Monday, September 04, 2006

Sistani Reaches for the Cistern

Ayatollah al-Sistani has announced that he is withdrawing from the political realm in Iraq, at the same time that the country is lurching toward a more intense civil war. This is not a good sign:

The most influential moderate Shia leader in Iraq has abandoned attempts to restrain his followers, admitting that there is nothing he can do to prevent the country sliding towards civil war. [...]

"I will not be a political leader any more," he told aides. "I am only happy to receive questions about religious matters."

Sistani's actions seem to be motivated by a combined sense of hopelessness at the increasingly violent and chaotic situation, frustration at being ignored by his putative followers and a desire to distance himself from impending catastrophe. Sistani is attempting to wash his hands of the entire affair:

Aides say Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is angry and disappointed that Shias are ignoring his calls for calm and are switching their allegiance in their thousands to more militant groups which promise protection from Sunni violence and revenge for attacks. [...]

Al-Sistani's aides say that he has chosen to stay silent rather than suffer the ignominy of being ignored. Ali al-Jaberi, a spokesman for the cleric in Khadamiyah, said that he was furious that his followers had turned away from him and ignored his calls for moderation.

Asked whether Ayatollah al-Sistani could prevent a civil war, Mr al-Jaberi replied: "Honestly, I think not. He is very angry, very disappointed."

It's hard to say what impact Sistani's decision will have since he was, in fact, being largely ignored for sometime regardless (as discussed here). Nevertheless, Sistani's vocal, turning-away from the political theater may serve to remove the few remaining restraints in place on rank and file Iraqi Shiites. That can't be a net positive.

At the very least, though, this announcement is significant as a symptom of the ongoing violence, and a gauge of the level of power that resides in the militias and firebrands like the Mahdi Army controlled by al-Sadr. When leaders like Sistani feel the need to throw up their hands and walk away, that should make us all a little nervous ("more nervous" I should say).

Just as the mass emigration of middle class, non-radicalized Iraqis bodes ill for the hope that a moderating middle might emerge to quell the cycle of civil war-related violence, so too does Sistani's disengagement prophesy a downward trajectory for the conflict. As I have said all along: "once the bullets start flying, and the bodies begin piling up, the voices of moderation are almost always drowned out by more bellicose calls." The article linked to above provides an up-close view of this phenomenon in action:

Hundreds of thousands of people have turned away from al-Sistani to the far more aggressive al-Sadr. Sabah Ali, 22, an engineering student at Baghdad University, said that he had switched allegiance after the murder of his brother by Sunni gunmen. "I went to Sistani asking for revenge for my brother," he said. "They said go to the police, they couldn't do anything.

"But even if the police arrest them, they will release them for money, because the police are bad people. So I went to the al-Sadr office. I told them about the terrorists' family. They said, 'Don't worry, we'll get revenge for your brother'. Two days later, Sadr's people had killed nine of the terrorists, so I felt I had revenge for my brother. I believe Sadr is the only one protecting the Shia against the terrorists."

Say what you will about Sadr, at least the trains revenge killings arrive on time. Adding insult to injury, the Iraqi government doesn't even appear to be paying Sistani the proper respect due a leader in his position:

Even the Iraqi army seems to have accepted that things have changed. First Lieut Jaffar al-Mayahi, an Iraqi National Guard officer, said many soldiers accepted that al-Sadr's Mehdi army was protecting Shias. "When they go to checkpoints and their vehicles are searched, they say they are Mehdi army and they are allowed through. But if we stop Sistani's people we sometimes arrest them and take away their weapons."

This last bit of handwriting has already been on the wall long enough to dry and crack. As I noted recently, Maliki has been quite vocal in condemning US military assaults on the Mahdi Army. The truth is, al-Sadr is a vital part of the ruling Iraqi government, and his militia is formidable in size, so it should be expected that such a government might be less than 100% committed to dismantling the Mahdi Army and alienating al-Sadr. This op-ed in the New York Times sketches out some of the details:

Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, has a problem. His power depends on two armies. One is Iraq’s national army, trained and supported by the United States. The other is the Mahdi Army, a radical Shiite militia loyal to Mr. Maliki’s most powerful political backer, Moktada al-Sadr. [...]

The underlying political reality is that Mr. Maliki owes his job to an alliance between his own Islamic Dawa Party and Mr. Sadr’s faction. [...]

Instead of standing up to take over the defense of Iraq, the Iraqi Army is in danger of crumbling. Now, government-backed Shiite militiamen have publicly killed Iraqi soldiers and fought an army unit to a humiliating draw. And Mr. Maliki still hasn't decided where his military loyalty lies.

I think in some ways, Maliki must be envious of the cleansing properties of Sistani's cistern, and the latter's ability to reach it at this juncture. Soon, I fear, "all great Neptune's ocean" won't suffice.

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