The US has made a desperate attempt to divide and rule Iraqi Shias - but the White House is sorely mistaken if it thinks this will work.
President Bush's White House meeting with Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim stems from a recommendation in a memo sent to him on November 8 by his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley. The memo was published by the New York Times three weeks later.
The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, should free himself from the present narrow reliance on such radical Shia groups as the one led by Muqtada al-Sadr, suggested Hadley. One way to weaken the troublesome Sadr's political clout would be to isolate him within the Shia camp by bolstering the comparatively moderate Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) led by Hakim.
The advocates of this strategy stress that Hakim and Sadr are intense rivals, and that this rivalry dates back to the time when their fathers (Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim and Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr) vied for influence among Shias during the Ba'athist era.
They also note that in the Shia-dominated southern Iraq, the militias of Hakim (called Badr Brigades) and Sadr (called Mahdi army) have clashed occasionally.
Despite these differences, however, Sciri and Sadrists remain part of the ruling Shia bloc called the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), which also includes al-Daawa al-Islamiya (The Islamic Call) to which Maliki and his predecessor Ibrahim Jaafari belong.
Unlike Sicri, established in Tehran in 1982, and the older al-Daawa - outlawed by the Ba'athist regime - whose leaders went into exile in Iran during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, the Mahdi army lacks any historical linkage with Iran.
After Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr and two of his sons were shot dead by government agents in February 1999, his youngest son, Muqtada, went underground. He resurfaced after the downfall of Saddam Hussein four years later when Saddam city - a district in Baghdad home to nearly 2 million Shias -was renamed Sadr city.
Sadr's faction has strong backing among young, underprivileged, urban Shias who form the bulk of the Mahdi army. It controls a bloc of 30 parliamentarians and six ministries. So it will be an uphill task to isolate Sadrists.
Overall, the UIA remains committed to establishing an Islamic regime and was instrumental in the adoption of article two in the Iraqi constitution: "Islam is the official religion of the state and is a basic source of legislation: no law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam."
Moreover, the leaders of UIA constituents understand only too well that if they do not stay together they will end up suffering separately. In theological and hierarchical terms, Hakim, Sadr and other religious Shia leaders are duty bound to obey Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
In August 2004 there was a fortnight-long standoff between the 3,000 US marines and 1,500 Mahdi army militiamen when the marines tried to regain the Shia holy shrine of Imam Ali, where several hundred Mahdi militiamen were ensconced. It ended after a meeting between Sadr and Sistani on the latter's return from London following eye surgery. Sadr agreed to let Sistani's representatives take charge of the shrine while his militiamen and US marines left the city. (See page 547 of my book Secrets and Lies: the true story of the Iraq war.)
Following the parliamentary poll under the new constitution in December 2005, Jaafari was re-elected UIA leader, beating his rival by one vote. Even though he remained unacceptable to the Kurdish and Sunni MPs as well as Washington and London, he refused to step down. The ensuing crisis paralysed the government. Jaafari was unmoved. But when Sistani privately advised him to step down he did it instantly.
Sistani remains the single most important personality in Iraq today. He was the primary force behind the formation of the Shia-dominated UIA. And it was his endorsement of the UIA that gained it overwhelming popularity among Shias and turned it into the governing alliance.
Sistani refrains from interfering in day-to-day affairs of Iraq. Instead, he takes a public stand on such significant issues as the relationship with the occupying forces (he has refused to meet American or British officials), looting public and private property, and participating in elections and referendums.
"I want to see Iraq ruled by Iraqis and not by Americans," Sistani declared at the start of the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq. To achieve his aim, Sistani called on all believers to participate in the elections and referendums. Shias followed his call almost to the last voter. In the final analysis, therefore, it is Sistani, and Sistani alone, who counts. And he shows no sign of reversing his policy of rebuffing emissaries of the American or British government.