While the US is preparing to pull out entire sections of its military from Iraq, an operation that has been described as the largest since World War II, news has emerged that President Barack Obama has sent a message to Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani. This message, which was brought to light by Asharq al-Awsat newspaper on 6 August 2010, coincided with an article written by Barbara Slavin in “Foreign Policy” magazine which neither officially denied nor acknowledged the existence of this message. Ayatollah al-Sistani’s aides have also refused to comment on this. However, Slavin did quote an unnamed senior US official who said that Obama did contact al-Sistani – who is greatly respected both inside and outside Iraq – to ask for him to urge the Iraqi leaders to form a new government quickly, and to resolve their differences with regards to naming the next prime minister of Iraq.
An exchange of messages between the Americans and al-Sistani is not unprecedented, former US President George W. Bush sent a message to al-Sistani on 6 March 2006, however, according to the Iraqi cleric’s official account of this event, he refused to have this message translated into Arabic in protest against US interference in Iraqi internal affairs. Bush’s message included a request for the Grand Ayatollah not to support the re-election of former Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and in order not to be viewed as opposing the idea of al-Jaafari’s re-election; al-Sistani rejected the message without actually rejecting its content.
This time al-Sistani and his deputies chose not to comment on the content of President Obama’s message, although the news that a message had been sent – according to the news report – was leaked by those close to al-Sistani in Iran. At the same time, and until today, al-Sistani has not said that he considers Obama’s message an example of US interference in Iraq’s internal affairs.
Al-Sistani has played an important role in post-invasion Iraq. The cleric, (who is of Iranian descent) who has remained in the shadows since the death of Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei in the early nineties, has managed to influence a number of critical decisions in Iraq. He was the man behind the constitution being amended and elections being held following the US invasion of Iraq, and more importantly than this, he played a key role in soothing the sectarian conflict in Iraq. Al-Sistani, who is said to be against Khomeini’s interpretation of the Wali al-Faqih – Guardianship of the Jurists – has demonstrated how religious authority can influence political and social life without this being transformed into governance or power.
Al-Sistani earned the respect of the Americans after he issued a fatwa directly following the US invasion of Iraq warning religious clerics against getting involved in politics, and instead urging them to focus on the moral and social side. However in a subsequent fatwa, al-Sistani confirmed his demands for the constitution to be amended and for elections to be held, which changed the prevalent impression of him as being a reclusive religious figure.
According to Ali Allawi, in his 2007 book “The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace” al-Sistani would never have been able to play this role were it not for the US military invasion for al-Sistani entered into lengthy negotiations – via spokesmen and mediators – with the Americans, international representatives and impartial mediators. The US and the coalition forces protected Ayatollah al-Sistani from Al Qaeda. Perhaps the most prominent threat against al-Sistani took place in October 2003 when followers of the Mahdi army loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr occupied the city of Karbala and stormed the shrine of Imam al-Hussein, which was supervised by one of al-Sistani’s deputies. Moqtada al-Sadr declared war on the occupiers, and announced the formation of his own government in defiance of the authority of the occupation and Iraq’s ruling council. If the coalition forces had not liberated the besieged city and freed the employees of al-Sistani’s office, Ayatollah al-Sistani would have remained at the mercy of Moqtada al-Sadr.
It goes without saying that al-Sistani deserves his current status by virtue of his religious position and his wisdom in handling Iraq’s affairs, especially where Iraqi politicians and the coalition forces are concerned. However he never would have had this influence were it not for the Americans, and the pluralistic environment engendered by the US invasion of Iraq. If not for this, al-Sistani might have remained under house arrest. Following the US invasion of Iraq, any political party or faction could have exercised their mandate over this aged wise man, but the coalition forces presence guaranteed the Shiite cleric with material protection and gave him the opportunity to maintain his neutrality amidst the ongoing disputes between Iraqi politicians. However the important question is; will this Shiite cleric continue to maintain his neutrality after the withdrawal of the US forces? Or will he find himself backed into a corner and threatened by religious parties and their militias and political power?
In an interview recently conducted by “The Guardian” newspaper (5 August 2010) with former Iraqi Prime Minister Tariq Aziz from his prison cell, Aziz said that he has lost all hope in Obama as he has continued with the policies of the former administration. During this interview Aziz made a paradoxical statement, calling on Obama not to withdraw US troops from Iraq on schedule at the end of the month, saying that this would be akin to “leaving Iraq to the wolves.” Perhaps a Baathist detainee calling for US troops not to depart from Iraq reflects his personal fear for his life and the safety of his family from the leaders of the new Iraqi regime in the absence of US forces. However, this also reflects the fears of a large section of the Iraqi people with regards to the fate of their country following the withdrawal of the occupation forces.
In the most recent report published by the Defense publication “Jane’s” about Iraq on 9 August 2010, senior US officers questioned the Iraqi army’s ability to control and guarantee the security of the country following the withdrawal of US troops. A number of military experts speaking anonymously pointed out that some Iraqi security apparatus and army units had failed to control areas where there is sectarian tension, or where armed militias are present. Add to this that al-Maliki’s government has established armed units who are directly affiliated to him by exploiting legislative loopholes. As a result of this, the mechanism by which military decisions are made remains unclear, with security responsibilities being shared by several ministries and security apparatus, and it seems that the escalation in violence is beginning to threaten the relative success achieved by Bush’s 2007 military campaign.
In the face of all of these challenges, there is a dire need for al-Sistani to play a role to achieve agreement between al-Maliki and the opposition, especially following the series of accusations being exchanged by al-Maliki and Allawi and the Supreme Islamic Council and the Sadrist trend. In a series of interviews on the official Iraqiya TV station, al-Maliki has said that Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc threatens the rights of the Shiite community, and he also accused the Supreme Islamic Council of wanting the post of prime minister for itself following the departure of US troops. Adel Abdul-Mahdi made a clear response to this claim in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat earlier this week when he said that it is al-Maliki’s insistence on retaining the post of prime minister that represents a threat to Iraq’s political future.
Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani and the US have managed to strike a kind of balance over the past seven years; a balance which was not successful all the time, but which, nevertheless, achieved a relative stability. However, after the departure of US troops, al-Sistani might find himself facing wolves that are lying in wait and waiting to pounce on him and exploit his influence. It will be very interesting to see how al-Sistani aims to preserve this influence.