IRAQS 'SCIRI', CAUGHT BETWEEN TEHRAN AND WASHINGTON
By Mahan Abedin*
LONDON, 20 Aug. One of the more encouraging features of the occupation of Iraq has been Washingtons desire to co-opt the countrys Shiites into the post-Baathist polity in a way that reflects their majority status. This has led the US to deal with the well-organized Shiite force in the country: the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).
However, this uneasy alliance has been beset with problems from the start. The raiding of numerous SCIRI offices and safe houses after the fall of Baghdad came amid a general harassment of SCIRI cadres and sympathizers, particularly members of its armed wing, the Badr Corps. Yet there are also strong indications SCIRI will prove to be a reliable partner for the US as it seeks to forge some kind of representative government in Iraq.
SCIRI grew out of a breakaway faction of the Al-Daawa Party. Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim led the faction, which left Iraq in 1980 and eventually settled in Iran. Hakim had been a member of Daawa since the 1960s and was imprisoned three times in the 1970s. In Iran, Hakim established the Mojahedeen fil-Iraq, which was renamed the Office for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq in early 1981. This in turn metamorphosed into SCIRI in November 1982.
SCIRI claimed to be a coalition of Islamic and national forces, but in reality it was little more than a nucleus of old Daawa activists who sought to challenge former Iraqi President Saddam Hoseyn. It modeled itself on a conventional liberation movement, developing both political and military wings.
At the beginning it was overwhelmingly dependent on Iranian patronage, but it would be wrong to characterize the link as a patron-client relationship. Influence was mutual as SCIRI gained considerable sway in the commanding heights of the Iranian state. A noteworthy example was Ayatollah Mahmoud (Hashemi) Shahroudi, who was a senior leader of SCIRI in the 1980s and is currently the head of Irans Judiciary.
On the political front, SCIRI failed to score significant points against the Baathist regime. Its open alliance with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war caused enormous damage to its credibility inside Iraq. Even within the Shiite community, SCIRI came to be seen, undeservedly, as an Iranian quisling.
Its lack of a presence in Iraq was debilitating and the Baath regimes intelligence apparatus easily contained whatever influence the SCIRI commanded.
Militarily, SCIRI did not perform much better. The problem was rooted in the councils desire to develop a conventional military rather than clandestine guerrilla force. Irans Revolutionary Guards selected and trained Badr units and strong ties have persisted between the organizations for more than two decades.
Indeed, SCIRI participated in the war against Iraq alongside the guards. Its units were deployed in bases in Irans western Khouzestan, Ilam and Kermanshah provinces, and its main training center was located in a Revolutionary Guard centre outside Dezful. The Badr corps boasted a 15,000-man army, but in reality only 5,000 of these were professionally trained fighters.
The uselessness of SCIRIs armed wing was underlined during the March 1991 uprising against the Baath regime: Badr units were unable to participate effectively as they lacked clandestine resources in the southern and central Iraqi Shiite heartlands.
Ideologically, SCIRI is committed to the Velayat-e Faquih doctrine prevailing in Iran, which mandates clerical intervention in political affairs. Its strong Iranian links have ensured that some former and current SCIRI leaders and cadres are loyal to the theocratic component of the Islamic Republic.
Indeed SCIRI publications, particularly those connected to its armed wing, regularly publish photographs and sayings of Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenehi, and refer to him by the superfluous title leader of the Muslim umma. Hakim is usually present during Khamenehis important speeches, nodding approvingly from the back rows.
Despite such behavior, SCIRI representatives take pains to assert they are not interested in establishing a theocracy in Iraq. Spokesmen have the unenviable task of reconciling the organizations ideology with its practical agenda. Recently, SCIRI pledged its allegiance to a democratic system in Iraq. One of the councils most erudite and articulate representatives, the UK-based Hamid al-Bayati, said in a May 2003 interview that a Shiite-led theocracy was inappropriate as it would not fully represent Iraqs diverse communities. This is likely a genuine reflection of current SCIRI thinking. It must be remembered that despite its clerical core, SCIRI has in recent years developed a professional and technocratic cadre. Moreover its presences in Iraq will likely results in its coming under the influence of the Najaf religious schools - which have historically opposed Velayat-e Faquih.
Saddam Hoseyns downfall compelled SCIRI and the US occupation administration to work together. The US initially sought to curtail the activities of the Badr Corps by preventing its fighters from crossing the Iranian border. Politically, however, it gave SCIRI free rein, as evidenced by Hakims historic return in April.
Still, the Bremer administration remains suspicious of the council and its allies. These tensions are unlikely to result in a significant rupture. SCIRIs ties with Iran form the basis of US reservations, but this influence is likely to wane as SCIRI finds it expedient to distance itself from Tehran. Moreover, SCIRI has had links with Washington since 1993, therefore is by no means unfamiliar to the US.
The US will have to deepen its relations with SCIRI if it is to end the marginalization of Iraqs Shiites. This is largely dependent on engaging the forces representing the community. In the absence of viable alternatives, SCIRI represents a smart choice. Daawa is also currently a US ally, but it is too small, fractured and secretive to play a significant role in Iraqi politics.
More ominously, the continuing US presence in Iraq could propel the movement led by the young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr into armed confrontation with coalition forces. SCIRI will be a very useful US ally in the face of such an eventuality. The upshot is that the US and SCIRI are likely to forge an ever closer relationship. ENDS IRAQ SAIRI 20803
Editors note: Mr. Mahan Abedin is a London-based financial consultant and analyst of Iranian politics.
He wrote the above commentary for the Beirut-based The Daily Star, which published it on its 20 August issue.
Highlights, some editorial work and phonetisation of names are by IPS