Sistani Returns, Launches March
Sadrist Ceasefire Announced
Al-Hayat is reporting that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani defied his physicians’ advice and insisted on returning to Iraq midday on Wednesday. He landed in Kuwait and went overland to Basra, where he is staying at the home of prominent Shiite Ali Abdul Hakim.
Reuters says that Sistani’s aide Hayder al-Safi read out a statement by the grand ayatollah saying ‘ “We ask all believers to volunteer to go with us to Najaf . . . I have come for the sake of Najaf and I will stay in Najaf until the crisis ends.” ‘
The Scotsman writes that
Sistani crossed into Iraq in a convoy of sport utility vehicles. He had an escort of Iraqi police and national guardsmen, who had their sirens blaring. It says,
‘ After meeting with al-Sistani, Basra Governor Hassan al-Rashid told reporters that the cleric would lead a march to Najaf tomorrow . . . “The masses will gather at the outskirts of Najaf and they will not enter the city until all armed men, except the Iraqi policemen, withdraw from the city,” he said. ‘
If I read this aright, the Basra governor is talking like this.
Sistani will leave Basra for Najaf at 7 am Thursday morning Iraq time.
Sistani’s offices in London, Karbala and Beirut also announced that he was calling on Shiite civilians to mount a peace march to Najaf to save the shrine of Imam Ali. He also called on both Mahdi Army militiamen and American military forces to vacate the city. The Karbala communique, acquired by a German wire service, spoke of the need to “expel the Americans from Najaf.”
Al-Jazeerah is reporting that Sadr spokesman Aws Khafaji has announced a ceasefire by the Mahdi Army in honor of Sistani’s return, and to ensure his safe passage through the south to Najaf. The Mahdi Army has been fighting British troops fiercely in Basra, Kut, Amarah and elsewhere in the south.
Sadr spokesman Ahmad Shaibani announced that the Sadrists were entirely willing to obey any command of Sistani’s and would cooperate with him completely.
I am told that some middle class Shiites in Najaf are complaining that Sistani’s intervention may prevent the finishing off of the Mahdi militia, and that the idea of a march and a convergence on the city may in fact bring more Sadrists in. The Sadrists are not popular in largely middle class Najaf, being from the shantytowns of the southern cities in the main.
ABC is reporting that American-appointed Najaf governor Adnan al-Zurfi ‘ said Iraqi security forces had “taken all needed measures to prevent any crowds from entering the province,” calling it a “military area.” ‘ Al-Zurfi is probably bluffing, since it he doesn’t have that many men loyal to him, and none of them would fire on a peaceful crowd of Shiites led by Sistani. But if he does try to fire on the crowds, it could cause a lot of trouble. The Shah tried that sort of thing on Black September and it contributed to his overthrow.
Meanwhile, Australian Broadcasting is reporting that
‘ Tens of thousands from Baghdad and southern Iraq pledged to answer the Iranian-born ayatollah’s call to march on the besieged city of Najaf in a mission to resolve the crisis peacefully.
He was determined to “save Najaf,” the head of his London office Hamad al-Khaffaf told Al-Arabiya television, calling on all Iraqis to join the march . . .
Sadr supporters barricaded in the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf also greeted Sistani’s call with joy. “The situation is getting worse day by day and only God’s intervention can save us. And I think this march is a gift from God,” Mohammed al-Batat said.
A senior Shiite official said Sistani wanted all foreign troops and weapons out of the city and for Sadr’s Mehdi Army to leave the shrine and the city.
The Allawi government arrested Sadr aide Sheikh Ali Sumaisim, along with three other persons, charging him with possession of a Koranic antiquity and a large amount of dollars in cash (the implication is that he may have been involved in antiquities theft and trafficking from the Imam Ali shrine).
The US military continued to use tanks and warplanes to pound Mahdi Army positions near the shrine of Imam Ali, shattering its windows. Some damage has already been inflicted by the Americans on one of the compound walls. It is this sort of scene that horrifies Sistani.
US tanks had the shrine tightly surrounded.
A physician at the clinic of the shrine announced that at least 30 persons within had serious injuries that required their evacuation, and that he feared many more wounded were caught in nearby areas. In the last 24 hours, 6 bodies and 20 wounded had been brought to the clinic, he said.
Sistani’s return raises many questions. Note that he did not fly into American-controlled Baghdad but rather to Kuwait, traveling overland to Basra. Since Basra is in British hands, with a Shiite governor that seems pro-Sistani, it seems possible that Sistani’s people coordinated his return with the British and with the Basra authorities rather than with the United States and the Allawi government. Indeed, America’s most militant asset in Najaf, governor Ali al-Zurfi, seems dead set against Sistani returning with crowds this way. You have to wonder if the British MI6 and military are showing some insubordination toward the Americans by allowing all this, as a mark of their disapproval of the gung-ho Marine attacks in Najaf, which have caused trouble in the British-held South and endangered the British garrisons. Likewise, one wonders if Basra governor Hassan al-Rashid is entirely loyal to Allawi. A lot of southern Shiites would be pretty upset with the way Allawi and his two main henchmen, Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib and Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan have been reviving old Baathist stereotypes about the Shiites and pursuing iron fist policies in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.
If Sistani does lead a popular march of the sort the press is describing, it might be the most significant act of civil disobedience by an Asian religious leader since Gandhi’s salt march in British India. And it might kick off the beginning of the end of American Iraq, just as the salt march knelled the end of the British Indian empire.