Sistani: Just What the Americans Ordered

Over on his excellent weblog “Informed Comment,” Prof. Juan Cole has already posted his boxscore for the three-week-old Najaf confrontation that is seemingly coming to a close through the intervention of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The losers: the Americans and their Iraqi interim government. The big winner: Sistani. And for Shia insurgent Muqtada al-Sadr it all was a “wash.”

I don’t quite see things that way. I think this is quite an excellent outcome for the American side, even the same sort of “divine intervention” for them that the remnants of the Mahdi Army hiding within the Imam Ali shrine (falsely) claim to be for themselves. True, I am no learned professor, and I don’t watch, hear, or read the Arabic press. (I did know Arabic in the past, but that was a while ago; that capability is now, let’s say, in remission.) But the following argument I offer for your comment and refutation.

TOO LATE FOR THE MAHDI ARMY

Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s intervention was indeed a “divine” one that has headed off confrontation with a cruel dilemma that previously seemed inevitable. But I’m not speaking here of Muqtada al-Sadr, or rather his “Mahdi Army” and the dilemma they were facing of being totally wiped-out in Najaf. That basically already happened; the confrontation around the Imam Ali shrine ultimately became little more than a “Mahdi Army hunt” for those remaining black-clad, weapons-toting fighters who were willing to stick their noses out of the shrine itself, where they knew they were safe – for a while. As was pointed out in a reference that I unfortunately have since lost, the Mahdi Army was basically comparable to the Crips or the Bloods, trying to take on the US Marines. Sure, the Crips and Bloods are both plenty bad, but the Marines and the 1st Cav are bad, too – and they have some powerful friends to call on from the air, with names like “Apache” and “Spooky” (the AC-130 gunship). Occasional news reports have spoken of Mahdi Army “sniper fire,” but I have to laugh at that: there’s no way that this spontaneous militia has either the trained personnel or the equipment for true sniper fire. Rather, that has been raining from the American side – read this excellent account (One Shot, One Kill) from Intel Dump – as Mahdi Army fighters don’t even dare show themselves on the streets anymore outside the mosque itself, day or night, for fear of being greeted with a .50-cal sniper round to the head from even a kilometer away.

Bottom line: the Americans control everything in Najaf up to the very walls of the Imam Ali mosque, and prospective future Mahdi Army volunteers have learned that making that commitment basically just creates a high-probability opportunity to get yourself killed. Unless you’re in the leadership, of course; for all his posturing about “defending Najaf to the last drop of my blood,” you certainly don’t see Muqtada al-Sadr there anymore inside the mosque. No, it’s rather “defending Najaf to the the last drop of his followers’ blood,” and you’d have to think that more and more of his followers now realize that.

A BLUFF FORESTALLED

The dilemma that has rather been headed off was the one the Americans were facing. They control everything up to the walls of the mosque, but naturally they were obliged to finish things off and take the mosque itself: the obligation was to demonstrate that when you tangle with the Americans, they will go all the way to dispose of you (a message that particularly needed to be demonstrated in view of the pull-back from completely subduing Fallujah). But that presented the Americans with the classic “dog-chases-car” problem: once you take the mosque, what do you do with it? Indeed, the problem was even more complicated than that, as infidel Americans don’t belong in that shrine, and they know they don’t belong there. Naturally, then, it was going to be Iraqi forces that would make the final assault into the mosque, if that ultimately were to become necessary. But it was by no means assured that the US disposed of a body of Iraqi troops sufficiently trained to do that job and willing to go in and kill fellow Iraqis, in a very holy place, to get it done. Imagine if it had turned out that they wouldn’t do it: what would the Americans do then, facing the need to eliminate resistance at the shrine for good, but also aware that Shi’ites around the world would not tolerate Americans actually going in there, nor of course damaging the mosque in any way?

There’s another reason why the Americans wanted to find a way to keep from having to go into the mosque, or even to have their Iraqi surrogates do that. In another weblog entry entitled Has the Shrine Been Looted?, Prof. Cole discusses the role of the Imam Ali shrine not only as a burial-place and mosque, but also as a museum of priceless articles of Muslim devotion. Those articles would hold the same potential for inflaming the Shi’ite world against infidel Americans as damage to the mosque itself would, were they to go missing in a situation that allowed any possibility that the Americans were responsible – or their Iraqi lackeys. In fact, the potential would be even greater to smear the Americans with the alleged crime of stealing these jewels, since they are hidden away within the mosque and no one can see what is happening to them, whereas the mosque complex itself stands out in public where there can be witnesses as to who perpetrates what damage. (For example, a hole has been put in one of its walls, but news reports claim that that was rather the result of a mis-firing RPG round fired from within the mosque than any munition coming from the outside.) Now neither the Americans nor their Iraqi surrogates have to go inside the mosque, so there is no chance of this – whereas, as the Washington Post recently reported, “Najaf’s police chief, Ghalib Hashim Jazaeri, said his officers had arrested leaders of the Mahdi Army carrying jewels and other treasures from the shrine.” Expect outrage at this sort of thing to widen, if/when the Imam Ali shrine is finally put back under its old management and a property inventory of the museum is taken. Indeed, Muqtada al-Sadr’s embarrassment over what such an inventory would reveal might very well turn out to be the prime reason why previous agreements he has made to vacate the shrine have fallen apart – and why the newest deal with the Ayatollah could still suffer the same fate.

Muqtada al-Sadr and his men: Thugs. Thieves of precious Muslim relics. Cowards who duck inside a holy building they know the enemy isn’t allowed to damage, thereby endangering the sacred property of hundreds of millions of world Muslims. Fools who have found out (those who are not dead) what it means to go up against US military forces. And led by someone who can talk a brave game about martyrdom, but who won’t “walk the talk” when it seems clear that martyrdom is what he is going to get. This is a “wash”?

A GRAND AYATOLLAH WE CAN WORK WITH

The Americans thought that they – or rather their surrogates – were close to having to rush the shrine, and they didn’t want to have to close their eyes, send in their Iraqi shock troops, and hope for the best. Grand Ayatollah Sistani, with his intervention (if the agreement with Muqtada al-Sadr to vacate holds), has saved them from that, and as a bonus has given them the good PR opportunity of pulling their mighty military machine back in a gesture of obedience to the ayatollah’s wishes. Ayatollah Sistani is indeed the big winner here, but that’s hardly a bad thing from the American point-of-view. The Ayatollah, with his views about the desirability of the establishment of a religious state in Iraq, is likely not the Americans’ number-one choice to put in the driver’s seat in determining the country’s political future. But clearly the Americans are now at the “we’ll take anyone we can get who is not too bad” stage, and Ayatollah Sistani is certainly good enough. Prof. Cole reports himself in his latest weblog entry that, while in London, the Ayatollah “rejected . . . vehemently” an overture to let Iran play a bigger role in Iraqi affairs. That’s certainly good. In fact, the main problem with Sistani up to now from the American point-of-view has not been his dislike of or resistance to the occupation forces – he has issued no “fatwa” calling upon Iraqis to fight them, for instance – but rather his very reluctance to engage in Iraqi politics in a way that would bring to bear his enormous religious and moral authority to contribute to the political re-building of the country. The long-term story out of the confrontation at the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf in August, 2004, might turn out to be that that was the incident by which, spurred to action by his horror at the real and potential damage to a key Muslim shrine for which he felt responsible as the country’s leading Shi’ite religious authority, he finally emerged from his political cocoon. This gathering up of thousands of followers for a march on Najaf was certainly a spectacular political act, one that probably most observers were surprised to find the ayatollah had it in himself to instigate, especially after rushing back to his country prematurely and against his doctors’ orders from surgery and recuperation at a London hospital.

The Ayatollah, then, not only saved the Americans from having to take the Imam Ali shrine, when they didn’t really want it, but also the greater political prominence he won by doing that should also be welcome to the Americans. After all, the Ayatollah is already known for the great importance he attaches to the elections in Iraq scheduled for next January, and that they actually be held when scheduled. This is not only a vote of confidence in those elections from a native political figure whose voice carries considerable weight; one can easily imagine those elections becoming the pretext (in a Kerry or even Bush II administration) for occupation forces to declare Iraq reconstructed politically, and so to leave. I’ve covered the question of how long Dutch troops are likely to stay in-country, and that is surely no more than March of next year. What’s more, the United Nations mandate for foreign troops occupying Iraq expires at the end of 2005. Those elections would therefore be a handy excuse for the Americans to leave as well, presumably on the condition that they are perceived as free and fair. Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s emphasis on them is yet one more reason why the Americans can work with him, as apparently can Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi, who flew to Basra to confer with him shortly after his return there.

Make no mistake: American forces have had a fine three weeks to pin down and massively kill foolhardy Shi’ite nasties in Najaf. But that confrontation was coming rather too close to a climax that seemed as inevitable as it was undesirable to the Americans and their allies. For the Marines there, the 7th cavalry regiment, etc., their own proverbial “seventh cavalry,” saving them at the last minute, arrived in the form of 75-year-old Grand Ayatollah Sistani.

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