The Ayatollah Who Spared Najaf

At yesterday’s military briefing in Qatar, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks announced that the leading Shiite cleric in Najaf, Grand Ayatollah Ali Husayni Sistani, had issued a fatwa calling on the city’s inhabitants to remain calm and not to interfere with U.S. forces. “We believe this is a very significant turning point and another indicator that the Iraqi regime is approaching its end,” Brooks told reporters. (Whether Sistani issued a fatwa or statement seems to be in dispute. His office in Iran announced to news outlets that it could not confirm American claims of a fatwa, which Al-Jazeera promptly turned into a denial. It doesn’t matter now: Ayatollah Sistani achieved precisely the effect he desired, which was to spare Najaf a vicious battle.)

Back in the fall, and then more recently, Iraqi media released various statements and fatwas attributed to Sistani, in which he supported the regime. On Tuesday, one dubious “expert” cited these as evidence that the Shiites were “resolved to resist” the coalition, because of “their loyalty to Iraq.” In fact, the next day the 101st Airborne entered Najaf in a triumphal march. Inhabitants later swarmed over a huge equestrian statue of Saddam in the center of the city, toppled by American sappers.

The fact is that Saddam’s regime bled Najaf dry, killing off its flower, and it’s a city built upon the memory of martyrs. Ayatollah Sistani’s apparent reversal, and the glee of many of Najaf’s inhabitants, is indeed an indicator that Saddam’s last-ditch appeals for jihad are set to fail, at least among Shiites. (All this with the caveat that no harm is done to the golden-domed shrine-tomb of the Imam Ali, the religious centerpiece of Najaf, where some Saddam loyalists have taken refuge.)

When the 101st Airborne entered Najaf, one Lt.-Col. Chris Hughes paid his respects to Sistani through intermediaries, assuring him that American forces did not intend to harm the Shiites or their holy places. According to Hughes, Sistani asked for American protection, but a crowd stood down the detail, fearing that U.S. troops intended to move on the shrine-tomb. Hughes got the impression that Sistani was overwhelmed by the situation: “He’s kind of in shock as to really how to handle the responsibility of everybody looking up to him, asking him advice.”

That’s unlikely. In fact, Ayatollah Sistani’s function is to hand out advice—just not on politics, about which he’s had to be extremely guarded. Now people are going to look to him for political guidance, and what he says will matter.

Sistani is unquestionably a leading authority in Shiite Islam, and one of perhaps half a dozen clerics in the Shiite world to whom believers turn with complex questions of Islamic law and practice. He is from Mashhad in Iran, but he was also schooled in Qom and Najaf. While he presides over a key seminary in Najaf, he has offices in Qom, Mashhad, Damascus, and London, a considerable following in the Gulf countries and South Asia, and a representative in New York. (That cleric, who supports the war, met with Mayor Bloomberg on Friday.)

Sistani’s followers offer him a fixed part of their earnings, which he spends for educational and charitable purposes. Sistani’s office claims he supports 35,000 students in Qom, 10,000 in Mashhad, and 4,000 in Isfahan. He himself has lived very modestly near the tomb-shrine in Najaf—for years, under the close supervision of Iraqi intelligence agents, who’ve now fled. (Click here for a video clip of Sistani, apparently at home in Najaf. Pull up a mattress.)

Ayatollah Sistani now is in a delicate position. For Najaf, the removal and eradication of the Baath regime is a blessing. It offers the prospect of a revival of Najaf as a place of learning, pilgrimage, and creative thought. Sistani leans toward an enlightened pragmatism. His first priority has been protection of the shrine and the seminary, come what may. But Sistani’s overseas network incorporates a good number of clerics, including many in Lebanon, who regard the United States as the incarnation of the anti-Islam. These people will be looking to establish a strong base under Sistani’s umbrella, and they will do everything to turn Iraq’s Shiites against the American presence.

Ayatollah Sistani is someone who warrants an overture at the highest political level, and at the earliest opportunity. At the same time, it would be prudent to omit his name from future briefings in Qatar, and to work quietly and behind the scenes to assure his neutrality, if not his friendship.