- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) - Iraq´s most influential Shi´ite cleric has been quietly issuing religious edicts declaring that armed resistance to 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 that he seeks to sharpen his long-held opposition to American troops and counter the populist appeal of his main rival, firebrand Shi´ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia.

But unlike Mr. al-Sadr´s anti-American broadsides, the Iranian-born Ayatollah al-Sistani has displayed extreme caution with anything that could imperil the Shi´ite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The two met yesterday at the elderly cleric´s base in the city of Najaf, south of Baghdad.

So far, Ayatollah al-Sistani´s fatwas have been limited to a handful of people.

They also were issued verbally and in private - rather than a blanket proclamation to the general Shi´ite population - according to three prominent Shi´ite officials in regular contact with Ayatollah al-Sistani, as well as two followers who received the edicts in Najaf.

All spoke to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Ayatollah al-Sistani, who is thought to be 79 or 80, has not been seen in public since a brief appearance in August 2004, shortly after returning from London for medical treatment for a heart condition. But his mix of religious authority and political clout makes him more powerful than any of Iraq´s elected leaders.

For U.S. officials, he represents a key stabilizing force in Iraq for refusing to support a full-scale Shi´ite uprising against U.S.-led forces or Sunnis - especially at the height of sectarian bloodletting after an important Shi´ite shrine was bombed in 2006.

It is impossible to determine whether those who received the edicts acted on them. Most attacks - except some by al Qaeda in Iraq - are carried out without claims of responsibility.

It is also unknown whether Ayatollah al-Sistani intended the fatwas to inspire violence or simply as theological opinions on foreign occupiers.

Mr. al-Sadr, who has a much lower clerical rank than Ayatollah al-Sistani, recently threatened “open war” on U.S.-led forces.

The U.S. military said it had no indications that Ayatollah al-Sistani seeks to “promote violence” against U.S.-led troops. It also had no information linking the ayatollah or other top Shi´ite clerics to armed groups battling U.S. forces and allies.

A senior aide to the prime minister, Mr. al-Maliki, said he was not aware of the fatwas but added that the “rejection of the occupation is a legal and religious principle” and that top Shi´ite clerics were free to make their own decisions. The aide also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Fatwas are theological opinions by an individual cleric and views on the same subject can vary. They gain force from consensus among experts in Islamic law and traditions.

In the past, Ayatollah al-Sistani has avoided answering even abstract questions on whether fighting the U.S. presence in Iraq is allowed by Islam. Such questions sent to his Web site, which he uses to respond to followers´ queries, have been ignored. All visitors to his office who asked the question received a vague response.

The subtle shift could point to his growing impatience with the continued American presence more than five years after the U.S.-led invasion.

It also underlines possible opposition to any agreement by Baghdad to allow a long-term U.S. military foothold in Iraq - part of a deal that is under negotiation and could be signed as early as July.

Ayatollah al-Sistani´s distaste for the U.S. presence is no secret. In his public fatwas on his Web site, he blames Washington for many of Iraq´s woes.

But a more aggressive tone from the cleric could have worrisome ripples through Iraq´s Shi´ite majority - 65 percent of the country´s estimated 27 million population - in which many followers are swayed by his every word.



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