Sistani’s Trip to the UK
Fayyad Likely Successor
Ma`d Fayyad of Ash-Sharq al-Awsat reveals some of the background to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s trip to the UK. He says that it has been in the works for some time, and that British authorities knew about the plan for the ayatollah to come to London as early as two weeks ago. He says that there was fear that Muqtada al-Sadr would have Sistani taken hostage, or that he might seek refuge in the grand ayatollah’s house. (If those are the reasons for the trip, and if the British knew about it two weeks ago, that means that plans to come after Muqtada were made at least two weeks ago).
A source close to Sistan revealed to Fayyad that the grand ayatollah had been visited in Najaf by Agha Sulaimani, the special envoy of Iran’s Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei. Sulaimani heads the Quds Brigade, overseeing both the Palestine and the Hizbullah portfolios. He told Sistani he would be welcome to come to Tehran for treatment. And he asked if there was anything he could do for Sistani.
Sistani is said to have been annoyed, since he has long had bad relations with Iran’s hardline ruling ayatollahs. He told Sulaimani that the best gift Iran could give Iraq was to leave it alone and not intervene in its domestic affairs.
Sistani, of course, chose to go to London for treatment in any case. Fayyad says that Iran’s government is extremely offended by that choice, since it had offered Tehran’s medical facilities. Sistani wanted to go somewhere, however, where he would not be under any political pressure from the government. That ruled out the Gulf monarchies and Lebanon. Sistani feared that if he went to Beirut for treatment, his presence there might be used for political advantage by the radical Hizbullah party. Two of his predecessors, Muhsin al-Hakim and Abu al-Qasim Khoei, had also been treated in London.
Sistani was offered a US helicopter to leave Najaf, but he chose to go by taxi, and went the long way, by way of Diwaniyyah, a six-hour journey, for security reasons.
He saw his physician on Saturday for his heart problems.
Ash-Sharq al-Awsat’s sources also say that the most likely successor to Sistani as chief source of religious authority for Iraqi Shiites (and most other Shiites outside Iran) is Grand Ayatollah Ishaq Fayyad, 75, an Afghan with Pakistani citizenship. Fayyad has been in Iraq since his childhood, having come 65 years ago, and was particularly close to Abu al-Qasim Khoei, the chief authority 1970-1992 in Najaf. Indeed, Fayyad served as Khoei’s secretary, and wrote out most of the latter’s books longhand.
Fayyad is known as a moderate and a reformer, indeed “more reformist than the reformers.” He rejects Khomeini’s notion of the rule of the jurisprudent (wilayat al-faqih), which says that clerics must rule politically, i.e., must establish a theocracy. Fayyad’s rejection of the rule of the jurisprudent is even more vehement than that of Sistani, who admits it in the realm of “social issues” but does not desire a clerically dominated government. Fayyad seeks a separation of religion and day to day politics, in accordance with the Najaf tradition.
Since about 15% of Afghans are Shiite, and the Hazara Shiites are a factor in Afghan politics, if Fayyad ever did emerge as the leader of Iraqi Shiites in Najaf, he would be doubly important to Washington.