Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Unrest in Karbala

Supporters of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Mahmoud al-Hassani hold up his portrait as they protest against a recent Iraqi police action targeting his office in the southern city of Basra August 1, 2006. REUTERS/Atef Hassan (IRAQ)

Iraqi authorities have declared a curfew in the holy city of Karbala and closed it for 3 days following clashes with Mahmoud Al-Hassani’s followers. The clashes were reportedly prompted by the takeover of the Imam Al-Sadiq religious seminary and Hassani’s offices at Bab Tuwairij in Karbala by Iraqi security forces and the subsequent arrest of several of his followers. (Al-Zaman report in Arabic)

Hassani’s followers are pouring onto Karbala in defiance of the curfew.

Who is Mahmoud Al-Hassani?

Mahmoud Al-Hassani is a former disciple of Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr (Muqtada’s father) based in Karbala, briefly imprisoned by Saddam’s regime in 1999 following Sadr’s assassination. He initially pledged allegiance to the remnants of the Sadrist movement that emerged directly after the 2003 war - as did other former representatives and followers of the second Sadr (such as Abdul Sattar Al-Bahadili, Ahmed Al-Fartousi, and Hazim Al-A’raji.) By the time Muqtada Al-Sadr assumed a central role in the leadership of the Sadrist current, Al-Hassani broke off and headed his own Sadrist fringe movement with a limited hardcore following, mainly in Karbala, Basrah and Nasiriya.

By mid 2004, he unilaterally elevated his religious standing and proclaimed himself Grand Ayatollah Mahmoud Al-Sarkhi Al-Hassani. He also issued theological challenges to more established and senior clerics in the Hawza, boasting that he is the most knowledgeable or foremost cleric (al-marja’ al-a’lam) and is capable of solving the most intricate jurisprudential issues (ishkalat).

These declarations were often met with ridicule and disdain from the Shi’ite clerical establishment in both Iraq and Iran. His faction never sought to participate actively in post-war Iraqi politics and, as far as I know, he was not represented with any electoral slate in the 2005 elections. In fact, his movement can be more identified as a religious cult, rather than an active politico-social group.

He exhibits fanatical obsession with the reappearance of Imam Al-Mahdi (the hidden 12th Imam, and a descendant of Mohammed through his son-in-law Ali bin Abi Talib, in the beliefs of Shi’ite Twelvers), often alluding to current developments in Iraq as signs of his imminent return. Many of these signs were detailed in Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr’s writings, such as the operation of Western spies in Iraq against Saddam Hussein’s regime prior to the war.

Al-Hassani often points out that the al-messiah al-dajjal, or the antichrist, has entered Iraq in the form of the U.S., heralding the reemergence of the 12th Imam, and that Hassani’s followers will act as the Imam’s foot soldiers to restore justice to the world and, more significantly, to fight the corrupt clerical establishment (in reference to false clerics in Iraq and Iran). This claim is often reverberated by Sadr’s Mahdi army, as Omar noted in a recent post.

Many Sadrist followers in Iraq, including their offshoot movements, strongly believe that the Americans (and Jews) came to Iraq to kill Imam Al-Mahdi or to prevent his return. In this context, you can realise the significance of the bombing of the Askari shrine in Samarra last February for the Shia masses, especially if you know that the basement adjacent to the shrine is where Imam Al-Mahdi was known to have disappeared during the 9th century, and is where he is believed to rise again.

Another interesting characteristic of Hassani’s movement is that it strongly resents what it perceives as growing Iranian influence in Iraq. Hassani often attacks Iran in his fiery sermons, and not long ago his followers attacked and set fire to several Iranian consulates in Basrah, Karbala and other southern Iraqi cities in response to an Iranian television program that mocked Hassani.

Hassani is also known for his anti-federalism stance. He also recently issued a fatwa against sectarian violence and forced deportation, in which he stated that the sanctity of the blood of Sunnis and Shi’ites is greater than that of Allah’s house (Mecca) and the prophet’s mosque. A communiqué on his website speculates that this fatwa angered ruling Iraqi parties loyal to Iran (read SCIRI). He also accused the Qom Hawza of ordering the attack against his followers, assisted by Iranian intelligence operatives in Iraq.

Some Iraqis here are questioning the timing of this action against Hassani. He is undeniably a radical but it would be ridiculous to portray his feeble movement as a threat to either the Iraqi government or the coalition. Hassani and his followers are all talk and little action. So far they have not engaged in any violence and there is no evidence that they have participated in confessional killings, unlike Badr and the Mahdi Army.

Others believe that Iran is using its Iraqi proxies again to eliminate its opponents.

No disarmament of militias on the part of the Iraqi government would be credible if the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade (both responsible for gruesome sectarian killings and often parading in official Iraqi uniform) are left intact. Hassani’s movement does not even fall under the definition of a militia.