The Return of Iraq's Ayatollah

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Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini Al-Sistani, in 2004.

High-profile visits by political figures are relatively rare in Najaf, the quiet holy city in southern Iraq where Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani lives. Sistani, the most venerated Shi'ite religious leader in the country, shuns the limelight. But it fell his way last week nonetheless when Iraqi Prime Ministry Nouri al-Maliki and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker appeared in Najaf separately within days of each other. It raised questions whether Sistani is making a comeback as a voice in political decision-making in Iraq.

For years Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr have seesawed with each other as Iraq's two main Shi'ite power players. In the early days of the occupation, Sistani's call for calm undoubtedly allowed American troops to avoid fierce resistance to their presence in southern Iraq. But Sistani's repeated appeals for peace lost their weight as sectarian violence rose in Iraq, with Sadr leading the Mahdi Army militia in an inexorable year-long quest for Shi'ite revenge following the bombing of a revered shrine in Samarra in early 2006. As a result, Sadr, a mere cleric, towered as the most powerful Shi'ite figure in Iraq, eclipsing the more senior Sistani's prestigious status as ayatollah. Sistani became a voice in the wings on Iraq's political stage as the country's armed factions, including the U.S. military, warred through 2006 and 2007. Now with the situation quieter, and Sadr politically weakened following his military clash with Maliki, Sistani seems poised to renew a larger political role for himself.

Maliki's visit Thursday to Najaf, where he met with Sistani, seemed to be acknowledgment of just that change in status, one that the Ayatollah did not appear to shrink from. "Sistani emphasized that everything should be done to get back total sovereignty on all levels," said Sheik Abdul Mehdi al-Karbala'e, who summed up Sistani's meeting with Maliki in a speech to Shi'ite follower attending Friday prayers in Karbala.

The comment was a not-so-subtle warning by Sistani to Maliki and American leaders as they negotiate a long-term bilateral agreement that will spell out conditions for a U.S. presence in Iraq beyond next year, when the current U.N. mandate ends. A number of contentious issues, such as the presence of permanent U.S. military bases and the ability of U.S. forces to arrest and detain Iraqis, remain unresolved. Crocker, who did not meet with Sistani, was in Najaf to meet with local leaders but he addressed how the talks over the bilateral security agreement were shaping up. "We are in negotiations, and when that negotiation ends there will be an agreement," said Crocker, who spoke in Arabic addressing the local press corps. "That came as a wish of the Iraqi government."

Crocker, who said he had been to Najaf only once before, visited amid speculation that Sistani is losing patience with the U.S. presence in Iraq. In recent days, there have been reports that Sistani has been quietly issuing religious edicts, or fatwas, calling for the armed resistance to U.S. forces. Such a move by Sistani would essentially mark a reversal of his passive cooperation with the U.S. enterprise in Iraq to date. However, Sistani's aides deny the reports. "Nothing like that came from the office of the ayatollah," said Hamid al-Kahfaff, a spokesman for Sistani in Najaf.

Both Maliki and Crocker stand to gain by keeping Sistani happy and supportive of their political efforts, since hopes that Sadr would drop the renegade routine dissipated as the Mahdi Army battled with government forces across southern Iraq and Baghdad in the last two months. With Sadr on the outs, Sistani rises again as a kind of godfather figure whose silence can be interpreted as tacit support, particularly when leaders such as Maliki are seen as consulting him. Sistani maintained his usual silence as Crocker wrapped up his visit to Najaf Saturday. But there is little doubt about the renewed strength of his hand in Iraq.