Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Sistani in the Breach

Austin Bay posts an excellent piece up at  Strategy Page, and harkens back to 2004 to place breaking news in Iraq into context. Bay, something of a Multinational Force palace insider, recalls the circumstances of the “uprising” of the Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi militia:

August 2004: The Battle of Najaf was raging, with Shia radical Muqtada Sadr's rogue Mahdi militia turning Najaf's imposing Imam Ali Mosque into a fortress -- the equivalent of an Irish Republican Army terror faction using the Vatican as a bunker.

Bay describes a conversation he had with British Maj. Gen. Andrew Graham, deputy commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq, who was involved in the coalition's military response to Sadr and his militia’s two-week takeover of the Mosque. As Bay recalls, Graham emphasizes to Bay that Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Al-Sayid Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani was the key to neutralizing Sadr and promoting nascent democracy in Iraq.

An aside. Significantly, those who fret most over Sadr’s Mahdi Militia and Sadr’s political influence tend to downplay the significance of Sistani and his role in disarming Sadr and the situation back in 2004. As Bay recounts:

Within two weeks, Sistani helped engineer a withdrawal of Sadr's militia from the mosque. Tactically (and with little media fanfare), coalition military units had mauled Sadr's militia. Superficially, Sadr had "lived to fight another day." But the mosque wasn't rubble. Damage to the mosque was blamed on Sadr's militiamen. (Iraqi police also found pornographic magazines left by Sadr's men inside the mosque.) The people of Najaf greeted coalition troops as liberators.

Sistani's aides told Iraqi and coalition officers: "Let us deal with Sadr. We know how to handle him and will do so. However, the coalition must not make him a martyr."

I left Iraq with the impression that Sistani's plan for handling Sadr would be a python-like squeeze only an Iraqi insider would fully understand.

Bay assesses recent events and asks: “Has Sistani's python begun its final squeeze?”

Most notably, Bay sees the March 26th attack on a Mahdi militia facility in Baghdad as indicative of an unpublicized, Sistani-supported campaign against Sadr, using police and political forces of the Iraqi Interior Ministry.

Though not mentioned in his Strategy Page column, Bay includes mention of some recent public statements by Sistani in a post on his blog, noting that Sistani told Iraqi leaders to reach a compromise on selection of the Prime Minister. I saw these reports a few days ago too, but finding online sources proved a challenge, as none of the wire service or news sites I checked turned up anything.

Bill Roggio a few days back mentioned Sistani stepping forward into the deadlock on Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and quoted Kirk Sowell at Window on the Arab World. Sowell links to Al-Hayat (link in Arabic, I could not find an English language version), and conveys his sense of the report:

…the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has shifted ground and is advising (read: instructing) Iraq's largest party, the United Iraqi Alliance, to make unspecified concessions to the Sunnis in order to break the political gridlock and help form a government of national unity. The statement was issued through Abdul Mahdi al-Karbala'i, a key Sistani representative. The appeal was supported by Sadr al-Din al-Qabanji, the Imam of the Hussein Fatimid Mosque in Najaf, who urged Shia leaders to heed Sistani's call forthwith. Although unspecified, this probably means that PM-nominee Ibrahim Jaafari should be replaced by someone more acceptable to the Sunnis. Most ominously for the UIA, Sistani warned that he might withdraw his support for the coalition if its factions failed to agree to concessions necessary for a unity government.

(Emphasis Sowell’s)

Sistani came through at what seemed like a very critical moment on 2004, and it remains to be seen if he plays the deal-maker role in the deadlock over al-Jaafari.

Incidentally, in the course of searching for details on Sistani’s recent moves, I came across Sistani's English Language Website. This probably says volumes more about Sistani, than much of what’s reported in English language media. (The fact that he has an English language website, not any particular information found therein.)

Via Mudville Gazette)

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