- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2006

August 2004: The Battle of Najaf was raging, with Shi’ite radical Muqtada al-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.

Sheik al-Sadr thought his occupation of the mosque was a “no lose” scheme. He believed the fact he could take control of a major Shi’ite shrine confirmed the Iraqi Interim Government’s (IIG) fatal political and military weakness. Demonstrating IIG flimsiness enhanced Sheik al-Sadr’s personal prestige and established him as the “radical alternative” to Iraqi democracy.

And when coalition forces attacked? Sheik al-Sadr calculated any attack would seriously damage the mosque. No matter who caused the damage (and “rumor” suggested the his lieutenants might harm the mosque themselves), Sheik al-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 Shi’ites would damn the coalition. Iran (who backed Sheik al-Sadr financially and politically) would present itself as the protector of Shi’ite Islam. When the IIG collapsed, the sheik would emerge as the leader of a new Shi’ite state.

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). Gen. Graham, as deputy commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq, had been deeply involved in directing the coalition’s military response to Sheik al-Sadr’s audacious move.

After discussing my report, Gen. Graham asked, “Remember what I said about Ayatollah Sistani?”

Gen. Graham was referring Iraq’s leading Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Al-Sayid Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani. A week earlier, Gen. 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 Gen. Graham I recalled our conversation.

“He’s central to resolving the situation Najaf,” Gen. Graham said. He added that winning the global war against Islamist extremism meant 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, Grand Ayatollah Sistani helped engineer a withdrawal of Sheik al-Sadr’s militia from the mosque. Tactically (and with little media fanfare), coalition military units had mauled the sheik’s militia. Superficially, Sheik al-Sadr had “lived to fight another day.” But the mosque wasn’t rubble. Damage to the mosque was blamed on the sheik’s militia. (Iraqi police also found pornographic magazines left by his men inside.) The people of Najaf greeted coalition troops as liberators.

Ayatollah Sistani’s aides told Iraqi and coalition officers: “Let us deal with al-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 Ayatollah Sistani’s plan for handling Sheik al-Sadr would be a pythonlike squeeze only an Iraqi insider would fully understand.

After the January 2005 election, Sheik al-Sadr joined Iraq’s political process (though I noticed his militia kept its weapons). After parliamentary elections, the sheik gained control of nearly three-dozen seats and positioned himself as a kingmaker.

But that status seems 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 noted it had acted to stop sectarian vigilantes. Sheik al-Sadr lost “street face” to the Interior Ministry — and it appears his political position has subsequently deteriorated.

Outsiders — including U.S. officials — can bewail the Iraqi parliament’s lack of progress in forming a government, but since mid-March I strongly suspect the hidden story has been the Interior Ministry and the Iraqi nationalists’ war on Sheik al-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. Ayatollah Sistani has advised Shi’ite leaders to make concessions to Sunnis to establish a “unity government.” That’s an action anathema to Sheik al-Sadr.

Has the Ayatollah Sistani’s python begun its final squeeze?

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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