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Stephen Schwartz: This Isn't Vietnam and It Isn't Tet

Stephen Schwartz, an author and journalist, and the author of The Two Faces of Islam, in frontpagemag.com , in (April 14, 2004):

...Some wishful-thinking enemies of Iraqi liberation even sought to compare the disorders with the Tet offensive of 1968, when a massive North Vietnamese attack on South Vietnamese and American forces contributed significantly to domestic U.S. disaffection with the Vietnam engagement. But the "Shia uprising" had various aspects that, from its beginning, doomed it to failure.

It was nothing like Tet, which involved tens of thousands of North Vietnamese regulars, well-trained, well-armed, disciplined, and highly motivated. The so-called "Army of the Mahdi" cobbled together by the power-hungry young Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, and launched against the coalition, is an irregular militia.

In addition, the 30-year old al-Sadr lacks the political credibility of the North Vietnamese, to say nothing of the more charismatic figures in recent Shia Muslim history, such as Ayatollah Khomeini. Muqtada al-Sadr launched his bid for disruption precisely because he lacks religious credentials and public standing among the Iraqi Shias.

Shia Islam embodies a seniority system of leadership. Young aspirants count for very little in Shi'ism; all power, respect, and decision-making resides in the hands of the ayatollahs, who are greybearded, veteran scholars admired and even venerated for their learning, writing, and theological sophistication. In this regard, Shia Islam most resembles the Orthodox tradition in Christianity; Muqtada al-Sadr has no more capacity to mobilize a majority of the Iraqi Shias than a lone Greek priest from the island of Crete would have to challenge the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul.

Al-Sadr has only one asset: his family name. His father, uncle, and two brothers were prominent Shia clerics murdered by Saddam Hussein's minions. But although martyrdom is the central motif in Shia Islam, family glory is insufficient for the young al-Sadr to usurp authority from such figures as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the dominant figure in Iraqi Shiism, even though Sistani is Iranian, not Iraqi.

Al-Sadr has challenged Sistani's authority since the liberation of Iraq was accomplished. The younger man's lust for power is also now seen behind the tragic murder of another youthful Shia cleric, Abd al-Majid al-Khoei, in the holy city of Najaf a year ago. Al-Khoei was known for moderation and modernism. His father, Grand Ayatollah Abul Qasim al-Khoei, who died in 1992, was best known in the Islamic world for rejecting Ayatollah Khomeini's scheme for clerical rule, known as "wilaya ul-faqih." Grand Ayatollah al-Khoei argued that religious and political leadership should remain separate from one another. The al-Khoei legacy supported reconciliation between the U.S. and Iran, and the al-Khoei Foundation maintains offices in New York and London.