The news of the security pact currently under negotiation by Baghdad and Washington that would allow the U.S. forces to stay in the country beyond the expiry of the UN mandate in December 2008 has generated swift reaction from Shia Iraqis (al-Jazeera, June 5). The Shia factions, who maintain the largest electoral body in post-Baathist Iraq, have strongly rejected the deal. The pact is seen by some Shia as a major threat to the country’s sovereignty, and has even been described as a form of “modern slavery” that will introduce the country to a new era of colonialism (Iran News, June 10).
With respect to the Shia leadership, the reaction has been a unified one. The reclusive Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most revered cleric in the Shia world, released a statement declaring that so long as he is alive, he will not allow the pact to be signed by the Iraqi government (Fars, June 8). As a stern warning to Washington, Sistani’s statement is reminiscent of the time when he urged his followers to rise up against U.S. involvement in the transfer of power in the form of council-based elections in 2003. Ayatollah Sadiq Husseini Shirazi, another prominent Shia cleric, described the security pact as a way to dominate the Muslim nation of Iraq and deprive Iraqis of their national right to self-rule (Fars, June 8). Shirazi’s statement stems from a religious-nationalist conviction that Washington aims to undermine the country’s religious identity by keeping Iraq dependent on U.S. power. Abdulstar Albtat, a representative of Muqtada al-Sadr, and Jalal al-din al-Saqir, a representative of Abdul Aziz Hakim’s Iraqi Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), rearticulated the Shia opposition to the security deal. Both representatives described the plan to build 50 U.S. military bases in Iraq as an illegal attempt to deprive the country of its sovereignty (Fars, June 8).
Tehran is in lockstep with Shia Iraqis on this issue. During an important official state meeting between Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran denounced the pact and demanded Iraqi elected officials resist U.S. domination (Etelaat, June 9). In a speech at Qom, Ali Larijani, the newly elected speaker of the Iranian parliament, provided an alternative security plan for Baghdad—the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq (IRNA, June 5). With the recently signed military pact between Baghdad and Tehran enhancing cooperation between the two nation’s militaries (IRNA, June 9), the Shia-dominated Maliki government has, in return, promised Tehran that it will not allow any U.S. attacks on Iran from Iraqi territories (Fars, June 8).
Although the fate of the U.S.-Iraqi security pact remains uncertain, a security deal that would include the possible creation of long-term U.S. military bases in Iraq will certainly generate anger among most Shias. The first and obvious reason behind this is Iraqi nationalism. With a long history of foreign intervention, Iraqis, especially Shia, are prone to see a prolonged U.S. presence in the country as an act of occupation. The second reason is strategic: With Shia factions now vying for power ahead of local elections in October, the news of the deal has provided groups such as the largely Shia Fadhila (Islamic Virtue) Party in Basra and the Sadrists in Baghdad with new ammunition to oppose the U.S. forces and, hence, enhance their legitimacy in the Shia community.
In light of the internal division between Iraqi Shia groups, the long-term presence of U.S. troops in Iraq may involve serious consequences for the security of a country that is still politically unstable. The most important institution to play a crucial role in opposing such a deal will be the Shia clerical establishment in Najaf. Ayatollah Sistani has largely kept aloof from politics since the Samara bombing of 2006. If the deal goes through, the Grand Ayatollah will most certainly oppose it, sparking major uprisings in the southern regions with the potential of spreading throughout the country. In an interview, Sistani’s son, Muhammad Reza Sistani, warned that the possibility of an extended presence of U.S. troops in Iraq will not only be rejected by his father but will force him to call the faithful to rise up against the Americans. Such a warning is reminiscent of Ayatollah Khomeini’s call for mass revolt when the Shah of Iran signed the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Washington in 1964. The statement by Khomeini eventually contributed to the 1979 Iranian revolution, which led to the toppling of the Pahlavi dynasty. How Washington handles the terms of the security pact in the coming months will be crucial not only for the future of Iraq’s security, but also for how Shia politics will evolve in the upcoming elections.