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Cablegate: Karbala Religious Authority and Structure

DE RUEHGB #3651/01 3231407
P 181407Z NOV 08



E.O. 12958: N/A

This a a PRT Karbala Reporting Cable.

This message is Sensitive but Unclassified; handle
accordingly. Not for Internet distribution

1. (U) Summary: The imams of the al-Husayn and al-Abbas
Shrines are the most-senior religious figures in Karbala.
They were appointed by Iraq's highest Shi'a authority, Grand
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who delegates the selection of
imams at other mosques and husayniyahs to a committee.
Except at the province's handful of Sadrist mosques, all
imams in Karbala are graduates from one of the 21 religious
schools comprising the Hawza, or seminary center, in Najaf.
Shi'a imams are government employees whose salaries are paid
by the Awqaf Ministry out of donations received by the
shrines. They are careful not to court controversy in their
sermons. End Summary.

Two at the Top

2. (U) In response to recent queries from official visitors
concerning the nature and structure of religious authority in
Karbala, we have prepared the following primer. We canvassed
a variety of contacts, official and unofficial, religious and
secular, in compiling this report. We have eschewed sourcing
attributions for the sake of brevity.

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3. (U) Shaykh Abd al-Mahdi al-Karbala'i, imam of the
al-Husayn Shrine, and Shaykh Ahmad Jawad Nour al-Safi, imam
of the al-Abbas Shrine, are the most-senior religious figures
in Karbala. They were appointed by Iraq's highest Shi'a
authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Each man is an
ayatollah, one who has completed an extensive, prescribed
course of religious instruction and examination, and each in
public is addressed as shaykh, meaning master. Among
intimates, however, they prefer to use the title imam, which
in the Shi'a context encompasses the roles of prayer-leader
and khateeb or orator (these generally are separate functions
among Sunnis).

Becoming an Imam

4. (U) The al-Husayn and al-Abbas Shrines are not mosques.
They are husayniyahs, or gathering places, where prayers may
be offered. Although al-Karbala'i and Nour al-Safi are equal
in terms of religious stature, the former - as the imam of
the better-known and thus more visible of the twin shrines,
generally is seen as the more authoritative. His sermons are
broadcast weekly on radio and television. Al-Sistani is
responsible for appointing the imams at the more than 100
mosques and husayniyahs in Karbala following the main, i.e.
non-Sadrist, twelver Shi'a line. These include the Mukhayam
Mosque (on the site where Husayn ibn Ali and his family
camped prior to the Battle of Karbala in 680 C.E.) and the
Ahmad bin Hashim Shrine (the burial place of one of Hassan
ibn Ali's grandsons).

5. (U) In fact, however, al-Sistani appoints only the imams
of the al-Husayn and al-Abbas Shrines. He delegates the
selection of the others to a committee made up of the heads
of the 21 religious schools comprising the Hawza, or seminary
center, in Najaf. All would-be, mainline imams are required
to have graduated from one of these schools. (Note:
Following a practice Christians of yore would recognize,
prominent Karbala families such as the al-Awad, the al-Hur,
the al-Qazwini and the al-Safi traditionally have sent their
second-eldest sons to study at the Hawza. End Note.) The
committee is chaired by Shaykh Bashir Husayn al-Najafi, who
reestablished the Hawza beginning in 2003 (the schools of
which had been destroyed by Saddam Husayn in the 1990s).
Imams at the province's handful of Sadrist mosques and
husayniyahs are appointed by Muqtada al-Sadr, and they
generally have attended courses of study in Qom, Iran.

Money Matters

6. (U) Upon the recommendation of al-Najafi's committee,
al-Sistani -- via the Marja'iyah -- submits a list of imam
appointments to the Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments).
Although the latter has the authority to reject appointees,
it has yet to do so. Once the Ministry has approved the
list, the newly minted imams become salaried employees of the
Iraqi Government. Their appointments are temporary,
generally for one year, after which their performance is
reviewed by the Marja'iyah. If they receive satisfactory
ratings, they become tenured, although subject to dismissal
at any time upon al-Sistani's insistence.

7. (U) The funds from which the imams are paid come from

BAGHDAD 00003651 002 OF 002

donations given by pilgrims and visitors to Shi'a shrines
throughout Iraq. The lion's share of donations -- some 60
percent -- is collected at the al-Husayn and al-Abbas
Shrines. In monthly ceremonies, the imams -- along with
representatives from the Marja'iyah, the Hawza, and the Awqaf
Ministry -- open the gates of the tombs within each shrine.
Inside they gather the money, jewelry and other valuables the
faithful slip through the gilt latticework surrounding each
of the tombs. The donations are counted and evaluated and
then delivered to the Ministry in Baghdad. The Ministry
redistributes the funds, apportioning salaries, maintenance
costs, and other support to the mainline Shi'a mosques and
husayniyahs based (in consultation with the Marja'iyah) on
their prominence and requirements. A separate branch of the
Ministry operates similarly with respect to Iraq's Sunni
mosques. The Sadrist mosques and husayniyahs here rely on
tithes from members of their congregations and, according to
widespread-but-unsubstantiated rumors, support from Iran.


8. (U) There are no formal regulations governing what imams
may or may not say or do in their mosques and husayniyahs.
However, prior to their selection, would-be imams' views and
proclivities are closely examined and those deemed unfit or
likely to stray from the orthodoxy as established by
al-Sistani are weeded out. Imams, particularly the recently
appointed, are keenly sensitive to criticism and careful not
to court controversy. Most consult with the Marja'iyah or
with the offices of al-Karbala'i or Nour al-Safi when
drafting sermons.

9. (U) As senior imams, al-Karbala'i and Nour al-Safi have
more leeway within which to expound alternative points of
view. However, because both men are potential successors to
al-Sistani, they generally seek to avoid the appearance of
disagreeing with him or with the Marja'iyah. Imams in the
Sadrist mosques and husayniyahs, of course, feel no such
compunction and frequently criticize the mainline clerics'
timidity and ties to the government.

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