The political dimension of the Ashura fighting (Updated with an interesting confirmation of sorts)
Some of these many groups mix political-party activities with their religion, the Al-Hayat reporter says, and he notes in particular the group led by Mahmoud al Hasani al-Sarkhi, which came to prominence during a demonstration at the Iranian consulate in Karbala last year. This is a group known for being critical of the traditional Shiite authorities like Sistani.
They call themselves "Sarkhiyun" or "Mahdawiyun". In recent times there have been verbal battles between the followers of Sarkhi and other Shiite groups, and also there have been [violent] skirmishes between then from time to time, particularly around Najaf, Karbala, Nasiriya, and Amara and in the vicinity of Diwaniya, [the latter place being] the main stronghold of the Sarkhiyun, particularly after religious authorities in Iraq and Iran accused Sarkhi of not having advanced to the level of a major authority, which angered his followers.(There's more on Sarkhi as a perceived threat to the Shiite hierarchy in this report by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting from August 2007).
The journalist goes on to name a number of other cases of dissident groups, including the following:
A group led by Ayatollah Fadil al-Malaki, whose positions the reporter describes as close to those of Al-Sadr and Sarhki. Al-Malaki has degrees in religious law from Najaf in 1968, and in secular law from the University of Baghdad in 1976.
"Likewise active on the Shiite scene is the Islamic Vanguard Party, which was a secret organization under the Saddam regime, and which formerly exercised military activities in the marshlands of the South".
"And there is the movement of Jawad al-Khalasi, a grandson of Mahdi al-Khalasi who was well-known in the resistance to the British occupation, for which he was subjected to torture and exile after the formation of the Iraqi kingdom (in 1921). Al-Khalasi [the present one] supports the resistance to the occupation and opposes the current political situation".
Then there is the Ayatollah Hussein Ismael al-Sadr, headquartered in Kadhamiya, espousing a line known as "political realism" which calls for solution of problems via discussion.
And there is a mostly elite group known as the "Shiraziyun," named after their leader Sadiq al-Shirazi, which tries to avoid confrontations with other trends, and espouses political economic and intellectual openness.
The journalist adds that of course the most important of the Shiite trends, besides that of the Supreme Council, are the Sadrist, the Fadhila (a breakaway from the Sadrists) and the Dawa, which has split into several parts, the main ones being the "Islamic Dawa Party" led by the current Prime Minister al-Malaki, and the "Dawa Party--Iraq Organization" which is led by a member of parliament by the name of Abdulaziz al-Anazi.
In spite of the great number of "dissident" (from the point of view of Sistani and the Supreme Council) groups, the newspaper headed this story as follows:
The Authority of al-Sistani still enjoys the majority, in spite of the appearance of dozens of new movements...Anxiety over emergence of Shiite movements on the occasion of Ashura preaching beliefs similar to those of the "Army of Heaven"Clearly the issue, as Al-Hayat explains it, is the challenge to the authority of Sistani. The Sadrists with their demand for a US troop-withdrawal are naturally one part of that. But so are groups like those of Sarkhi, which the writer notes had already been "skirmishing" with "other Shiite groups" around various cities in the South in the recent period of time. What is interesting to notice in the wake of the Ashura violence, is that the news reports, all sourced to Iraqi- and local-government sources, refer only to Mahdist groups, and are silent about the political dimension.
Something very similar happened last year, when misinformation from the Najaf authorities helped conceal the political dimension of what happened (not to mention local suspicions that in fact it was the authorities, not the group in question, that triggered that bloody confrontation).
More generally, I think this shows it could be a mistake to differentiate too absolutely between political movements like Sadr's on the one hand, and religious or messianic movements on the other, as though none of the Sadrist leadership and rank and file has any expectation of the coming of a new age; or as if the partisans with their yellow flags that appear in the Ashura celebrations aren't interested in toppling the Supreme Council regime as a specific end in itself.
For a general summary of the current state of Shiite politics, see also this report by Reidar Visser.
And see also Visser's follow-up piece, called "The southern Mahdists speak for themselves", where he summarizes a statement by the "Adherents of the Mahdi" in which they stress their reformist political views more than any precise expectation of a once-and-for-all historical event. They say they have been targeted recently at their premises throughout the three southernmost provinces (contrary to the government-sourced reports blaming the Mahdists for starting the trouble). Visser writes:
Right now I don't know where this particular group fits, if anywhere, in the above enumeration by the Al-Hayat reporter, but what the statement does underline is the fact that groups with historical-progress expectations can be, and often are, groups with progressive or at least anti-clerical political views. So the government-sourced reports have to be read with particular skepticism. They are their natural political enemies.
In an interesting statement, the Adherents of the Mahdi, the group targeted in recent security operations in the southern Iraqi cities of Nasiriyya and Basra, have explained the conflict from their own point of view.
Just as they did during the Muharram confrontation in Najaf in early 2007, the Adherents of the Mahdi disclaim any connection with the Soldiers of Heaven and violent plots against the ulama. They describe their own group as a “reformist” movement of the kind that can be found in many world religions (the parallel to Jehovah’s Witnesses is highlighted), and, interestingly, in this statement do not focus so much on their apocalyptic ideas but rather stress an anti-ulama theme that shares certain features with neo-Akhbarism in its focus on the Koran and the life of the Prophet. They encourage the Iraqi people to go back to the original sources of Islam, rather than asking the ulama for help. In their view, it is not a religious duty to perform taqlid (emulation) of a high-ranking cleric (as per the orthodox Usuli Shiite view), nor is religious tax (khums) payable to anyone but the Twelfth Imam.The Adherents of the Mahdi then go on to decry the recent violent operations against the group...
* Al-Hayat scrubs their links after a day or two, but I took the precaution of saving this, and I copied the text of the article in a comment. Naturally you have to enlarge the characters to make it readable.