Iraq’s Najaf: An Iranian shrine or a Middle Eastern Vatican

January 15, 2011

Walking through the streets of Najaf, the city appears to be just another place in Iraq that requires extensive development and services. But the truth is that this holy city is capable of tipping the political balance in Iraq.
Not many people in the Sunni world appreciate the importance of Najaf. Since 2003 it has been an influential centre of politics in the new Iraq. In many ways, it has served as the country’s premier political resort, with leaders from nearly every Iraqi community visiting the Ayatollahs to win their blessing.
Post-2003, Iraqi political leaders turned it into a powerful locale for politicking: Whenever there was a problem, officials, especially Shia, ran to Najaf to convince the Grand Ayatollahs to be on their side or at least create the impression that the Marjiiyyah – a body that was usually careful not to publicly back one party or leader — was one their side.
As a result, in the eyes of some observers inside Iraq and most outside of the country, Najaf’s religious leadership was made to be part of Iraq’s tumultuous conflicts on many occasions. An important factor that contributed to this was the silence of the Marjiiyyah on non-Iraqi issues, including Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election and the situation in Lebanon.
The presence of the Grand Ayatollahs, the leaders of the Shia faith, makes Najaf not just a holy center for Iraq but for the entirety of the Shia world. Many still remember the role the city played in toppling the regime of the Shah of Iran by hosting the leader of the Islamic revolution. Despite this, there is no question that had it been embraced by the Arab states, Najaf could have had a much more influential role in Middle East politics.
Many call Najaf the “Vatican of the Shia” — and it could become the Vatican of the Middle East rather than a local center for Iraqi politics. The holy city could have this influence if the Arab world approached it differently.
While many Arab countries complain about Iran’s influence in Iraq, they have not been effective in countering it. Rather than considering the Shia of Iraq as part of Iran; turning a blind eye on Al-Qaeda’s attacks on Iraq’s Shia people and shrines; and also allowing outrageous public insults and attacks on the Shia faith and its symbols; the Arab world could have approached Najaf as the centre of gravity for the Shia faith — which is essentially an Arabist faith.
As a consequence of the Sunni Arab neglect of Najaf and the Shia of Iraq, Iran became the de-facto leader of the Shia faith. This naturally turned Najaf into a religious capital,www.ekurd.netor even a shrine, and made Qum the political capital of the Shia world. Many observers and some insiders have confirmed that the last round of negotiations to form the government was held secretly with Muqtada al-Sadr in Qum.
Today, an opportunity presents itself to turn the corner by giving Najaf a different role than the one it had in the past.
But for this to happen, Iraq’s political leaders should stop going to Najaf for arbitration or support, and the Marjiiyyah should take a tougher stance against those who want to drag it into their petty politics. Rather than consider political requests, they can simply close the door.
With the Arab summit approaching and the changed attitude some Arab countries have showed towards Iraq, they too have an opportunity bring the Shia of Iraq into the Arab fold. But this will not happen through statements or a fly-by visit of someone like Arab League secretary-general Amr Mousa — who visited Grand Ayatollah Sistani last week — alone. The Sunni Arab world could declare it’s genuine support for the new Iraq and offer their genuine help to make things work.
For example, the weak infrastructure, the dilapidated buildings and poor services put Najaf in dire need of assistance. Providing this aid could be one way to create a city with remarkable potential, a proud and developed holy place representing the best of both Iraq and Shia Islam. Whoever has the foresight to takes the first step could do much more than build a better metropolis, however – they would be seizing the opportunity to win the hearts, power and minds of one of the world’s most revered holy cities.

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