Sistani rules, OK ?

As the pointless bloodbath in Najaf drags on, Ayatollah Sistani has finally returned from hospital treatment in London, and looks likely to be the only person to come out of this disaster with any credit[1]. His march on Najaf will, it seems likely, allow Sadr and the American-Allawi forces to reach the kind of face-saving compromise that has been the only possible outcome all along, apart from the disastrous option of an assault on the shrine and the martyrdom of Sadr.

Update #1 27/8 I’ve come across a useful piece by a former Senior Adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority, Larry Diamond, linked, with some interesting comments by Gary Farber Gives an account of the Coalition’s dealings with Sadr and other militias (minor snipe: Diamond uses “prevaricating” when he means “vacillating” to describe this).

Update #2 27/8 Like most people not actually on the scene who seek to be well-informed about Iraq, I’m indebted to Juan Cole for his informed comment and information on the situation. He’s just put up a post assessing the winners and losers from the Najaf situation which matches, almost point for point, what I posted yesterday. Of course, it carries a lot more weight coming from him than from me.

Of the other parties, the biggest losers have been the unfortunate people of Najaf. Dozens have been killed, hundreds injured and thousands left homeless. From all the reports, they (correctly) place part of the blame of the blame for this on Sadr but even more on the American forces. There have also been hundreds more casualties in other towns where the fighting has spread. All of this because someone in the US command decided that this would be a good time to eliminate Sadr and his militia.

The other big losers are the Coalition forces and everyone (including most readers of this blog) represented, willingly or not, by those forces. The Shi’ite world has been outraged by the fighting, and large parts of Southern Iraq are now in the same ‘no-go zone’ state that already characterized the Sunni section of the country. If we avoid a Shiite version of Al-Qaeda, it will be by the good graces of people like Sadr, who continues to denounce terrorism as un-Islamic (while being happy to engage in common-or-garden political thuggery).

Meanwhile, Coalition forces are still boasting about the hundreds of Sadrists they have killed. Perhaps they haven’t noticed that the people they have killed (mostly unemployed young men who have gained nothing from the invasion) all have brothers and cousins, bound in honour to avenge them, not to mention friends eager to share in their glory.

The Allawi government has also lost a lot of ground. Domestically, the alternating bravado and backdowns of the past few week have eroded what support it began with. Meanwhile, its habit of dealing with journalists by rounding them up at gunpoint has guaranteed a hostile press. A straw in the wind is the refusal of the British Labour Party conference to countenance a visit by Allawi, pushed hard by Blair.

Moqtada Sadr has also lost ground on balance, and will lose more if Sistani is seen to be the successful peacemaker. Still he defied the Americans for weeks on end, and looks likely to live to tell the tale. Among his core constituency this will count as a win.

It’s increasingly obvious that the Coalition should have held interim elections at the earliest opportunity using ration books for an electoral roll. Almost certainly, Sistani’s supporters would have won. If the elections planned for January 2005 go ahead, the same outcome will probably be achieved, with a delay of more than a year, and a loss of thousands of lives.

A Sistani-dominated government would be Islamist, but not in the Khomeini theocratic mould. It wouldn’t be liberal in any sense, but it’s by far the best option that has any chance of coming to pass at this point. The alternatives include an authoritarian regimes headed by Allawi, Sadr or someone similar, or a descent into outright chaos.

fn1. There have been some suggestions that Sistani’s health was fine, and that the trip to London was based on inside information, and a desire to be away from Najaf when the balloon went up. If correct, these suggestions given Sistani fewer points for moral credit, but even more for political judgement than my analysis, based on the assumption that his health problems were genuine.

4 thoughts on “Sistani rules, OK ?

  1. The footnote seems to mean that if Sistani wasn’t really sick, he must have gone to London in order to dissociate himself from both Sadr and the Americans, cement his credentials as an independent peace broker, and improve his standing relative to Sadr’s. But this would only work if the shiites in general disapprove of Sadr’s resistance or at least his methods. Is there any basis for assuming that’s the case?

  2. Sadr is a minor Shi’ite cleric, he should be background noise based on his age and traditional support base. The US crack-down on him and his seizing of the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf have seen his support among Iraqis go from single digits to 30%+. So, he is not the most popular Shi’ite leader, but he is clearly a contender for Sistani’s role should something happen to Sistani.

    His Mahdi Army is very unpopular in Najaf itself, as its a middle class town and the fighters are urban poor from other towns (mostly). Think, western suburb gangs hanging out at Double Bay or Camberwell.

    If Sistani was actually sick then things have fallen together very well for him. If he wasnt sick, then its machiavellian brilliance.

    Allawi launched an attack on Sadr which is very unpopular among Shi’ites, though not in Najaf – as above. So it looks like Allawi was only willing to attack with Sistani out of the country (Allawi looks a coward, Sistani is the defender of Shi’ism). The US Marines go in all gung-ho and slaughter dozens (making the US even less legitimate to Iraqis and making the British forces position in southern Iraq less tenable).

    Sistani then flies back into Kuwait (shuns Baghdad and Allawi), drives into Basra and collects a human wave to march to Najaf (Sistani’s popular, and getting passive British support?). Now, it appears he is going to save Sadr (Sadr needs helping) and defuse the situation (Sistani saves Imam Ali mosque).

    This is probably the turning point. A Sistani led theocratic council will rule Iraq at some point, with maybe international troops keeping the peace in the Sunni triangle and around Kurdish areas.

  3. This from an article in the UK Telegraph about
    the deteriorating situation in Basra (

    “The justice system is in danger of collapsing in the city with defendants coming to court armed with rifles and grenade launchers and threatening to kill judges. Written and signed death threats have been delivered.”

    What does it say about a society when death
    threats don’t even have to be anonymous? And this
    is the situation *before* the Najaf veterans
    come back home with their war stories.

    And the Americans appear to be launching another
    offensive in Fallujah. They enjoyed the last
    one so much that they want to do it again??

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