Rift between Tehran and Shi’ite cleric fuels instability in Iraq
IRAQI NATIONALISM: Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, including members of his armed militia, reject Iranian influence, favoring the nationalist ideas of the cleric (left) and his late father (right) instead. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Once a partner of Tehran, Muqtada al-Sadr has rebelled against Iranian political interference in Iraq. After Sadrists defeated pro-Iran parties at the polls, tensions between Shi’ite camps have stalled government and, some fear, could spur violence.
Filed Aug. 23, 2022, noon GMT
On Feb 8, two powerful men – one a cleric, one a soldier, both fellow Shi’ite Muslims – met to discuss the future of Iraqi politics and the dominant role here of neighbor Iran.
It didn’t go well.
Iranian Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani visited the home of Muqtada al-Sadr, the prominent Iraqi cleric and former battlefield foe of American troops during the U.S. occupation here. Sadr has millions of faithful supporters across Iraq, some comprising an armed militia. He is a leading powerbroker in this majority-Shi’ite country.
Ghaani leads the Quds Force, the foreign military and intelligence branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, used by Tehran’s Shi’ite theocracy to project power abroad. He is charged by Tehran with keeping its influence in Iraq intact.
According to four Iraqi and Iranian officials briefed on the half-hour encounter in the holy city of Najaf, Sadr received the general with trademark brusqueness. He wore a black-and-white Arab headdress and brown robe – a deliberately local look and a contrast to the all-black vestments and Shi’ite clerical turban he generally wears in public.
Sadr’s fashion statement, the officials said, echoed his nationalist political message: Iraq, as a sovereign Arab state, would forge its own path, free of meddling by its Persian neighbor, despite sectarian ties between the Shi’ite-dominated countries.