Zarqawi vs SistaniJordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has already emerged as a major terrorist and an adversary of the United States in Iraq, especially since he formed a loose association with al-Qaeda. Now he is making a name for himself as a direct challenger to Shi'ite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. In a statement issued on Monday, Zarqawi said, "We have declared a bitter war against democracy and all those who seek to enact it. Democracy is also based on the right to choose your religion, and that is against the rule of God." Sistani, on the contrary, has been a champion for democracy, knowing all along that its implementation in Iraq will also establish Shi'ite rule, something no one would have even imagined as possible while Saddam Hussein was in power.
Sistani's entire involvement in post-Saddam Iraqi politics has been focused on challenging the US occupation of his country. Yet throughout that opposition, he has remained a positive force for Shi'ites. He rightly read America's commitment to democracy as genuine, once Saddam was toppled. However, he did not want the Americans to stay put in Iraq. The only way to oust the Americans, he thought, was to play at their own game: demand an immediate implementation of democracy. When that did not happen, he did not fully trust the Americans and made his continued cooperation with the US forces conditional on the United Nations' involvement in conducting elections, due this Sunday.
What helped Sistani's case was the fact that after toppling Saddam, the administration of US President George W Bush found itself left with very limited support from Europe and Asia. France and Germany not only remained critics of the continued US occupation, they also showed no interest in making that occupation easier or shorter, since helping Washington to cut down its duration meant committing their own troops to Iraq. Of the entire Muslim world, only Jordan and Turkey showed interest in sending troops to Iraq. However, Jordan had to back down under threats of terrorism, and Turkey opted to stay away because the United States did not want to alienate the Kurdish population, which groused volubly at the prospects of any Turkish participation in Iraq.
These intricacies worked beautifully for Sistani's own strategy. He never took his eyes off his objective of exploiting the game of democracy to establish Shi'ite rule in a country where, although they form the majority of the population, Shi'ites have for decades been politically subjugated by Sunnis. Sistani also knew the Bush administration's fears regarding the emergence of an Iran-style government. On that point also, Sistani was quite ingenuous. He has always opposed the model of vilayat-e-faqih (rule of the clergy) a la Shi'ite-dominated Iran. He belonged to the quietist Shi'ite tradition, with an important modification: while he did not want to become part of the government, his notion of the separation of religion and politics bore no resemblance to the United States' vision of that principle. Sistani has every intention to serve as a religious guide, a person who is not part of any ruling groups, but simply by remaining apart from them he will also exercise enormous power on heady matters of governance
When another Shi'ite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, openly defied the US and implicitly challenged the role of Sistani, the latter did not flinch. He knew all along what he wanted. He never wanted any personal glory, only political power for his people. As far as he was concerned, Muqtada could get some of it by being very much a part of the Sistani strategy. And Muqtada finally understood that when he stopped his running battles with the Americans and with the Coalition Provisional Authority. From then on, the power of the Shi'ites has gathered momentum, with them eager to display their unity on January 30 through a massive turnout.
Election day is also a day that Iraq's Sunnis fear most. Zarqawi's strategy is also straightforward. He knows he cannot stop the holding of general elections in Iraq. No matter how much mayhem he creates, he is afraid - and rightly so - that the Shi'ites will absorb all the punishment and losses, and will still exercise their right to vote. Even under the worst possible conditions, they will emerge as the dominant ruling group. Zarqawi is also aware that the US is very much concerned about the emergence of a legitimate Iraqi government. What that means is that Sunni Iraqis - or at least a substantial number of them - must not exercise their right to vote, thereby creating serious questions about the legitimacy of the elected government. That is why he is doing all he can, through terror and intimidation, to create the minimum possible Sunni participation.
An important aspect of Zarqawi's strategy is to terrorize the Shi'ite population. The Wahhabis have seen the Shi'ites as heretics and non-Muslims. During the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, the Wahhabi hatred of Afghani Shi'ites (Hazaras) was apparent in their periodic brutalizing of them. However, since the United States' declaration of its "global war on terrorism", al-Qaeda is reported to have developed a palpably pragmatic approach of cooperating with Iranians to save the lives of its own fighters who are still on the run.
Considering the fact that Zarqawi has now affiliated himself with al-Qaeda - and has recently even changed the name of his organization from Unification and Jihad to al-Qaeda in Iraq - his bloodletting of Iraqi Shi'ites is somewhat bewildering. It is possible that in his zeal for an all-out war against the US before the elections he is leaving no stones unturned. His aforementioned statement is quite poignant on this issue as well. He said to Iraqis, "You have to be careful of the enemy's plots that involve applying democracy in your country and confront these plots, because they only want to do so to ... give the rejectionists the rule of Iraq. And after fighting the Ba'athists ... and the Sunnis, they will spread their insidious beliefs, and Baghdad and all the Sunni areas will become Shi'ite. Even now, the signs of infidelity and polytheism are on the rise."
In the ongoing contest between Zarqawi and Sistani, the latter is likely to emerge as a victor. Sistani has proved himself to be a political genius in turning the toppling of Saddam at the hands of a much-hated foreign power into a seemingly permanent victory for the Shi'ites. Zarqawi's sole weapon is his use of terror, which might prove effective for a short duration, if at all. But if there is ample Sunni participation, despite Zarqawi's campaign of terror, the potential for the development of democracy will become an important symbolic defeat for him and an equally significant victory for the wily Sistani.
Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.