by Austin Bay
April 12, 2006
August 2004: The Battle of Najaf was raging, with Shia radical
Muqtada Sadr's rogue Mahdi militia turning Najaf's imposing Imam Ali Mosque
into a fortress -- the equivalent of an Irish Republican Army terror faction
using the Vatican as a bunker.
Sadr thought his occupation of the mosque was a "no lose"
scheme. Sadr believed the fact that he could take control of a major Shia
shrine confirmed the Iraqi Interim Government's (IIG) fatal political and
military weakness. Demonstrating IIG flimsiness enhanced Sadr's personal
prestige and established him as the "radical alternative" to Iraqi
And when coalition forces attacked? Sadr calculated any attack
would seriously damage the mosque. No matter who caused the damage (and
"rumor" suggested Sadr's lieutenants might harm the mosque themselves), Sadr
believed the world would blame the United States. Video imagery of the
mosque's rubble --shown 24-7 on Al Jazeerah -- would turn any tactical
military defeat into a strategic political victory.
Angry Iraqi Shias would damn the coalition. Iran (who backed
Sadr financially and politically) would present itself as the protector of
Shia Islam. When the IIG collapsed, Sadr would emerge as the leader of a new
Late one afternoon in mid-August, I delivered a brief report to
British Maj. Gen. Andrew Graham in his Al Faw Palace office (west of
Baghdad). Graham, as deputy commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq, had been
deeply involved in directing the coalition's military response to Sadr's
After discussing my report, Graham asked, "Remember what I said
about Ayatollah Sistani?"
Graham was referring Iraq's leading Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah
Al-Sayid Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani. A week earlier, Graham had told me:
"Sistani is a living example of an apolitical Islamic clergyman. He
specifically says his role is that of spiritual guide."
I told Graham I recalled our conversation.
"He's central to resolving the situation Najaf," Graham said. He
added that winning the global war against Islamist extremism meant that
moderate Muslim clerics had to speak out, but -- and here's the quote I
remember -- "The pro-democracy moderate Muslim cleric doesn't have to be
found. That's Sistani. Fortunately, he is the most influential religious
leader in Iraq."
Within two weeks, Sistani helped engineer a withdrawal of Sadr's
militia from the mosque. Tactically (and with little media fanfare),
coalition military units had mauled Sadr's militia. Superficially, Sadr had
"lived to fight another day." But the mosque wasn't rubble. Damage to the
mosque was blamed on Sadr's militiamen. (Iraqi police also found
pornographic magazines left by Sadr's men inside the mosque.) The people of
Najaf greeted coalition troops as liberators.
Sistani's aides told Iraqi and coalition officers: "Let us deal
with Sadr. We know how to handle him and will do so. However, the coalition
must not make him a martyr."
I left Iraq with the impression that Sistani's plan for handling
Sadr would be a python-like squeeze only an Iraqi insider would fully
Following the January 2005 election, Sadr joined Iraq's
political process (though I noticed his militia kept its weapons). After
parliamentary elections, Sadr gained control of nearly three-dozen seats and
positioned himself as a kingmaker.
But that status appears to be short-lived. One indicator is the
March 26 attack by Iraqi commandos on a Mahdi militia facility in Baghdad.
The predictable media outrage lasted less than a week -- and Iraq's Interior
Ministry pointed out it had acted to stop sectarian vigilantes. Sadr lost
"street face" to the Interior Ministry -- and it appears Sadr's political
position has subsequently deteriorated.
Outsiders -- including U.S. government officials -- can bewail
the Iraqi parliament's lack of progress in forming a government, but since
the middle of March I strongly suspect the hidden story has been the
Interior Ministry and the Iraqi nationalists' war on Sadr. It's a quiet
police and political war waged with the blessing of Ayatollah Sistani.
Creating a strong and stable Iraqi government (the so-called "national
rescue front") is the goal. Sistani has advised Shia leaders to make
concessions to Sunnis in order to establish a "unity government." That's an
action anathema to Sadr.
Has Sistani's python begun its final squeeze?