21 July 2004
Outside on Sayed Ayatollah Ahmed Hassani al-Baghdadi's little lawn, the temperature is touching 60C. But inside his spacious library with its shelves of leather-bound volumes of Islamic science and law, the political heat soars between 3,000 degrees and minus 20. The Shia marja [leading Shia scholars] are known for their outspokenness but Sayed Baghdadi more than speaks his mind. The Americans occupied Iraq as part of a Zionist project, he announces. They will not leave Iraq because they intend to steal Iraq's oil. The new US-appointed Iraqi government are "collaborators". And Sayed Baghdadi, remember, is a highly respected and very influential marja whose lectures draw students from all over Iraq.
When I ask him to talk about the current situation of Iraq's Shia population, he responds with an attack on my question, suggesting that the world's press are involved in a vast project to separate Sunni from Shia. When I ask him what would happen if the Americans left next week, he roars back at me. "Impossible! The Americans will not retreat from Iraq because they have strategic benefits in the region from Afghanistan to Morocco ... How can you ask such a question?"
Sayed Baghdadi looks older than his 59 years but he has the energy of a tiger, leaping from the floor to retrieve a volume of history, on tip-toe to find a copy of his own biography, his voice bellowing and booming across the library - the roaring air-conditioner is no match for him - his right hand, forefinger pointed, bouncing up and down when he refers to "the British spy, Miss Bell". Poor Gertrude Bell, she thought she understood Iraq and knew very little about it when she died after the First World War. But she could hardly have expected to find herself on Sayed Baghdadi's list of villains.
"The press are putting a Zionist-American cover on the war in Iraq," he says. "They say there is only a triangle in which the Sunnis are fighting the occupation. But there were operations in Karbala and Hilla and Diwaniyah [Shia cities] before the intifada of the Mehdi Army - this fact unmasks the lies of the press agencies. The Shia insurrection led by the Mehdi Army was a symbol of the emotional ties with their brothers from the Sunni areas. Now the CIA and MI6 and other foreign intelligence services are saying there will be a civil war if the American army retreats." Sayed Baghdadi's forefinger goes up like a warning beacon. "This is a play, a scenario of theirs. This civil war will not happen because the Iraqi people are linked by their Arabic origins and religion. So when this civil war threat didn't work, the intelligence service invented the character of Zarqawi [the al-Qa'ida member whom the Americans claim is in Iraq]. Then a mosque explodes or a Husseiniya [Shia house of worship] blows up or a Shia religious leader is killed. Then the local press - the collaborationist press - say like the Dawa Party and the National Conference of [Ahmed] Chalabi that there will be civil war like this if the Americans go." The Sayed's scorn for the press will last throughout our interview. So will his anger towards the American-appointed Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, and his President, Ghazi Ageel Yawar.
His is a cocktail of political argument and religious history. "The Americans theoretically handed over power to their collaborators, Allawi and Yawar, but those people don't have a patriotic nationalist history. The Shia follow the lines of the Imams and they co-ordinate with the Sunnis. Even if the Sultan is a Sunni - even if he is a dictator or oppressor - we will follow him and obey him, and we will not obey the idolators. Our Imams fought with the Amawayin states [the Caliphates that opposed the Imams Ali and Hussein] and with the Abbasids and with the sectarian Ottomans.
"Miss Bell, the British spy, was writing to her father and to her minister that the Shia will not fight with British soldiers because the sectarian Turks had killed so many Shia. But the Shia fought the British in Basra in 1914 and later, in 1920, the Shia and the Sunni fought together and the British were shocked. And today there is a strategic relationship between the Sunni and the Shia and they will continue resisting the occupation." Almost inevitably, it turns out the Sayed's father and grandfather were involved in the 1914 Basra insurgency against the British.
Sayed Baghdadi went into exile in Damascus for 10 years to avoid Saddam Hussein's wrath, so he is no apologist for the old regime. But he has no doubts about America's intentions. "The new American embassy is the largest in the world and there are many CIA in the embassy. American military bases are on both sides of Iraq and in the mountains in the north where they have the means to 'listen in' to the entire Middle East. America is not a charitable organisation to save the Iraqi people from dictatorship. Saddam Hussein was himself an American agent."
According to the Sayed, when America invaded Iraq "to start its new Middle Eastern project", Iraq was "like a sheep", exhausted by unjust sanctions and wars. "The Americans came to steal the petrol ... That's why there was a struggle between the Americans and the European powers. But now they have reached a deal by establishing the 'multinational forces'. They changed the name but the occupation still exists."
Suddenly the electricity cuts out, the roaring air-conditioner dies and within seconds the outdoor heat moves like a cowl across the thick carpets. But Sayed Baghdadi is on his feet again, handing me a photocopy of his hand-written ishtihad, the certificate which authorises him to issue fatwas - religious rulings - and quoting from his own biography. "He still continues to lecture and discuss science in a unique way," he reads from the text about himself. "From childhood he was a revolutionary who by nature could not be misled." The Sayed shows me a photograph of him kneeling next to Ayatollah Khomeini and begins to list those who have referred to his books and character, including Sayed Mohamed Fadlallah and the writer Khaled Rashid.
Then just before the air-conditioner growls back to life, he turns to his son-in-law and - in reference to me - says quietly: "He is either a liberal man or a spy." But half an hour later, he signs one of his books - Power and the Religious Shia Foundation - for me. "In the name of God," he writes, "this is a gift to brother Mr Robert with good wishes and regards." No fatwas against Fisk, it seems.