Shi’a Power Struggle

UPI’s Claude Salhani has an interesting–and rather surprising–assessment of the political struggle being waged right now among the Shi’ite leadership in Iraq:

Politically for Sistani, allowing the Americans take out Sadr would be the most advantageous move. The removal would leave the political playing field clear for Sistani, who would then be the only Shiite leader left standing. Since Saddam’s downfall last spring, a number of prominent Shiite leaders have been killed.

However, if Sistani, or the Iranian-backed al-Badr Brigade, with more than 10,000 armed supporters jump into the fray, it could spell real trouble for the United States. Iran, one must also suspect, is not without interest in the outcome of events in neighboring Iraq. Tehran’s ayatollahs would undoubtedly revel in Washington becoming ingrained in an urban war in the slums of Baghdad.

Already, Monday there was talk of sending more troops to Iraq to help quell the troubles. In its last rotation, the United States has downsized the number of American troops in the country from 130,000 to about 100,000. But if the violence continues, additional forces would certainly be needed.

Another danger, of course, is that Sadr would attempt a “hostile take-over” of the Shiite leadership by trying to physically eliminate Sistani, a possibility that should not be discounted. Should Sadr prove to be successful, it could place the militant ayatollah in an unprecedented position of power and give the U.S.-led coalition a genuine cause for concern. On the other hand, an attempt on Sistani could also pitch Shiite against Shiite, making the June 30 deadline for handing the country over to Iraqis highly questionable, and that despite the fact President George W. Bush reaffirmed Monday the date was not subject to revision.

Regardless of the outcome, there is one Shiite who stands to gain by the removal of either ayatollah — Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress — and the man on the fast track to become the next nexus of power in Iraq.

It would be ironic indeed if Chalabi wound up a winner in all this. That strikes me as unlikely but Salhani has spent a lot more time in Iraq than I have–and certainly more recently.

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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.