by Austin Bay
January 30, 2007
Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is a most remarkable man.
Consider these attributes: a Muslim theologian who promotes democracy, an Iraqi
Shia leader who supports national reconciliation, an international Shia
luminary who believes Sunnis and Shias and Christians -- and human beings in
general -- have reasons to cooperate and accommodate. In a just world, he would
win a Nobel Peace Prize.
British Maj. Gen. Andrew Graham said of Sistani in 2004: "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."
Sistani's influence extends beyond Iraq, into Shia communities throughout the
world, including Iran and Lebanon.
However, these inspiring attributes are the very reason the so-called "Soldiers
of Heaven" militia targeted Grand Ayatollah Sistani for either kidnapping or
assassination this past weekend.
News reports describe the Soldiers of Heaven as a "messianic Shia cult" intent
on murdering Shia pilgrims visiting shrines in the Iraqi city of
. The Shia pilgrims were commemorating Ashoura, the murder of the
Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Imam Hussein, after the Battle of Karbala in A.D.
680. That murder fixed the schism between the Sunni and the Shia. Najaf (which
isn't far from the modern city of Karbala) is also Sistani's home.
I'll get to the Battle of Najaf 2007 in a moment, but first consider who
benefits from the mass murder of Shia pilgrims and senior Shia clerisy who
support reconciliation and national unity. Here's the answer: the
Islamo-fascist killers who fear the emergence of a democratic alternative to
tyranny and terror in the Middle East.
Sistani offers a modernizing Shia alternative to Iran's radical leaders. That's
why targeting Sistani immediately suggests a touch or two of Iranian
involvement, at least in terms of funds and operational advice.
Radical Shia groups in Iraq benefit from such a horror. Iraqi Prime Minister
Nouri al-Maliki's government has launched a new series of raids on Moktada
Sadr's Shiite Mahdi Militia. That's put the Sadrists in a bind. Sadrist
propagandists assert that the Shia radical militias protect Shias the
government cannot defend. Savagery in Najaf plays into the propagandists' hands
-- even though the nominal leader of the Soldiers of Heaven also called himself
Saddamist and Sunni rejectionists also benefit from murder and chaos. We know
from documents captured in February 2004 that al-Qaida saw a Sunni-Shia war as
its only path to victory in Iraq. Saddam's supporters gambled that they could
murder their way back into power by killing Iraqis and inciting ethnic as well
as religious conflict. Saddam's holdouts have been trying to stage an "Iraqi
Tet" since 2004, achieving a media-driven psychological victory that will force
the United States to abandon Iraqi democrats.
Do these disparate, philosophically antithetical rejectionist groups cooperate?
Coalition intelligence analysts suspect they do -- at least at the wink-and-nod
level. Iraqi democrats and clerics like Sistani are their common enemy -- a
modernity and moderation that seeds their defeat. Shia clerics in Najaf told
The New York Times that at least one Soldier of Heaven Shiite leader allied
himself with Saddam Hussein in 1993. That's one open-source indication of
So last weekend the Soldiers of Heaven -- allegedly a Shia faction, but
certainly a rejectionist organization -- gathered at least 600 fighters (and
possibly more) outside of Najaf on a farm owned by a supporter of Saddam's
But the Iraqi government struck first.
Press reports have emphasized the Iraqi government's and Iraqi Army's
inadequacies. An Iraqi Army battalion dispatched to the Soldiers of Heaven camp
encountered fierce resistance. It pulled back and requested air strikes and
U.S. military support. The firefight raged for 24 hours. The Iraqi Ministry of
Defense reported 263 militants killed and over 300 captured.
Striking first indicates improved intelligence. Iraqi forces striking first
demonstrates improved Iraqi military capabilities. U.S. and coalition air and
ground "back up" is an operational version of "strategic overwatch," which was
the goal coalition forces set for themselves in 2004.
Mass murder in Najaf was thwarted. The rejectionist forces were destroyed.
American defeatists and Middle Eastern fascists should take note.
In a column dated Nov. 28, "Iraq
's War of Perception: 'Who Is Jamil Hussein?'", I wrote
that I doubted an Associated Press source for a story originating in
existed. The AP answered the questions raised on the two Websites my column
quoted. I congratulate the AP's Baghdad bureau for standing by its sources and
am delighted to issue a correction.