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Sistani Switching Sides in Iraq?

The religious leader is issuing fatwas against American troops.
 
 
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Now, if you thought things couldn’t get worse in Iraq, think again.

Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric has been quietly issuing religious edicts declaring that armed resistance against U.S.-led foreign troops is permissible — a potentially significant shift by a key supporter of the Washington-backed government in Baghdad.

The edicts, or fatwas, by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani suggest he seeks to sharpen his long-held opposition to American troops and counter the populist appeal of his main rivals, firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia.

Could it really be that bad? Why is Sistani doing this now? Both are good questions I can’t answer. Matt Duss takes a stab at it:

I think it’s possible that Sistani is responding to pressure from Sadrists who condemned him for his silence during the U.S. and Iraqi army siege of Sadr City. It’s also striking how closely the language of these edicts appears to accord with what Muqtada al-Sadr himself has advocated and prohibited in terms of resistance to foreign occupiers. Contrary to some reports, Sistani did not advocate the disbanding of the Mahdi Army, but rather simply did not rule on the question, effectively leaving the Mahdi Army intact. While Sistani may regard Sadr as an unruly upstart, Sistani also recognizes that Sadr represents a massive constituency that cannot be ignored.

My impression was that around late 2005, after Sadr mounted his first nonviolent clerical/political challenge to Sistani, Sistani backed away from the day-to-day of politics, recognizing that keeping a central role in the United Iraqi Alliance meant being blamed for its inability to govern. You need a lot more data than this AP story presents to develop a theory for why the fatwas are coming now, but perhaps Sistani is now facing the opposite extreme: irrelevance. I truly don’t know and all the DayQuil isn’t helping me understand.

 
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