But the biggest winners of all have been Iraqi Shiites, whose ascent to power reversed nearly 1,400 years of sometimes brutal Sunni domination. And although Iraqi Shiites broadly welcome the departure of the Americans, they seem in no mood to substitute one form of foreign domination for another — and least of all, they say, from Iran.
Nowhere is that more evident than in Najaf, the spiritual capital of Shiite Islam, the site of its holiest shrine and a base for a new form of Iraqi nationalism, one that asserts the doctrines and rituals of the Shiite faith but also embraces a distinct Iraqi identity.
“Do you know who in Iraq hates Iran more than anyone? It is Najaf,” said Neama al-Ebadi, director of the Najaf-based Iraq Center for Research and Studies, echoing a view widely expressed on the streets of the city.
“The Shiites of Iran are Iranian first. They think they’re superior to Arabs. But Najafis believe they are the original Shiites and the Iranians are just copies.”
Sistani vs. Shahroudi
Under the stewardship of the revered Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Najaf’s religious authorities, or marjaya, have become a beacon of moderation for the newly established Shiite order. The authorities have moved firmly to assert their quietist school of Shiite religious thought, under which the clerics are expected to merely advise rather than participate in politics, as they do in Iran.
So the announcement last month that Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a prominent ally of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a leading proponent of the Iranian “wilayat al-faqih” theory of governance, intended to move to Najaf was greeted with gasps of dismay, not only in Najaf but also beyond.
Shahroudi’s credentials, as the head of Iran’s judiciary until last year, and the timing of the announcement, just weeks before U.S. troops complete their withdrawal, seemed to leave little doubt that the move represented a bid by Iran to step up its role in Iraq as American influence wanes, said Babak Rahimi, professor of religious studies at the University of California at San Diego.
Rahimi said that although Shahroudi was born in Iraq, he has spent many years in Iran, and “many Iraqis see this guy as having an Iranian agenda. Shahroudi is a part of the Iranian establishment, and it looks like a strategy to manipulate the Iraqi Shiites.”
Najaf did not roll out the welcome mat, however. Instead, in the shadow of the gold-domed Imam Ali shrine, the narrow alleys of this ancient city were abuzz with speculation that Iran is hoping to promote Shahroudi as a potential successor to the octogenarian Sistani, who is regarded as the leading religious authority for Shiites around the world.