Monday, October 11, 2004

Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri Turns Attention To Iraq Chaos | Iran's Top Dissident Cleric Turns Attention To Iraq Chaos: "Iran's Top Dissident Cleric Turns Attention To Iraq Chaos
October 10, 2004
By BRIAN MURPHY, Associated Press

QOM, Iran -- These are pilgrims of a different kind.

Several times a week, Shiite Muslim clerics and community leaders from neighboring Iraq climb stairs to a little office in this Iranian city of shrines and Islamic seminaries. There, an aged and hunched figure sits on a swivel chair fitted with an electric blanket.

He's Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a former heir apparent to lead Iran who fell from favor and spent five years under house arrest as the regime's most feared dissident.

Now - taking on another role - the 82-year-old Montazeri is using his lofty theological credentials and hard-earned political savvy to try and stop the unraveling of Iraq. His message to the Iraqi visitors: Fight the U.S.-led occupation, but do something to halt the hostage-takings and executions.

"Blind assassinations and terrorism are against Islam," he told The Associated Press shortly before receiving a Shiite delegation from a Baghdad mosque. "It only leads to condemnations of Islam. ... This is not the right path."

The meetings between grass-roots Iraqi leaders and Montazeri - one of only a handful of grand ayatollahs, the highest-ranking Shiite clerics - are part of the complex interplay between Iran and its mostly Shiite neighbor.

The religious bonds are obvious.

The 1979 Islamic Revolution made Iran the center of gravity for the world's Shiite Muslims, who differ with majority Sunnis over the spiritual leadership of Islam after the Prophet Muhammad. Iraq, however, has the holiest Shiite sites and the embattled city of Najaf rivals Qom as a seat of scholarship. Qom was once the home of the late Iranian spiritual and revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Najaf is where he spent more than a decade in exile.

These days, it is unclear how much Iranian influence and aid crosses the border.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has accused Iran of "meddling" in post-Hussein Iraq, but Washington officials have been unable to pinpoint any overt funding or political string-pulling from Iran.

Iranian authorities deny providing back-channel help to Iraqi Shiites, who suffered under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime. Yet Iranian groups with near-autonomous power, led by the Revolutionary Guards, have displayed greater interest in trying to control the regional fallout from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"Iran would certainly want to be able to maneuver events in Iraq to its advantage," said Ehsan Ahrari, an international affairs commentator based in Norfolk, Va. "How much they can actually do it is the real question."

Even the well-documented Iranian ties to Iraq's rebel Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, have become hazy.

Al-Sadr's religious mentor, Grand Ayatollah Kazem al-Hosseini al-Haeri, claims to have distanced himself from the young firebrand, whose militia opened attacks against U.S.-led forces earlier this year. Al-Haeri was the closest adviser of al-Sadr's father, senior cleric Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who was killed by suspected agents of Hussein in 1999.

A shaky truce was reached in August with al-Sadr's militia, but some al-Sadr followers say they are ready to resume the fight if called upon.

This is where Montazeri may emerge as a pivotal voice.

He is available for any Iraqi delegation coming to Qom, about 80 miles southwest of Tehran. His open-door policy appears aimed at influencing the important middle tier of Iraq's Shiite community: mosque-based clerics, successful merchants, pilgrimage leaders. He urges popular opposition against extremism and violence - while keeping up constant pressure for a U.S. military withdrawal.

"A real Iraqi democracy is possible," Montazeri said in his office, decorated with plastic roses and a wobbly ceiling fan. "But the people must desire it. They cannot let small forces take control of events."

Montazeri's position of influence represents a second chance for him.

After accusing the theocracy of hoarding power in Iran in the 1980s, his fall was swift. He went from being Khomeini's hand-picked successor to one of the theocracy's most denounced figures.

Montazeri didn't back down, and was placed under house arrest in Qom in 1997. He was released last year and retains a significant following. "It's important not to remain silent," he said, reflecting on the price he's paid for speaking out.

But Montazeri could be in for another conflict with the establishment. He suggested he would not hesitate to blow the whistle on possible Iranian attempts to aid radical Iraqi elements or stir another Islamic revolution. Iraqi elections are scheduled for January, though violence threatens to limit the voting or even postpone it.

"It's up to the Iraqi government and people to decide the type of system," he said. "Iran can help if asked, but it must not intervene."

The cleric is equally set against the presence of U.S.-led forces in Iraq - "it's not against Islam to fight occupation," he said - and he has shown a militant streak in the past.

He unsuccessfully urged Khomeini to sanction guerrilla war against Iran's U.S.-backed monarchy before the revolution. Khomeini also overruled Montazeri's demand for military retaliation after a U.S. warship shot down an Iranian airliner in 1989, killing 290 people. The Pentagon said the plane was mistaken for an Iranian fighter.

Today, most clerics in Qom support Montazeri's calls for restraint by the militants, said Rasool Jafarian, a Shiite historian. But if the Iraq crisis continues, Qom radicals might issue a religious edict - or fatwa - favoring the anti-U.S. resistance. "Of course, it wouldn't support kidnapping and terrorism," Jafarian said.

It's difficult to measure how much real clout Montazeri projects outside Iran, or on the non-Shiite forces in the insurgency. But his words are heard across the border.

"Montazeri speaks of an Iraq of peace and for Iraqis," said Hojoleslam Hussein Jafari, a cleric from the Baghdad's mostly Shiite Sadr City district. "People should listen before it's too late.""


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