Hamza Hendawi and Qassim Abdul Zahra of AP get the scoop: Their sources in Najaf tell them that young Shiite men belonging to the “Troops of the Ayatollahs” (Jund al-Marja`iyyah) militia that protects the leading Shiite clerics in the Middle Euphrates have been imploring Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani for a fatwa or formal legal ruling about whether it is permissible to attack US and other foreign troops. Hendawi and Abdul Zahra report that whereas in the past Sistani had dodged the question or given a vague answer, in recent months he has begun verbally affirming to visitors that such attacks on foreign occupation troops are permissible.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki met with Sistani on Thursday to discuss the security situation. Maliki and a government spokesman tried to spin the grand ayatollah’s position as one of pure support for al-Maliki’s assault on the Mahdi Army. Al-Sharq al-Awsat writes in Arabic that Sistani’s brother-in-law, in Najaf, said that the Grand Ayatollah does not enter into details, but generally supports a rule of law and obedience to the government.
But Sistani’s representative in Karbala, Abdul Mahdi Karbala’i, had said last week that Sistani was opposed to al-Maliki’s attempt to disarm the Mahdi Army, and also opposed his threat to exclude the Sadr Movement from running for office in the forthcoming provincial elections. (Full quote at end– scroll down).
So, the questions are, “why” and “why now?”
I can only speculate, since Sistani isn’t issuing communiques that would explain what is on his mind. But let us look at the context.
First, Sistani was under a lot of pressure from his Shiite followers to denounce the US siege, blockade and aerial bombing of the civilian district of Sadr City in East Baghdad, which went on for weeks. People were actually lacking in food. And, apartment buildings were incinerated. The full horror of the siege was carefully kept from the American public, but the Shiites of Iraq knew about it all right. I think that the brutality of the US intervention against the Shiite masses, and the risk that his silence would produce a backlash against him in favor of Muqtada al-Sadr, may have helped impel Sistani toward this militancy. Aerial bombardment of civilian areas as a tactic has increased significantly this spring.
Americans tend to dismiss the aerial bombardments, in which civilians are often killed, as the cost of doing business in a war zone. But many Iraqis really, really mind these killings and you can only imagine what Sistani thinks of them. Likewise, while the incident of the US soldier using the Qur’an for firing practice only happened recently and wouldn’t be the impetus for Sistani’s new militancy, such desecrations have occurred before and the hatred of Islam by US military figures like Gen. Boykin is well known.
Second, as Steve Chapman points out, the American Right is clearly trying to get up a war on Iran by rather fantastically painting it as a “threat”. Sistani is an Iranian, born in Mashhad in 1930, who resided there until late 1951. He does not like the Khomeinist system of government. But since Sistani has seen what Bush’s tender mercies have done to Iraq, he must be alarmed by the idea that Washington might bestow the same “liberation” on his native land. Obviously, the US is in a worse position to attack Iran if it lacks Iraq as a base, and one way of forestalling Cheney’s mad bombers would be to try to force the US out of Iraq.
Third, PM Nuri al-Maliki has several times expressed the conviction that the Iraqi army could handle Iraq by the end of 2008. If he is telling Sistani that, and Sistani believes it, then the Grand Ayatollah may feel that there is increasingly no down side to multinational forces leaving Iraq. Al-Maliki’s campaigns in Basra, Sadr City and Mosul were probably intended as a demonstration that the Iraqi army can handle the country on its own. The intrepid Leila Fadil reports from Basra that al-Maliki has in fact achieved greater security and trade in Iraq’s ports through his Assault of the Knights operation. When al-Maliki and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim feel strong enough domestically, their first order of business will be to vastly reduce American military influence. They represent the Islamic Mission (Da`wa) Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (founded by Ayatollah Khomeini), after all. There is likely a limit to this marriage of convenience.
Sistani also follows American politics, and he knows that the US is transitioning away from Bush, so he may see an opportunity to push the new administration in a different direction.
I have all along believed that Sistani would ultimately issue a fatwa saying that it was illegitimate for there to continue to be foreign troops on Iraqi soil. I think he would have gone in that direction if Bush had not given in on the January, 2005, elections. But he had been concerned about a resurgence of the Baath, about the rise of the Salafi Jihadis (radical Sunnis, which are in my view mistakenly called ‘al-Qaeda’), and about the weakness of the Shiite government.
Ironically, the more success the Americans have in reducing sectarian violence and strengthening the Iraqi state, the more likely it is that Sistani will put his foot down about the foreign military presence.
This likelihood is one reason I find it difficult to take seriously the plans of the Pentagon and the American Right for a long-term US military presence in Iraq. I just don’t think the Shiites will put up with it. And, the constant bombardment of the small British contingent down at the Basra airport likely points to the fate of any division of US troops left in the country.
Those tempted to dismiss the possibility that a frail old man in Najaf can get up a social movement powerful enough to thwart US plans should read Michael Schwartz’s essay at Tomdispatch.com on the way Iraqi popular movements got in the way of the Project for a New American Century.
The American Right often tries to make an analogy between occupied Japan after WW II and occupied Iraq. It is a highly flawed analogy, as the prescient John Dower pointed out before the invasion. He pointed to the legitimacy of the US occupation of Japan, acknowledged by the world and by the Japanese. That is what the US lacks in Iraq. As long as Sistani does not give The Fatwa, Washington can go on pretending that it has that legitimacy. But it does not, and the fatwa, if and when it comes, will definitively declare the emperor to be without clothes. It would be as though Hirohito had called on Japanese to expel US troops. Can you imagine? And, the Japanese were afraid of the Soviet Union and China, which is one reason they put up with US bases in Okinawa. The Iraqi Shiites are not afraid of anyone in the region, and the American argument to them that they should be afraid of Iran (and that Washington will protect them from Tehran) just strikes them as silly.
Sistani’s web site says he was born in August of 1930, so he is 77. He is said not to be in great health. He may feel that the expulsion fatwa would be the crowning achievement of his career. Certainly, it would restore the respect for the grand ayatollah in the Shiite south, which has slipped as a resentful population has turned to the Sadr Movement.
Sistani’s two likely successors, the Afghan Ishaq Fayyad and the Pakistani Bashir Najafi, may have different views than Sistani on this matter. It is hard to know. I believe Ishaq Fayyad may be more pro-American, based on anecdotes I have from an eyewitness. In contrast, I know Najafi gave a sermon in which he bitterly attacked the US for having allowed the Shiites to be massacred by Saddam in spring of 1991, after Bush senior had called on the Iraqi people to rise up.
Sistani has all along expressed his discomfort with a foreign military occupation of Iraq. The first public statement he made after the fall of Saddam, which I paraphrased at that time at IC, went like this:
‘ *Al-Hayat for April 18  has an interview with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Najaf. It says that Sistani “affirmed his rejection of any foreign power after the war to which the country had been subjected.” His son Muhammad Rida Sistani conveyed from his father “his rejection of any foreign power that would rule Iraq, emphasizing that he himself would not interfere with the form of the national government that the Iraqi people choose to rule the land.” He said that his father is still in seclusion in Najaf. The son said his father’s conception of religious leadership was that it must soar above factions and parties. He denied that his father had been protected by US troops, saying there were local Shiite youth (i.e. the tribesmen) available for the purpose. He called for unity among all Muslims–Sunni and Shiite-and among all Iraqis. He said he read his father accounts of Shiites attacking Sunni mosques in mixed neighborhoods. Grand Ayatollah Sistani immediately denounced such acts as sinful and said they should be seen against his own framework of love for the Sunnis and giving donations for the building or rebuilding of their mosques. He said the Grand Ayatollah had regretted the loooting of libraries, and had said that “Iraqi is for the Iraqis. They must administer Iraq, and it is not for them to do so under any foreign power.” He ended by saying it had been the custom of the clerics of early last century to go to battle alongside their children against the British occupation. ‘
Sistani in that last bit was referring to the Iraqi Revolution of 1920 against British colonial rule, which was largely Shiite and some leaders of which were Shiite clerics such as Shaikh Mahdi al-Khalisi and members of the al-Sadr family (yes, those Sadrs). He was announcing, right from 2003, his willingness to lead a Shiite revolt if he thought it necessary.
Sistani also invoked the symbology of 1920 in winter 2004 when he was demanding that Bush hold open, one-person, one-vote elections in Iraq.
As for al-Maliki’s current conflict with the Mahdi Army, Al-Hayat reported (as translated by the USG Open Source Center and carried by BBC Monitoring on May 17):
‘ In a related development, Al-Ubaydi asserted, “all the religious authorities do not approve the dissolution of the Al-Mahdi Army; even Al-Sayyid al-Sistani does not approve”. He pointed out that “Muqtada al-Sadr does not make decisions except after consulting the religious authorities and taking their opinion. Moreover, the religious authority does not approve the exclusion of the Al-Sadr Trend from the political process or from any other process”. In his Friday sermon, Al-Sistani’s representative Shaykh Abd-al-Mahdi al-Karbala’i made a reference to this when he said, “The religious authority does not approve the exclusion of political components from the political process. This is very clear”. He went on to say that Al-Sayyid al-Sistani rejected the idea on which the government and the occupation are focusing; namely, disarmament because that is unacceptable in the current balances that exist. Other sides have armed militias within the sight and hearing of the state, such as “The Awakening”, “Al-Asayish” [Kurdish security force], and others. So why does the government focus on the Al-Mahdi Army? He added that some that are close to Al-Sistani’s office say that the Al-Mahdi Army constitutes a balancing stick regarding what is happening in Iraq. Even if the religious authority has reservations on some behaviour, it approves that very clearly. Moreover, Al-Sayyid al-Sistani personally told Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki indirectly during his first visit after assuming power that “The Al-Mahdi Army is your winning card on the political level. Do not lose this card”. ‘
But Sistani also had a counter-reading of 1920, which is that the revolt pushed the British to depend on Sunnis and so led to Shiites being marginalized for the rest of the century. He thought that if the Shiites could avoid a direct confrontation with the US, then eventually they would inherit Iraq from it. But that scenario depends on the US being willing to go quietly. If it isn’t, it may get The Fatwa.