August 26, 2004


Spotlight Is Now on Top Cleric: In asking his supporters to flood Najaf, Sistani is staking his influence to effect an end to standoff. (Alissa J. Rubin, August 26, 2004, LA Times)

There is no guarantee that Sistani's call for his followers to flood into the holy city will end the siege at the Imam Ali Mosque. If the move fails, Sistani's prestige could decline. But each time the widely esteemed senior cleric has stepped onto the political stage, he has vastly altered the dynamic, forcing shifts in U.S. policy and deference to his views.

Sistani, 74, arrives this time at a critical moment. The shrine is occupied by Sadr's militiamen, who have kept Sistani and his supporters from entering for months. Sadr's forces are in turn under siege by U.S. and Iraqi troops. The fighting has left scores dead and destroyed parts of the Old City.

Numerous attempts to reach a peace deal have failed. The people of Najaf are exhausted by the fighting. The Iraqi government has vowed to storm the shrine unless Sadr's forces give up. And Shiite Muslim clerics around the world have warned that any direct attack on the holy site could have disastrous consequences.

Sistani faces the challenge of threading his way through these various interests while maintaining a certain distance from all of them. In particular, though he shares the government's aim to expel Sadr's forces from the mosque and tamp down popular support for the anti-American cleric, he does not want to be seen as overly sympathetic to the U.S. and the closely allied and dependent Iraqi forces.

To that end, Sistani has given a simple but direct challenge to both Sadr and the U.S.-backed Iraqi forces: Leave the shrine and the Old City and let Shiite religious authorities, led by him and three other grand ayatollahs in Najaf, take over again.

Whether both sides will accede to Sistani's wishes remains to be seen. But both are well aware that Sistani wields enormous clout, and his followers are nothing if not loyal and legion.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 26, 2004 9:23 AM

If fewer than millions show up, can we stop calling him influential?

Hundreds of thousands?

So far, the pro-Muqtada crowd seems to outnumber the pro-Sistani.

This is so confusing.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 26, 2004 3:06 PM

Anyone with half a brain is hiding--that favors Sadr.

Posted by: oj at August 26, 2004 3:16 PM

Ah, the South Vietnam problem.

Everybody wants democracy but nobody is willing to vote.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 26, 2004 6:55 PM