Iraq’s Radical Young Clerics Gaining Influence

Robert Worth and Edward Wong report that older, moderate clerics in Iraq are losing power and influence to younger, more radicalized leaders.

American officials have been repeatedly stunned and frequently thwarted in the past three years by the extraordinary power of Muslim clerics over Iraqi society. But in the sectarian violence of the past few days, that power has taken an ominous turn, as rival hard-line Shiite clerical factions have pushed each other toward more militant and anti-American stances, Iraqi and Western officials say.

Even Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the paramount Shiite cleric to whom the Americans have often looked for moderation, appears to have been outflanked by younger and more aggressive figures. After a bomb exploded in Samarra at one of Iraq’s most sacred Shiite shrines on Wednesday, many young Shiites ignored his pleas for calm, instead heeding more extreme calls and attacking Sunni mosques and killing Sunni civilians, even imams, in a crisis that has threatened to provoke open civil war.

On Saturday, Iraqi political leaders from across the spectrum joined with Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari in a televised show of unity to try to quell the violence. President Bush telephoned several leaders to urge them to return to talks. Earlier, as the critical moment of Friday Prayer approached, American officials and their allies were left almost helpless, hoping that Iraq’s imams would step up to calm the crisis. But that hope gave way to the realization that the clerics could do as much harm as good, and for the first time since the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi authorities imposed a daytime curfew to keep people from attending the sermons.

“Sectarian divisions are not new, and sectarian violence is not new,” said a Western diplomat in Baghdad who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to be seen as interfering. “What is different this time is that the Shiites, in a sign that their patience is limited, reacted violently in a number of places.”

The violence and new militancy has come in part from a competition among Shiite factions to be seen as the protectors of the Shiite masses. The main struggle has been between the leading factions, both backed by Iran, and their spiritual leaders.

Many of the retaliatory attacks after the bombing were led by Mahdi Army militiamen loyal to Moktada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric whose anti-American crusades have turned him into a rising political power. His main rival, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a cleric and the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or Sciri, defended the right of Shiites to respond to the bombing. He has shown a new willingness to publicly attack the American role in Iraq, once the preserve of Mr. Sadr, and he also commands a powerful militia, the Badr Organization.

“There are clerics who are very moderate and who understand what the current situation demands, and there are clerics who have political agendas and who marshal forces for their own gain,” said Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East director of the International Crisis Group. “Those are the dangerous ones.” The more political clerics, Mr. Hiltermann added, “are quite willing to push their agendas no matter what it might lead to, including civil war and the breakup of the country.”

The good news is that, for now at least, al-Sadr and others are pushing for calm. Whether that will last is anyone’s guess.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    Frankly, I am shocked that they are shocked that clerics wield such power in a vacuum. Color me unimpressed by such lack of foresight.

  2. ken says:

    I am certain that the ‘American officials’ who ‘have been repeatedly stunned and thwarted’ by events taking place in Iraq are the same officials whose disregard for reality got us into this mess in the first place.

  3. Jack Ehrlich says:

    Ken, the only disregard for reality comes from people like you who cannot seem to recognize the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. Regardless of the existence or whereabouts of WMD (it is in Syria), Saddam was in open violation of 17 UN resolutions, he was bribing the UN, shooting at our planes daily, supporting international terrorism, maintained ambitions of expansion and would have been replaced by his monstrous sons. Only an idiot would think the situation prior to the invasion in Iraq was benign. What Clinton resolved to do, Bush did. Denial of the truth does not make it so.

  4. ken says:

    Jack, you are what is known as a ‘useful idiot’ by those who fooled you and as a ‘coward’ by the rest of us.

    Your irrational fear of Saddam Hussain was planted in your feeble mind by people who wanted your support in launching the War on Iraq.

  5. G A Phillips says:

    Ken you are and your donkey herd are known as ‘unuseful idiots’ and your less then feeble mind is a terrible wast, dude get some help, please. Oh and Ken I am sorry for calling you a punk I was having a bad day, please forgive me. all that matters is if said Cleric is a true believer or not, nothing else.

  6. McGehee says:

    Your irrational fear of Saddam Hussain was planted in your feeble mind by people who wanted your support in launching the War on Iraq.

    Ken, were you born after 1991?