Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Don't Call It a Comeback?

As Swopa and Spencer have noted, Ayatollah al-Sistani appears to be ending his self-imposed exile from the realm of Iraqi politics - or is he?

According to certain sources cited by the New York Times, Sistani has given his blessing to the anti-Sadr political alliance that the Bush administration is trying to rig with certain interested Iraqi parties, as discussed below. Swopa, though, has his doubts. For one, the reporting relies on anonymous "Iraqi and Western officials" - so it is possible that some of these "revelations" might be more wishful thinking than an accurate representation of Sistani's position.

Also, as Swopa notes, there is a bit of a history for failing to correctly read the signals emanating from Sistani's camp:

Here's a tip right off the bat -- when "officials" (and particularly "Western officials") in Baghdad claim to be telling you the opinions of a house-bound and somewhat xenophobic cleric in Najaf, be suspicious. [...]

Sistani wouldn't ever let Americans believe they were getting away with something, then pull the prayer rug out from under them at the last minute by refusing to go along... um, aside from three years ago, when he single-handedly derailed U.S. plans to impose a heavily filtered form of "democracy" on Iraq, resulting in the current Shiite-dominated government.

Along these lines, Spencer has his doubts about whether or not Sistani would want to be so heavily implicated in a move that: (a) is not necessarily in line with Sistani's long term interests; and (b) doesn't exactly have an overwhelming likelihood of success. Says Spencer:

You might be surprised to learn I think this is fraught with peril for Sistani! The Bush administration -- certainly the Cheneyites -- are enthusiastic about the Hakim gambit because it clarifies matters for them. That is, everyone who's happy to be an occupation proxy is in the government and everyone who isn't is out. Hakim wants to kill a whole lot of Sunnis; the Bushies aren't going to need their arms twisted. Hakim, despite being Iran'd-up, has the virtue of not being Sadr -- and the Bushies are licking their chops for an anti-Sadr offensive after they're done with the Sunnis.

And here, of course, is where Sistani's interests diverge sharply from Bush's. Above all, for years, Sistani has pushed hard for Shiite political unity. Hakim is basically girding himself for a showdown with Sadr in the near future. Maybe Sistani has had it with Moqtada and wonders who will rid him of this meddlesome junior cleric. But Sadr is also far and away the most charismatic figure in Iraqi Shiite politics. There's no guarantee that Hakim can beat him, and if Sistani's fingerprints are all over the purge of the Sadrists, he's putting himself in jeopardy.

Spencer correctly identifies the key tension here: I suspect that, all things being equal, Sistani would rather Sadr be greatly diminished in terms of power and influence, or done away with for good. Sadr has proven to be brash, confrontational and less than obedient to Sistani's word. In many ways, Sadr's considerable street cred, and willingness to exact vengeance in the sectarian tit for tat, has served to push Sistani's more moderate voice into the background. SCIRI, Dawa and Sistani each recognize the threat to their respective power bases posed by Sadr's ascendancy.

On the other hand, though, would Sistani really sanction what will amount to a bloody rift in the Shiite community in Iraq - pitting the most charismatic figure, who boasts an enormous following, against an amalgamation of Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and US forces? Would he willingly sign on the dotted line of the deed to the house divided?

Perhaps, as a commenter at TAPPED mentioned, Iran may be placating Sistani's fears, and encouraging him in this direction, as well? Wonder what they'd be getting in return. Could the larger Shiite-tilt apparatus be revealing itself?

The plot, it thickens.

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