Saturday's demonstration of followers of Shia cleric Mahmoud al-Hasani al-Sarkhi
Wladimir van Wilgenburg writes for EA:
Iraq can be portrayed as a country of homogeneous Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish blocs. That is far too simplistic: consider the recent demonstrations in Baghdad by followers of the Sadrist splinter group of Shi’a cleric Mahmoud al-Hasani al-Sarkhi.
The trouble began on February 17, when a recently-opened office of Shia cleric Mahmoud al-Hasani al-Sarkhi was set on fire. Supporters of Sarkhi blamed followers of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leading Shia cleric in Iraq, and violence between the two groups has escalated since them. As analyst Reidar Visser said concisely, "Impression is sec[urity] forces confrontation w/ Sarkhi followers is growing trend over past months. Also Sistani vs Sarkhi."
Last Tueday, unknown assailants attacked the offices of two of Iraq's top four Shia clerics, close to Sistani, with sound bombs in the central city of Najaf. Then on Saturday, thousands of demonstrators protested against the "government’s false promises" to rebuild a mosque, allegedly removed by the local authorities of Dhi Qar on 7 April. Sarkhi’s supporters, who clashed on 12 April with anti-riot police, have said they will continue to demonstrate "peacefully" until their demands are met.
Sarkhi opposes both Iranian influence and the Iraqi central government, but he is also in favour of the establishment of an Iranian-style Islamic theocracy in Iraq. Indeed, as a former student of Iraqi Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, al-Hasani subscribes to velayat-e al-faqih (rule of the jurisprudent) as practiced in Iran, and he claims to be the "true successor" in the system.
How strong is Sarkhi? His spokesman Haidar al-Abadi claimed in 2004 that the cleric had some 25,000 to 30,000 supporters, so perhaps the significance is not in the specific movement. Instead, it is the general lesson that Sarkhi's group and other factions not only refuse to recognize the supremacy of the Najaf-based religious mentors of Shia Iraq, but see themselves as "qualified" substitutes for them. No wonder then that conflicts break out.