Sistani Rejects New Sunni Shiite

Sistani Rejects New Sunni-Shiite Coalition
6 Dead in Samawa Clashes
47 Bodies in Baghdad

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has rejected a plan for a new coalition in the Iraqi parliament that would ally the Shiite Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq with the Sunni Arab Iraqi Islamic Party and the Kurdistan Alliance. The plan aimed at isolating the 32 Sadrist members of parliament and depriving them of the ability to bring down the prime minister. The Sadrists follow young Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army paramilitary has emerged as a major security threat to Baghdad.

A delegation of mainly Da`wa Party members went to the Grand Ayatollah about the plan, floated by friendly rival SCIRI. Sistani rejected the plan on the grounds that it would split the Shiite majority. A coalition of Sunni Arab fundamentalists and Kurds with SCIRI would reduce the Shiites to junior partners in the government and allow the Kurds (also Sunnis) and the Sunni Arabs to dictate policy to them. Shiites are 60 percent of Iraqis, and Sistani is insistent that their majoritarian position be recognized and they receive the consequent power and influence.

Sistani’s rejection of the plan, however, essentially continues to empower the Sadrists, who were let into the Shiite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, about a year ago and who thereby gained pivotal power within it, going on to help elect the prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki. Sistani seems more worried about Shiite-on-Shiite violence and political rivalry than he is about Shiite conflicts with Sunnis.

Negotiations between the UIA and Sadrist deputies about coming back in to an active role in the alliance and in parliament proved inconclusive on Saturday, according to al-Sharq al-Awsat in Arabic. One stumbling block is that the Sadrists want a timetable to be set for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, whereas the top leaders of the UIA are reluctant to press the US on this front. The Sadrists had suspended their participation because of PM al-Maliki’s recent meeting with Bush.

Sistani’s veto puts Abdul Aziz al-Hakim in a difficult position. He is a relatively junior cleric and mainly a politician, and does not have the standing openly to repudiate a ruling from Sistani. On the other hand, Sistani depends heavily for his security on the Badr Corps of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which al-Hakim leads. Still and all, it would be a major change in power dynamics in Iraqi religious politics if al-Hakim defied Sistani on this matter. He would risk losing face if a significant number of UIA MPs declined to join him in this defiance.

Update: More on this story in Arabic in al-Sharq al-Awsat for Monday

Al-Hakim seems to be blinking, since on Saturday a SCIRI spokesman said that the allegation that SCIRI wanted to sideline the Sadrists was untrue and a mere rumor.

A propos of the dangers of Shiite-on-Shiite violence, fighting has erupted in Samawa between Sadrists and local police (dominated by the Badr Corps). The clashes left at least 6 dead on Saturday. The NYT says that Sadrists are claiming that 12 of their number have been killed in the clashes, along with 6 others, including police.

Sabrina Tavernise at the NYT chronicles how Shiites are taking over once-mixed districts of Baghdad. They are riposting after a Sunni push to take the city in 2004 and 2005. Some 10 formerly mixed districts are now largely or wholly Shiite.

McClatchy reports that on Saturday, police found 47 bodies in Baghdad, and guerrillas set off 3 bombs in the capital. One of the blasts killed 2 Iraqi soldiers.

In Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, fighting has raged for several days in the town of al-Sa’ida al-Kabira between Sunni Arab guerrillas and local police. McClatchy says, “Police said recent attacks against the city claimed the lives of 5 Iraqi citizens, including one policeman. Residents said the violence has increased today as 14 shops were set to fire and increased numbers of kidnappings in the city and its outskirts.”

[Ar.] 450 Iraqi pilgrims trapped at Basra airport have now gone on strike there. They had hoped to fly to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage, but faced constant delays.

It is too soon for the Iraq newspapers to have responses to the UN Security Council’s sanctions on Iran. Will report on that on Monday.