Thursday, May 22, 2008

Better Make Those Flowers and Candies "To Go"

Wow. This is pretty big news (via the indefatigable Cernig):

Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric has been quietly issuing religious edicts declaring that armed resistance against U.S.-led foreign troops is permissible — a potentially significant shift by a key supporter of the Washington-backed government in Baghdad.

The edicts, or fatwas, by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani suggest he seeks to sharpen his long-held opposition to American troops and counter the populist appeal of his main rivals...Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia.

But — unlike al-Sadr's anti-American broadsides — the Iranian-born al-Sistani has displayed extreme caution with anything that could imperil the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. [...]

In the past, al-Sistani has avoided answering even abstract questions on whether fighting the U.S. presence in Iraq is allowed by Islam. Such questions sent to his Web site — which he uses to respond to followers' queries — have been ignored. All visitors to his office who had asked the question received a vague response.

The subtle shift could point to his growing impatience with the continued American presence more than five years after the U.S.-led invasion.

It also underlines possible opposition to any agreement by Baghdad to allow a long-term U.S. military foothold in Iraq — part a deal that is currently under negotiation and could be signed as early as July. [...]

Al-Sistani's distaste for the U.S. presence is no secret. In his public fatwas on his Web site, he blames Washington for many of Iraq's woes.

But a more aggressive tone from the cleric could have worrisome ripples through Iraq's Shiite majority — 65 percent of the country's estimated 27 million population — in which many followers are swayed by his every word.

A longtime official at al-Sistani's office in Najaf would not deny or confirm the edicts issued in private, but hinted that a publicized call for jihad may come later.

"(Al-Sistani) rejects the American presence," he told the AP, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment to media. "He believes they (the Americans) will at the end pay a heavy price for the damage they inflicted on Iraq."

Yeah, those permanent bases, that 100 year slumber party...we might want to consider a change of plans. Opposition from both Sadr and Sistani is deal breaker territory - especially when you throw in a good portion of the Sunni population as well.

Now Sistani is old, and reportedly infirmed, but I wouldn't bank on his successor changing that tune. Consider this: Sistani is moving in this direction, at least partially, because of public sentiment and Sadr's ability to capitalize on his anti-American stance. Opposing the American presence is popular. That's not going to change any time soon.

Sistani also expressed his gratitude for the toppling of Saddam:

"Changing the tyrannical (Saddam Hussein) regime by invasion and occupation was not what we wished for because of the many tragedies they have created," al-Sistani said in reply to a question on his Web site.

"We are extremely worried about their intentions," he wrote in response to another question on his views about the U.S. military presence.

Or not. Back to Sadr:

In perhaps another sign of al-Sistani's hardened position, he has opposed disarming the Mahdi Army as demanded by al-Maliki, according to Shiite officials close to the cleric.

Disarming the Mahdi Army would — in the views of many Shiites — leave them vulnerable to attacks by armed Sunni factions that are steadily gaining strength after joining the U.S. military fight against al-Qaida.

Guess he's trying to repair the hit he took when he refused to condem the bloody assault on Sadr City. Cernig makes a very good point as well:

Sadr now has a free hand from Sistani as long as he plays nice with Maliki.

I think that's right, and Sadr is acting on it. Recent reports of the Iraqi government's increased presence in Sadr City - and the warm reception offered by the locals - is being misinterpreted by all the usual suspects (Sadr's dead! Again!). The assualt on Sadr City certainly strengthened Sadr vis-a-vis Sistani, as described above and predicted in this post. The willingness to allow government troops into Sadr City is consistent with the terms of the truce, especially because the tradeoff is supposed to be less US military presence.

Further, Sadr has been very deliberate in his rhetoric as of late to make clear that the Sadrist current is resisting the occupation, and does not wish to fight the Iraqi government. So welcoming Iraqi government troops makes sense (as long as those troops abide by their end of the truce's bargain and don't indiscriminately target and/or arrest Sadrists).

As Cernig mentioned, this position fits well within the religious guidance issued by Sistani. We should really be making our way to the exits.

Matt Duss is also on the beat.

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