As a seminarian myself, I find this story totally fascinating.
Moqtada al Sadr is quietly studying hard (it would appear) to attain the title of Ayatollah, the highest in the Shia clerical universe.
Like a modern day Shia version of St. Cyril of Alexandria (who to gain doctrinal victories in Christianity threatened to cut off the grain trade to Rome and used mobs not unlike the Mahdi Army to enforce his position):
Al-Sadr’s objectives — described to The Associated Press by close aides — are part of increasingly bitter Shiite-on-Shiite battles for control of Iraq’s southern oil fields, the lucrative pilgrim trade to Shiite holy cities and the nation’s strategic Persian Gulf outlet. The endgame among Iraq’s majority Shiites also means long-term influence over Iraqi political and financial affairs as the Pentagon and its allies look to scale down their military presence in the coming year.
It also would give him fresh clout to challenge his top rival, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which looks to Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as its highest religious authority and has its own armed wing, the Badr Brigade, which have been largely absorbed into Iraqi security forces. Al-Sadr often stresses his Iraqi and Arab roots and rejects suggestions that he is beholden to Persian Iran, the world’s Shiite heavyweight and the benefactor of many Shiite politicians. As an ayatollah, his views and fatwas, or religious edicts, would resonate with even more authority as the battles heat up for sway over Iraq’s Shiite heartland.
I find it amazing that the US (secular military) establishment has focused and invested so heavily in a central and useless democratic parliamentary government in Baghdad. Too British (parliament). Too Western (constitutional).
And meanwhile the cagiest politician, with the most power in all likelihood in Iraq, is studying in seminary as a way to gain real power in the streets. That’s the difference between a meritocratic, scientific industrial order (orange-central gov’t/US occupation) and a mythic theocratic poor-based, militant order (blue/Sadrist faction).
Significantly, the aides said, the main focus of al-Sadr’s studies has been the Shiite doctrine known in Arabic as “wilayet al-faqeeh,” which supports the right of clerical rule. The concept was adopted Iran‘s Khomeini, but carries little support among Iraq’s Shiite religious hierarchy.
Which accords with the right-wing Islamist (though anti-US) vibe of the movement. a la Hezbollah. The defining characteristic (from Ali Eteraz) of right-wing Islamism is an un-democratic, non-transparent, guardian council or clerical rule.
Which is interesting because while Sadr is the most Arab and Iraqi of the Shia he is the one it would seem most thinking along the lines of Khomenei. The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council has changed its allegiance from Iran (where it was founded) to Supreme Ayatollah Sistani. Sistani Iraqi though educated (fled to) Iran does not support Khomenei’s version of Islamism.
So the weird situation where the SIIC, which is militarily and politically much closer to Iran but theologically is not is up against the Sadrists, much less allied with Iran culturally, diplomatically, or militarily and yet is closer theologically & politically (in terms of theoretical structure but not actual alliance).
The real fight for control of Shia-stan has always loomed as that between SIIC (upper-class, pro-Iranian and pro-American) and the Sadrists (lower class, anti-American, less pro-Iranian, at least anti-Persian hegemony though still pro-Shia).
The British are pulling out of Basra. The South is ready to explode in violence. It is unclear how long Sadr’s ceasefire with the US Army with last.