Ayatollahs Sleeping On The SOFA

fadlallah3.jpgLast week, two prominent Shia ayatollahs issued religious decrees (fatwas) regarding the proposed status of forces agreement between the U.S. and Iraq.

On October 21, Lebanon’s Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah criticized the security pact, saying “the Baghdad government has no right to ‘legitimize’ the presence of foreign troops,” and that any agreement should call for an unconditional withdrawal of U.S. forces:

Fadlallah’s edict came in response to questions by some Shiite members of Iraq’s parliament who asked the cleric to give his opinion about the proposed security pact. […]

“No authority, establishment or an official or nonofficial organization has the legitimacy to impose occupation on its people, legitimize it or extend its stay in Iraq,” Fadlallah said in the edict released by his office.

Fadlallah was one of the founders of the Dawa Party in Najaf in 1957, along with his mentor Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr, a relative of Muqtada’s. Fadlallah also helped found Hizballah in Lebanon.

Fadlallah is the marja al-taqlid (source of emulation) for many in the Dawa — including Maliki — which means that they have chosen Fadlallah as a spiritual guide and committed to following his guidance in regard to correct religious practice. This, in and of itself, makes the SOFA in its current form basically a dead letter.

On Wednesday, Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri, another cleric with roots in the Dawa Party, issued an even more stringent fatwa against the SOFA:

Al-Haeri called the proposed agreement “haram”—which in Arabic means forbidden by Islam—and said that approving the deal would be “a sin God won’t forgive.”

Al-Haeri, based in the Iranian holy city of Qom, has Iraqi nationality and is believed to be a mentor of anti-U.S. Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers oppose the deal. The fatwa, or religious decree, was posted on al-Haeri’s Web site.

In the edict, the cleric claimed the U.S. is pressuring the Iraqi government to approve the security pact.

“We know that this deal will undermine Iraq’s national sovereignty and that approving it will mean accepting humiliation and misery,” al-Haeri said.

Haeri was the designated successor of Muqtada al-Sadr’s father, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who was assassinated in 1999. Haeri nominated Muqtada as his representative in 2003, which effectively bolstered Muqtada’s own relatively meager credentials with the force of Haeri’s scholarly authority. Haeri withdrew his support of Muqtada in the wake of the Mahdi Army uprising against the U.S., but Muqtada is now believed to be studying under Haeri in Iran. Haeri remains the source of guidance for many Sadrists.

Having previously set his own conditions for the security agreement, Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, indicated several weeks ago that he would support what the government supports, as long as there was consensus. It is now clear that that consensus does not exist around the SOFA as it is now written.

The power of these ayatollahs to effectively scuttle an agreement of significant import to the security of the United States throws into stark relief what the Bush administration has created in Iraq: a government dominated by Shia religious parties who take their guidance — and derive their legitimacy — from the opinions and edicts of a small handful of senior Shia clerics.