence in Najaf, the ancient capital of Iraqi Shiism, where Sistani is based; and because sciri’s powerful Badr Corps militia has supplied the cleric and the gold-domed Imam Ali Mosque with protection.

sciri and Al Dawa have bonded to form the heart of the Shiite electoral slate, and the Western press often presents Al Dawa and sciri as a pair. But sciri’s tendency toward Khomeinism is inimical to Sistani’s strong rejection of clerical rule, and Iraqis, not to mention Sistani, are likely to favour Al Dawa in any post-electoral contest for power.

Al Dawa’s views on Islam and society remain more or less identical to those of Sistani. The white-bearded, laconic cleric has remained Iraq’s most popular and effective figure in the two years of occupation. Twice he has blocked Washington’s electoral proposals as undemocratic; he has also succeeded at intimidating the U.S. during attempts to hammer out an interim constitution. And it was Sistani who finally brokered an end to Moqtada al-Sadr’s insurrections. Sistani and Al Dawa agree, by and large, on pluralism, and the Shiite party has long maintained a policy of reaching out to Sunnis.

Cole believes that Al Dawa’s president, Jafari, may well be elected Iraq’s new prime minister. During Moqtada al-Sadr’s uprising, Jafari managed to retain third place in a poll taken by Washington’s Coalition Provisional Authority, as Iraq’s most popular public figure after Sistani and al-Sadr. Another poll, taken last June, found him to be the most popular choice for prime minister of the transitional government. However, in the politicking preceding the appointment, the UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi apparently passed over Jafari, giving the job to Iyad Allawi because he feared that Jafari’s massive grassroots support might tempt him to hang on to power.

But Al Dawa’s strongest contribution to the Shiite ticket in the election is its consistent record of nationalism. It was surely in the spirit of nationalism that Jafari himself warned that foreign Jihadist fighters in Fallujah had hampered the ability of the Sunni resistance to negotiate, making the U.S. military assault last November inevitable. Meanwhile, the other main Shiite groups, sciri and the Sadr Group, have leaned too often toward Iran, allowing Al Dawa to point to its bloody sacrifice confronting Hussein, and its official rejection of Tehran. As the only Shiite Party to mount a significant resistance to the Baathist tyranny, Al Dawa launched numerous assassination attempts on Hussein throughout the 1980s, attempted to kill his right-hand man, Tariq Aziz, and went after Hussein’s son, Uday Hussein. Neither sciri nor the Sadr Group can make a similar claim.

Washington’s latest proxy, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, meanwhile, heads a party of former Baathist and Shiite intelligence officers. Allawi, a secular Shiite, has insisted on forming his own electoral list. Although this could draw support away from Sistani, he is seen by many as Washington’s tool, while Al Dawa has remained steadfastly Iraqi. The party has even disciplined members who have moved too close to Iran.

Al Dawa’s record of opposition to the US, however, has not been as steady as some Iraqis—and even some Al Dawa members—might wish. It is true that on the eve of the invasion, Al Dawa withdrew its support from the opposition alliance when Washington became too close to sciri and the liberation began to reveal itself as occupation. But since then, Al Dawa has provided Washington with reluctant assistance. Less reluctantly, Ibrahim Jafari agreed to membership on the US- appointed Iraqi governing council and has since been appointed a vice-president to Prime Minister Allawi’s transitional government. For this he has been openly criticized by members of his own party.

The mistrust between Al Dawa and Washington began in the 1980s, when Hussein was allied with the US Al Dawa agents killed US personnel in a bomb attack on the US embassy in Kuwait. Around the same time, Iraqi Al Dawa members founded Hezbollah in Lebanon, thus tying Al Dawa to the infamous Hezbollah truck bombing in Beirut, which killed 245 Marines in 1983. If the leaders of the US occupation continue to blunder, however, past hostilities could work to Al Dawa’s electoral advantage.

The party cannot afford to be smug, however. There remains a “Tehran tendency” within the ranks—partly due to the acceptance of Iranian money for dilapidated towns still strapped for services—and doctrinal disputes persist. Despite the separation of the religious and political bureaus, there is tension between Al Dawa’s laity and its clergy. Some Iraqis fear that Al Dawa’s platform of moderate Islam is paving the way toward a more Khomeinist regime.

And then there is Moqtada al-Sadr. In the war-torn slums of Sadr City, Al Dawa has lost its historic working-class constituency to the demagogic dreams of that hot-headed cleric. Not only has Moqtada al-Sadr accused Al Dawa of appeasing the US, his officials rejected an entente with Al Dawa in favour of a coalition with Washington’s disgraced “man in Iraq,” Ahmed Chalabi. As this is going to press, Chalabi is on Sistani’s list, but Moqtada al-Sadr has made his own party’s participation conditional on the number of seats it is allotted. If al-Sadr joins the Shiite list, Al Dawa will surely benefit from the enhanced Shiite representation.

If elections are not cancelled owing to the security situation, most regions will proceed with voting—with possible suspensions among the bleak streets and riddled mosques of the Sunni triangle. In that case, the vote will be overwhelmingly Shiite, with Al Dawa holding the strongest cards.

Hugh Graham