The Blog

Is Sistani Promoting Attacks on Coalition Forces?

2:16 PM, May 23, 2008 • By BILL ROGGIO
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

With the Iraqi Army's push into Sadr City after Muqtada al Sadr blinked and cut a deal with the government, the narrative on failure in Iraq has shifted. The latest story from the Associated Press indicates that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has secretly issued fatwas, or religious edicts, to select individuals that would allow them to conduct attacks on Coalition forces.

So far, al-Sistani's fatwas have been limited to a handful of people. They also were issued verbally and in private - rather than a blanket proclamation to the general Shiite population - according to three prominent Shiite officials in regular contact with al-Sistani as well as two followers who received the edicts in Najaf.

All spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

While this certainly isn't beyond the realm of possibility, I have spoken to several US intelligence sources who think this is highly unlikely. The primary reason is that one of the groups cited in the article, the Jund al Marjaiyah, which means the Soldiers of the Religious Authorities or Army of the Marja, essentially serve as "the Shia version of the Swiss Guard for Sistani's religious circle." This means their purpose is to protect the religious sites and the senior leadership of Sistani's circle. If the Jund al Marjaiyah starts to conduct attacks on Coalition forces, this would invite reprisals and directly endanger the senior leadership and religious sites.

All of the sources believe the Associated Press may have been fooled by Sadrist members purporting to be close to Sistani. "It is not unheard for Iraqi Shiites to secretly claim Sistani's blessings," one source said. "We have seen Sadrists put words in Sistani's mouth," he added, noting that this happened when Sadrists claimed Sistani and other senior Shia clerics told Sadr to keep the Mahdi Army after Prime Minister Maliki ordered the Mahdi Army to disband.

The media often falls for this type of trick. Take this article today in the AP, where a monitor for the Sadr City ceasefire is saying the Iraqi Army is violating the truce and assaulting and mistreating Iraqis in the Mahdi Army stronghold. The AP cites Mohannad al Gharawi but does not tell you who he is. A quick search will tell you that Mohannad al Gharawi is a member of the Sadrist movement, which has a vested interest in making such claims.

Back to the Sistani piece, the Associate Press relies on none other than Juan Cole for analysis and predictions. Cole certainly takes the word of the AP's anonymous sources as gospel and predicts Sistani will organize an uprising. "'Al Sistani clearly will give a fatwa against the occupation by a year or two,' but he said it would be 'premature' for the cleric to do so now."

Cole has fallen flat on his face with predictions such as this in the past. Last year, Cole's coblogger Barnett Rubin predicted an imminent attack by the U.S. military against Iran, a prediction which Cole continued to insist was "perfectly accurate" some five months later. Of course, this never came to pass, and Cole is never held to account for his repeated failures to properly predict the course of events in an area in which he is purported to be an expert.

Finally, the article just flat out contradicts Sistani's role in Iraqi politics since the U.S. invasion in 2003. Sistani has repeatedly avoided interjecting himself into the political sphere. This is in line with his "quietist" approach to Islam. The quietist approach says that the form of government is not important to Shia Islam, just as long as the followers are free to practice their religion. The Iraqi government has sanctioned the presence of U.S. forces. There is no U.S. occupation government in the model of the Bremer viceroyship that existed for roughly the first year after the invasion, but an elected Iraqi government that Sistani has not opposed. So Sistani's secret edicts would go against his own teachings.

Sistani has kept silent during some of the most critical periods in recent Iraqi history, including when the sectarian violence was at its height and Iraq was in danger of breaking apart. It isn't impossible that Sistani has issued secretive fatwas to kill U.S. and Coalition forces, but with nothing but blind quotes to substantiate the report, it seems extremely unlikely.