BEIRUT – The highly influential Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has reportedly criticized Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani’s role in Iraqi politics, in a sign of a split between the Shiite religious establishments in Iraq’s Najaf and Iran’s Qom.
Asharq Alawsat reported Monday that Sistani had sent a message to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei questioning him about “Soleimani’s increasing influence in Iraq.”
An unnamed Iraqi politician told the Saudi-daily that Sistani had asked “whether this had happened at Khamenei’s instruction or through Soleimani’s [own independent action.]”
The normally shadowy Quds Force commander emerged as a public figure following ISIS’ sweeping advances in Iraq in the summer of 2014, appearing in a number of pictures alongside Shiite Iraqi militiamen.
However, Soleimani’s media presence has shrunk in recent months, amid reports that his bombastic statements on Tehran’s foreign policy have upset Iranian leaders.
The Economist on September 5 cited a source as saying that the IRGC commander had been reined in by the Iranian authorities and “can no longer act as a de facto foreign minister.”
The report further stated that former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezaei had been brought out of retirement back to his former position to “keep an eye on General Suleimani.”
Despite reports of Soleimani’s curtailed role, he has continued to act as a trouble-shooter in Iraq. In July, the Quds Force chief met a number of Iraqi Kurdish leaders to discuss extending Massoud Barzani’s term as president of the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government.
Then in late August Soleimani appeared at a meeting of the National Alliance parliamentary coalition of Shiite parties that ended with an acrimonious exchange between him and Iraqi Premier Haidar al-Abadi.
Abadi reportedly “objected strongly” when Soleimani criticized the reforms the Iraqi premier is pushing through—especially those which could harm former PM Nouri al-Maliki, who is close to Tehran.
Sistani’s growing frustration over Soleimani’s role in Iraqi politics represents growing differences between the clerical establishments in Iraq’s Najaf and Iran’s Qom, the world’s top two Shiite seminaries.
Asharq Alawsat’s source said Sistani has started to realize that Iran’s intervention in Iraqi politics on behalf of Maliki “has begun to affect [Najaf’s] historic role.”
The source added that Sistani’s action was evidence of “a clear dispute between the Najaf… and Qom Seminaries” in which Sistani and Khamenei are the highest authorities respectively.
According to the politician’s own analysis, Khamenei’s approach to reform in Iraq focuses on “the political dimension of the issue because the holding to account of [high level] corrupt [figures] will affect powerful Shiite leaders.”
“Sistani looks at the matter from a legal perspective; he believes that fighting corruption is a legal duty, regardless of the political consequences.”
The Iraqi PM on August 9 announced a raft of measures to reform the Iraqi state, two days after Sistani told him to “strike against corruption with an iron fist” as Iraqis mobilized for growing protests against the state’s inability to provide basic services.
Abadi’s seven-point reform plan—which was approved by the cabinet and parliament—calls for eliminating the co-vice presidential posts, one of which is held by Maliki.
Maliki also faces charges of being responsible for the fall of Mosul to ISIS in 2014 when he was premier, after a parliamentary report blaming him and top commanders for the matter was referred to Iraq’s judiciary on August 17.
However, Iran extended the embattled Maliki a show of support, hosting him for a visit to Tehran on August 19 during which he met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei