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:
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.