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As dday and others noted recently, El Numero Uno Shiite cleric in Iraq has finally become disquieted by the enduring American presence in his country.

Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric has been quietly issuing religious edicts declaring that armed resistance against U.S.-led foreign troops is permissible — a potentially significant shift by a key supporter of the Washington-backed government in Baghdad.

The edicts, or fatwas, by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani suggest he seeks to sharpen his long-held opposition to American troops and counter the populist appeal of his main rivals, firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia.

But — unlike al-Sadr's anti-American broadsides — the Iranian-born al-Sistani has displayed extreme caution with anything that could imperil the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The two met Thursday at the elderly cleric's base in the city of Najaf south of Baghdad.

So far, al-Sistani's fatwas have been limited to a handful of people. They also were issued verbally and in private — rather than a blanket proclamation to the general Shiite population — according to three prominent Shiite officials in regular contact with al-Sistani as well as two followers who received the edicts in Najaf...

...A longtime official at al-Sistani's office in Najaf would not deny or confirm the edicts issued in private, but hinted that a publicized call for jihad may come later.

It appears that the Shiite factions in Iraq are coalescing in ways not good for American troops and the occupation.  Sistani is probably more naturally allied with Maliki, but it has been evident that Sadr and Sistani do not want to alienate one another, first when Sadr proclaimed that his willingness to obey Maliki’s demand to disband the Mahdi army depended on Sistani’s approval, which was not forthcoming, and now as we see Sistani moving a significant step toward Sadr’s position of a more muscular opposition to the US presence in Iraq.  Once again, Maliki and Sadr have also negotiated a new peaceful solution to the American problem of Sadr City insurgents, a solution that does not involve the presence of US soldiers in Sadr City, a solution that also does not require disarming.

As you recall, the US-backed al-Maliki government previously led a doomed offensive against al-Sadr’s Mahdi army, resulting in the Iranians mercifully negotiating a truce.

The deal would allow the sides to pull back from what was becoming a messy and unpopular showdown in the months leading up to crucial provincial elections. It is not clear who won, how long it would take for the truce to take effect or how long it would hold. But at least for now it would end the warfare among Shiite factions.

The Iranians helped end the standoff by throwing their weight behind the government after a delegation of Shiite members of Parliament visited Iran earlier this month, according to three people involved in negotiating the truce...

The visit to Iran by members of Parliament had been cited by the Americans as the first Iraqi effort to confront Iran with evidence of its training, financing and arming of Shiite militias in Iraq. But the trip evolved into a sophisticated political maneuver that could help the Iraqis out of a situation that was taking a rising toll on the country’s political stability.

The members of Parliament asked Iran to lean on the Shiite militias they have influence with, said Ali Adeeb, a Parliament member from Mr. Maliki’s Dawa Party who was part of the delegation. "They said the better way to deal with the Sadrists is by negotiation; don’t fight them and don’t use force."


Unnamed American sources always claim Iranians are the trouble-makers in Iraq.  Using unnamed American officials usually means two things: (1) the reporter is being used (2) to channel bullshit.  By the time we get to a named source going on record, we find out just the opposite is true, that the Iranians are negotiating truces and advocating non-violence.  

What seems to be happening is that the Shiites, Sistani, Sadr, Maliki, and their Iranian interlocutors have come to a general understanding that non-violent, negotiated outcomes between Shiites are in the best interests of Shiites under the current occupation.  If this understanding holds AND there is growing agreement between Sistani and Sadr that the US presence will not be tolerated, this is hardly the tentative success of US-backed Maliki as recently proffered by NYT’s Michael Gordon, on the front page, of course.  

God forbid that Shiites should coalesce into violent jihad against the US, because the US military is not in the optimal position to exit gracefully under fire, at all.  

The good news is that Sistani and Sadr are by no means interested in any blood baths, American or otherwise.  I think Swopa’s interpretation of these events is spot on and perfectly measured:

What, you've never seen an 80-year-old man in robes walk a tightrope before?

I don't think this news story is a move to "counter the populist appeal" of Sadr, as the AP story and some blogger commentaries have theorized -- if Sistani wants to burnish his anti-occupation street cred with the Iraqi people, I doubt he'll do it through anonymous leaks to the Associated Press. Instead, it seems more logical that he's trying to signal to an American audience (namely, the Bushites) not to push their luck too far with regard to Sadr.

And it's probably a signal he wants the Sadrists to notice, as an "I've got your back" gesture to help grease their current truce with the Maliki government... all in service of keeping Iraq's Shiite factions, if not on the same page, at least not outwardly at each other's throats. Which, of course, has been Ayatollah Sistani's primary goal for almost as long as there's been an occupation to oppose.

A President who cared at all about the welfare of the American military wouldn’t wait to be formally uninvited from this party.  Now is the time to negotiate the American withdrawal.

Originally posted to Compound F on Fri May 23, 2008 at 06:06 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  If Bush truly wanted a peaceful Iraq, (12+ / 0-)

    he could certainly leverage this opportunity to negotiate certain outcomes.  Of course, neither he nor most Democrats for that matter care about Iraqis and the US military more than they do about all that black gold, especially at today's prices!  I mean really.

    We don't have time for short-term thinking.

    by Compound F on Fri May 23, 2008 at 06:08:57 PM PDT

  •  Sometimes I think we could "win" (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Compound F, cacamp

    most readily by leaving.  At least in Baghdad, and maybe south of there.  Allah knows about the rest of the fragmented place that was Iraq.

    Democrats give you the Bill of Rights; Republicans sell you a bill of goods!

    by barbwires on Fri May 23, 2008 at 06:45:58 PM PDT

  •  Ali Sistani held Iraq together by his fingertips (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Compound F, Fiona West

    for years, while the foreign Sunni jihadists did everything they could to provoke a civil war.  In the face of slaughters of Shiites, he spoke out against revenge.  And it worked...until the Golden Mosque bombing.  He was the anti-Sadr, and now the Badr Brigades and the Mahdi Army are going to team up.

    This is somebody who, at the beginning of the war, commanded the loyalty of 80% of Iraq's Shiites, and who can still be said to lay claim to half.

    A whole lot more American troops are going to die now.   Decent, honorable, brave men who deserve better than this.

    This is effing bad.  Sistani, the preacher of quietism.  Shit.

    •  it's not a good sign for the troops. (2+ / 0-)

      It's not a success for Bush or Maliki-as-Bush-puppet.  However, it is clearly not a call for all out jihad, either.  It is a signal of solidarity to all concerned.

      We don't have time for short-term thinking.

      by Compound F on Fri May 23, 2008 at 07:04:43 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  It's a last chance (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Compound F

        I think we can cut a deal with these people, probably a pretty good one.  They're not al Qaeda, they're not the Baathists under Saddam.

        Unless the point of our policy there is to stay.

        •  cut a deal to leave? hell yes. (2+ / 0-)

          the majority Shiites would be on board for a safe withdrawal of US troops.  Our Sunni dictator friends and their friends in Iraq, not so much, I think.  Prior to the invasion, Iraqi society worked okay with respect to mixed sectarian neighborhoods previously.  Many Iraqis are also nationalists.  Right now, the Sunnis are minority and have squat for oil.  Is it inconceivable that Sadr, maliki, and Sistani would bargain away some oil rights to Sunnis in exchange for a peaceful and soon-to-be wealthy and rebuilt society?

          We don't have time for short-term thinking.

          by Compound F on Fri May 23, 2008 at 07:40:29 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  We have to use withdrawal as a tool (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Compound F

            to get to a political solution.  The announcement, the renunciation of permanent bases and oil concessions, the discussion of timelines, the actual removal of American troops and handovers to the locals, the removal of American checkpoints - these are powerful inducements at our disposal, that we can use to change the political situation.

            As opposed to now, when our presence has gotten even Sistani to take up the call for resistance to the Americans and side with al Sadr.  That Bush, he's a uniter, not a divider.

  •  George Bush and Dick Cheney (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    truong son traveler, Compound F

    wouldn't accept either truce or negotiation with Iraqi's Shiite-led resistance movements. For them such a move is equal to a declaration of surrender. They would let the US troop become a target of the resistance military onslaughts because that's the only way to reawaken the nationalistic sentiment back home.

    Bush and Cheney have calculated that the Reps will not win the 2008 Presidential election and the Dems will held the majority in the Congress. By letting the quagmire in Iraq with a high probability of casualties among American troops, they would mobilize support to vilify the new Dems President who, it seems, would try to stop the war by unilaterally withdraw the troops from Iraq. In this situation, Bush and Cheney see that the nationalistic sentiment fomented by religious fervor and neo cons punditry could potentially embarrass the Dems and re-energize the Reps to reassert itself in the political arena.

    This political calculation might work if the new govt under the Democrat President is not decisive and fast enough in pulling out the troops once he's in power.  The current situation in Iraq shows that the Shiite competing groups have seen the possibility of reaching some kind of united resistance against American occupation. If that happens, more blood will be spilled in Iraq and the American political and military involvement would be more difficult to disentangle.

  •  Great diary with good insights (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    truong son traveler, Compound F

    Juan cole also gave his take on this situation today.

    moderation in everything ... including moderation

    by C Barr on Fri May 23, 2008 at 08:03:41 PM PDT

  •  good analysis, Compound F (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Compound F

    One of the defining issues for two years has been that Maliki has virtually no base of political support. He's tried any number of ways to build one, essentially by coalition building, but the coalitions have fallen apart forcing him to scrounge around for replacement partners. The weaker he gets, the more desperate his attempts to create a base of support he can keep in line.

    Maliki depends ultimately on US backing and has very little else going for him. Naturally he resents that and chafes under it. I believe that Sistani wants to nudge Maliki in the direction of finding a modus vivendi with powerful Shiite factions, which would mean in the medium term that Maliki can break free of US support. Sistani has been backing Sadr at least as far as blocking attempts by Maliki to marginalize Sadr or eject him from the political scene. Sistani seems to be saying that Maliki is going to have to work with Sadr.

    •  Juan Cole reminds us: (0+ / 0-)

      of Sistani's consistency on several issues:

      ' *Al-Hayat for April 18 [2003] has an interview with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Najaf. It says that Sistani "affirmed his rejection of any foreign power after the war to which the country had been subjected." His son Muhammad Rida Sistani conveyed from his father "his rejection of any foreign power that would rule Iraq, emphasizing that he himself would not interfere with the form of the national government that the Iraqi people choose to rule the land." He said that his father is still in seclusion in Najaf. The son said his father's conception of religious leadership was that it must soar above factions and parties. He denied that his father had been protected by US troops, saying there were local Shiite youth (i.e. the tribesmen) available for the purpose. He called for unity among all Muslims--Sunni and Shiite-and among all Iraqis. He said he read his father accounts of Shiites attacking Sunni mosques in mixed neighborhoods. Grand Ayatollah Sistani immediately denounced such acts as sinful and said they should be seen against his own framework of love for the Sunnis and giving donations for the building or rebuilding of their mosques. He said the Grand Ayatollah had regretted the looting of libraries, and had said that "Iraqi is for the Iraqis. They must administer Iraq, and it is not for them to do so under any foreign power." He ended by saying it had been the custom of the clerics of early last century to go to battle alongside their children against the British occupation. '

      We don't have time for short-term thinking.

      by Compound F on Fri May 23, 2008 at 08:36:44 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Top notch diary Compound F (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Compound F


    "Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control people..." Henry Kissinger

    by truong son traveler on Fri May 23, 2008 at 08:26:42 PM PDT

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