April 15, 2008 -- RIAD al-Noori liked to boast that a "host of angels" protected him, along with his 250 heavily armed bodyguards. Yet, he has just been gunned down in his home in Najaf, Iraq's principal "holy" city, by a three-man hit team that managed to get away without any of the angels or bodyguards making a move.
Noori was a bad man but an important player in the dirtiest corner of Iraqi Shiite politics. He headed the special bureau of Muqtada al-Sadr, the maverick mullah sponsored by Tehran. Himself a mullah, Noori was also married to Muqtada's favorite sister. The two were as thick as thieves. More importantly, perhaps, Noori distributed a good part of the Iranian money in Iraq.
Noori's removal from the scene leaves Muqtada without his eminence grise and his Mahdi Army without its ideologist.
Noori, whose family hails from the Iranian province of Mazandaran, earned notoriety in April 2003 when he organized the murder in Najaf of two prominent clerical opponents of Saddam Hussein just as the Ba'athist regime was collapsing everywhere. The two were Majid Mussawi Kho'i and Heydar al-Rufaii, moderate and reform-minded theologians who had welcomed the US-led Coalition's war of liberation.
A few months later, the transitional authority under Ambassador Paul Bremmer issued an arrest warrant for both Noori and Sadr. But an attempt at arresting the two men led to an armed showdown in Najaf, and Bremmer was asked by his Washington bosses to back down. Nevertheless, Iraqi police managed to arrest Noori and prepared a strong case to try him on a charge of multiple murders.
Soon, however, the case was put on the backburner by Ibrahim Jaafari, the first elected prime minister of new Iraq, in a bid to placate the Sadrists and their Iranian backers. Noori was allowed to escape from prison and join Muqtada in starting the Mahdi Army.
The fact that Noori died on exactly the same day that he and his cohorts had killed Khoei and Rufaii five years ago makes the episode look like an execution.
Having allied himself with the mullahs of Tehran in their bid to seize control of Basra, Iraq's second largest city and most important port, Sadr is clearly on the run. The latest rumors claim that his Iranian masters have asked him to leave the "holy" city of Qom and return to Iraq.
To muddy the waters, Sadr has announced that he has written to senior ayatollahs in Najaf and Qom seeking fatwas with regard to the fate of his Mahdi Army. If the ayatollahs rule that it must disband, it will, Sadr promises. If, to the contrary, they rule that it should stick around, it will, keeping its illegal weapons.
Sadr's move is clearly designed to undermine Iraq's still-fragile democracy. He is saying, in effect: As far as I am concerned, all those million Iraqis who voted in a constitutional referendum and two generals elections, and the institutions they created, count for nothing. The fate of Iraq must not be set by Iraqi people, but by a handful of mullahs, most of whom are not even citizens of the country.
The fact that Sadr included the mullahs of Qom, including two of his Iranian teachers there, shows that he doesn't regard Iraq as a sovereign state whose affairs ought to be decided within its borders.
In the Khomeinist system, "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei is designated as "leader of the Islamic ummah" as a whole. One must assume that the Qom mullahs to whom Sadr wrote wouldn't issue a fatwa on Iraq without clearing it with their "supreme guide."
That means that Sadr is trying to transform Iraq into a de facto province of the Islamic Republic, just as Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and his associates are seeking a similar fate for Lebanon.
Sadr may argue that such concepts as nation state, democracy and constitutional rule are Western inventions not binding on Muslims. Most Iraqis, however, don't wish to be ruled even by the mullahs of Najaf, let alone Qom and Tehran.
It's possible that Sadr decided to implicate the ayatollahs because he no longer controls the Mahdi Army. The recent battle in Basra showed that Mahdi Army was just one tool in the hands of the Quds Force, a unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in charge of "exporting" the Khomeinist revolution.
Sadr's efforts to bring in the ayatollahs may be his way of trying to distance the Mahdi Army from the IRGC without picking an open quarrel with Tehran. Even if that were the case, however, Sadr's move remains inexcusable.
Sadr may be trying to replicate the move of Lebanese Hezbollah, which wants its bread buttered on both sides - having seats in the parliament and the Council of Ministers while maintaining a private army financed by a foreign power. So far, none of the ayatollahs has responded to Sadr's letters. Let's hope none will.
The Iraqi parliament has decided to disband the militias. Its writ must be obeyed. Any attempt by the ayatollahs to second-guess the parliament and the Council of Ministers could provoke a crisis that would harm Iraq.
In rule by fiat, as was the case under Saddam Hussein, a single despot exercised power. In rule by the gun, a few thousand militiamen and other criminals project power through violence. In rule by fatwa, half a dozen mullahs claim the power of life and death over a nation. Only in a system based on free elections does everyone have a share of power.
Iraq has said goodbye to rule by fiat and is in no mood to succumb to rule by fatwa. The militias must be disarmed so that the new Iraqi state can grow.