BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP -Many American politicians were surprised by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s criticism of Israel’s attacks on Lebanon. They need only look at the stance taken by Iraq’s top Shiite spiritual leader to understand why al-Maliki cannot stand with the U.S. in the crisis.
On Sunday, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani condemned the “Israeli aggression” and warned that “Islamic nations will not forgive the entities that hinder a cease-fire” — a clear reference to the United States. His statement came after an Israeli airstrike that killed 56 people, mostly women and children, in the southern Lebanese village of Qana.
Al-Maliki’s comments came five days earlier, but it was no secret that the grand ayatollah and the rest of the Shiite clerical leadership strongly opposed Israel’s offensive — and supported their fellow Shiites in Hezbollah.
The Iraqi prime minister angered many Americans — especially Democrats — during a visit to Washington last week when he called for an immediate cease-fire without criticizing Hezbollah for provoking the crisis by capturing two Israeli soldiers and firing missiles into Israel.
Some Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Hillary Clinton, boycotted al-Maliki’s speech to Congress the following day. Sen. Charles Schumer (news, bio, voting record) said a “large number of people” were “uncomfortable” with al-Maliki’s stance.
Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean went so far as to label al-Maliki an “anti-Semite” for failing to denounce Hezbollah.
In fact, the Shiite prime minister was doing what politicians do everywhere — playing to his support base. And that base includes a Shiite religious leadership that sees the world, especially the Middle East, far differently than many Americans.
Al-Maliki took a political risk just by going to Washington, ignoring members of his Shiite alliance who demanded he cancel the visit to protest the attacks in Lebanon.
His assurance in Congress on Wednesday that Iraq was on the front line in the war against terrorism played much better in the United States than among Sunni insurgents whom he hopes to persuade to lay down their arms.
Prominent Sunni politicians insist that many of the insurgents are not terrorists but patriots exercising their legitimate right to resist foreign military occupation.
In the run-up to the war in 2003, some American conservatives had hoped that the ouster of Saddam Hussein would produce a pro-Western Iraq that would join Egypt and Jordan in formally recognizing the Jewish state.
Instead, three years and more than 2,500 American deaths later, hostility toward Israel following the Lebanon operation is drawing together Iraq’s rival Sunni and Shiite communities. Both Shiite and Sunni clerics have condemned “Israeli aggression” and praised Hezbollah for standing up to Israel.
Even the Kurds, the most pro-American constituency in Iraq, have spoken out against the attacks, despite years of clandestine contacts between Kurdish politicians and the Israelis.
President Jalal Talabani, a Sunni Kurd, expressed his “extreme anger and sorrow” over the “crime” of Qana. Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, a Kurd with longtime ties to the U.S. and Britain, warned that the events in Lebanon will “undoubtedly” impact Iraq and the region, adding that Iraqis “cannot but sympathize” with the Lebanese people.
But it is the position of the Shiite clerical leadership, especially al-Sistani, that carries the most weight. The very legitimacy of al Maliki’s alliance of Shiite parties rests with the frail, aged al-Sistani.
The ayatollah’s tacit endorsement enabled the Shiite alliance to win elections in January and December 2005. That the January 2005 election took place at all was due to al-Sistani’s insistence that Iraqis vote as soon as possible, overcoming U.S. reluctance because of the country’s instability.