Sistani in Najaf Today
As I write very early Thursday morning, Sistani ‘s convoy had left Basra on its way to Najaf several hours to the north. Al-Jazeerah says his convoy is being accompanied by Iraqi police.
The Guardian’s Michael Howard scored a coup with an interview with Ayatollah Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum, who is close to Sistani and laid out his plan of action for Thursday.
‘ Mr Bahr Ul Uloum said the grand ayatollah would spend the night in Basra, before travelling to Najaf today, gathering supporters in the southern cities of Nassiriya, Samawa and Diwaniya. He said he and a delegation of tribal and religious leaders from Najaf and the surrounding region would meet the ayatollah and his supporters on the edge of the holy city and march with them to the shrine. “If the fighting is still going on, the ayatollah will call on everyone to put down their guns,” Mr Bahr Ul Uloum said. “Then he will go the holy shrine, pray, and receive the keys to the holy shrine.” After that the political process would take over to resolve “outstanding issues” between Mr Sadr and the interim government, he said. ‘
Al-Hayat reports that Sistani will put forward a 4-point plan: 1) An immediate ceasefire will be called; the Mahdi Army will leave Najaf and so will the American military, turning security over to the Iraqi police. 2) The shrine of Ali will be returned to the supervision of the Pious Endowments Board headed by Husain al-Shami. 3) Najaf will be declared a security (i.e. non-combat) zone. The source to whom the newspaper’s journalists spoke declined to reveal the fourth point.
Ash-Sharq al-Awsat says that Sayyid Muhammad Musawi, one of Sistani’s more important aides, warned the Americans against damaging or raiding the shrine of Ali (where Mahdi Army militiamen are holed up). He said that if the Americans behaved this way, it would provoke “general” (i.e. nation-wide) protests and result in a “very bad” situation. This is a threat that Sistani will bring out large urban crowds against the Americans if they do not back off. He can do it, so it is not an empty boast. And those panglossian American military planners who think they have 10 years to get things right in Iraq will find themselves tossed out summarily from the country.
Al-Zaman reports that a procession toward Najaf has already begun from the other Shiite holy city of Karbala, to the northwest of Najaf.
It also reports that Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has fully endorsed Sistani’s call for a march on Najaf. SCIRI is represented on the caretaker government by Finance Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi.
Ash-Sharq al-Awsat says that Muqtada al-Sadr has issued a communique also calling on Shiites to come to Najaf. The Sadrists will inevitably attempt to piggy-back on Sistani’s new activism. But since he is insisting that they leave the shrine, they are playing a weak hand.
The interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, dispatched two cabinet ministers to consult with Sistani. They are Minister of State Qassim Dawoud and Minister of Provincial Affairs, Judge Wael Abdul Latif.
The stakes here are enormous. If Iraqi police fire on the peaceful demonstrators again, or if US troops refuse to make way for Sistani, there could be a big social explosion in Iraq. If Sistani is successful in his plan, on the other hand, it will further increase his authority in the Shiite South and perhaps even transform him into a nationalist hero.
All this is important because Sistani is insisting on the January elections being held on time. If they are postponed he will almost certainly send his followers into the streets to protest, and could well bring down Allawi.