Sistani Returns, Launches Peace March

August 26th, 2004 - by admin

Juan Cole’s blog – 2004-08-26 21:58:30

Sistani Returns, Launches Peace March
Juan Cole’s blog

(August 25, 2004) — Al-Hayat is reporting that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani defied his physicians’ advice and insisted on returning to Iraq midday on Wednesday. He landed in Kuwait and went overland to Basra, where he is staying at the home of prominent Shiite Ali Abdul Hakim.

Reuters says that Sistani’s aide Hayder al-Safi read out a statement by the grand ayatollah saying ‘ “We ask all believers to volunteer to go with us to Najaf . . . I have come for the sake of Najaf and I will stay in Najaf until the crisis ends.” ‘

The Scotsman writes that Sistani crossed into Iraq in a convoy of sport utility vehicles. He had an escort of Iraqi police and national guardsmen, who had their sirens blaring. It says, ‘After meeting with al-Sistani, Basra Governor Hassan al-Rashid told reporters that the cleric would lead a march to Najaf tomorrow . . . “The masses will gather at the outskirts of Najaf and they will not enter the city until all armed men, except the Iraqi policemen, withdraw from the city,” he said. ‘

If I read this aright, the Basra governor is talking like this.

Sistani will leave Basra for Najaf at 7 am Thursday morning Iraq time. Sistani’s offices in London, Karbala and Beirut also announced that he was calling on Shiite civilians to mount a peace march to Najaf to save the shrine of Imam Ali. He also called on both Mahdi Army militiamen and American military forces to vacate the city. The Karbala communique, acquired by a German wire service, spoke of the need to “expel the Americans from Najaf.”

Al-Jazeerah is reporting that Sadr spokesman Aws Khafaji has announced a ceasefire by the Mahdi Army in honor of Sistani’s return, and to ensure his safe passage through the south to Najaf. The Mahdi Army has been fighting British troops fiercely in Basra, Kut, Amarah and elsewhere in the south.

Sadr spokesman Ahmad Shaibani announced that the Sadrists were entirely willing to obey any command of Sistani’s and would cooperate with him completely.

I am told that some middle-class Shiites in Najaf are complaining that Sistani’s intervention may prevent the finishing off of the Mahdi militia, and that the idea of a march and a convergence on the city may in fact bring more Sadrists in. The Sadrists are not popular in largely middle class Najaf, being from the shantytowns of the southern cities in the main.

ABC is reporting that American-appointed Najaf governor Ali al-Zurfi ‘ said Iraqi security forces had “taken all needed measures to prevent any crowds from entering the province,” calling it a “military area.” ‘ Al-Zurfi is probably bluffing, since it he doesn’t have that many men loyal to him, and none of them would fire on a peaceful crowd of Shiites led by Sistani. But if he does try to fire on the crowds, it could cause a lot of trouble. The Shah tried that sort of thing on Black September and it contributed to his overthrow.

Meanwhile, Australian Broadcasting is reporting that ‘Tens of thousands from Baghdad and southern Iraq pledged to answer the Iranian-born ayatollah’s call to march on the besieged city of Najaf in a mission to resolve the crisis peacefully.

He was determined to “save Najaf,” the head of his London office Hamad al-Khaffaf told Al-Arabiya television, calling on all Iraqis to join the march . . .

Sadr supporters barricaded in the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf also greeted Sistani’s call with joy. “The situation is getting worse day by day and only God’s intervention can save us. And I think this march is a gift from God,” Mohammed al-Batat said.

A senior Shiite official said Sistani wanted all foreign troops and weapons out of the city and for Sadr’s Mehdi Army to leave the shrine and the city.

The Allawi government arrested Sadr aide Sheikh Ali Sumaisim, along with three other persons, charging him with possession of a Koranic antiquity and a large amount of dollars in cash (the implication is that he may have been involved in antiquities theft and trafficking from the Imam Ali shrine).

The US military continued to use tanks and warplanes to pound Mahdi Army positions near the shrine of Imam Ali, shattering its windows. Some damage has already been inflicted by the Americans on one of the compound walls. It is this sort of scene that horrifies Sistani.

US tanks had the shrine tightly surrounded.

A physician at the clinic of the shrine announced that at least 30 persons within had serious injuries that required their evacuation, and that he feared many more wounded were caught in nearby areas. In the last 24 hours, 6 bodies and 20 wounded had been brought to the clinic, he said.

Sistani’s return raises many questions. Note that he did not fly into American-controlled Baghdad but rather to Kuwait, traveling overland to Basra. Since Basra is in British hands, with a Shiite governor that seems pro-Sistani, it seems possible that Sistani’s people coordinated his return with the British and with the Basra authorities rather than with the United States and the Allawi government.

Indeed, America’s most militant asset in Najaf, governor Ali al-Zurfi, seems dead set against Sistani returning with crowds this way. You have to wonder if the British MI6 and military are showing some insubordination toward the Americans by allowing all this, as a mark of their disapproval of the gung-ho Marine attacks in Najaf, which have caused trouble in the British-held South and endangered the British garrisons.

Likewise, one wonders if Basra governor Hassan al-Rashid is entirely loyal to Allawi. A lot of southern Shiites would be pretty upset with the way Allawi and his two main henchmen, Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib and Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan have been reviving old Baathist stereotypes about the Shiites and pursuing iron fist policies in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

If Sistani does lead a popular march of the sort the press is describing, it might be the most significant act of civil disobedience by an Asian religious leader since Gandhi’s salt march in British India. And it might kick off the beginning of the end of American Iraq, just as the salt march knelled the end of the British Indian empire.

posted by Juan @ 8/25/2004 04:20:35 PM

Iraqi Police Fire on Kufa Demonstrators

(August 26, 2004) — Peaceful, civilian Shiite demonstrators in Kufa heeding Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s call for a march on Najaf (which is just next door to Kufa) were fired on Wednesday afternoon, suffering two killed and five wounded. Apparently the firing came from the Iraqi police. The Australian Herald Sun reports:

‘ Abbas Hamid, 32, told AFP from his hospital bed that the demonstration in support of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr began at 4pm outside the Kufa mosque. “We were heading towards Najaf but when we reached the Al-Abassiya bridge, Iraqi police opened fire,” he said. He said the demonstrators had not passed a multinational force position, where witnesses had said the gunfire broke out. ‘

Al-Jazeerah was rather dramatically reporting that the Kufa crowed was fired on by American troops, which appears not to be the case, and the Sadr spokesman they interviewed by telephone gave the impression of rather more casualties and chaos than AFP reports. CNN had footage of the firing, and to be fair it did also look to me like a bigger incident than the print wire services describe.

The motivation for the Iraqi police to fire on the peaceful protesters appears to have been that they believed them actually to be members of the Mahdi Army militia, even if temporararily going about unarmed. (There does not appear to be any reason to believe this charge other than simple prejudice — the footage from AP television clearly shows a peaceful crowd.)

Christopher Allbritton is in Najaf and reports an unsuccessful foray to the shrine of Ali, frustrated by heavy American fire and sniping all around it. On his return to the hotel, he and the other journalists were rounded up at gunpoint and taken to see the police chief of Najaf, Ghalib al-Jazairi. He reports what he heard at this weird (“can’t miss it — no, I mean really, you won’t be allowed to miss it”) press conference:

“The Shrine would be stormed tonight, he said, and we would be allowed to get on a bus and go visit it tomorrow to see the damage the Mahdi Army had done to it. The Sistani protesters in Kufa were really Mahdi guys and they had to be killed. Oh, and thank you for coming.

“A few of us put up a fight, demanding why they couldn’t just invite us down for a presser instead of kidnapping us. Oh, no, the commander said, that must have been a mistake. I just asked them to bring you to me… There was no order to brandish weapons, push journalists around and fire into the air.

“One cop, a lieutenant, just smiled at us when we pointed our fingers at him and said he was the one leading the raid, yelling and pointing his side arm at us. These are Najaf’s finest. They’re like the old regime, only less disciplined.”

Abdul Hussein al-Obeidi has more on this incident and others in Najaf on Wednesday. He reports that Jazairi “advised” Iraqis not to come to Najaf because it might be dangerous. If Sistani ever gets any practical power in Najaf, I can only imagine that Jazairi’s days in that position are numbered.

The Kufa incident underlines the potential for police/crowd violence (and perhaps US military/ crowd violence) as Sistani’s supporters converge on Najaf.

posted by Juan @ 8/26/2004 05:50:11 AM

Sistani in Najaf Today

(August 26, 2004) — As I write very early Thursday morning, Sistani ‘s convoy had left Basra on its way to Najaf several hours to the north. Al-Jazeerah says his convoy is being accompanied by Iraqi police.

The Guardian‘s Michael Howard scored a coup with an interview with Ayatollah Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum, who is close to Sistani and laid out his plan of action for Thursday.

‘ Mr Bahr Ul Uloum said the grand ayatollah would spend the night in Basra, before travelling to Najaf today, gathering supporters in the southern cities of Nassiriya, Samawa and Diwaniya. He said he and a delegation of tribal and religious leaders from Najaf and the surrounding region would meet the ayatollah and his supporters on the edge of the holy city and march with them to the shrine.

“If the fighting is still going on, the ayatollah will call on everyone to put down their guns,” Mr Bahr Ul Uloum said. “Then he will go the holy shrine, pray, and receive the keys to the holy shrine.” After that the political process would take over to resolve “outstanding issues” between Mr Sadr and the interim government, he said. ‘

The 4-Point Plan
Al-Hayat reports that Sistani will put forward a 4-point plan:
• 1) An immediate ceasefire will be called; the Mahdi Army will leave Najaf and so will the American military, turning security over to the Iraqi police.
• 2) The shrine of Ali will be returned to the supervision of the Pious Endowments Board headed by Husain al-Shami.
• 3) Najaf will be declared a security (i.e. non-combat) zone.
• The source to whom the newspaper’s journalists spoke declined to reveal the fourth point.

Ash-Sharq al-Awsat says that Sayyid Muhammad Musawi, one of Sistani’s more important aides, warned the Americans against damaging or raiding the shrine of Ali (where Mahdi Army militiamen are holed up). He said that if the Americans behaved this way, it would provoke “general” (i.e. nation-wide) protests and result in a “very bad” situation.

This is a threat that Sistani will bring out large urban crowds against the Americans if they do not back off. He can do it, so it is not an empty boast. And those panglossian American military planners who think they have 10 years to get things right in Iraq will find themselves tossed out summarily from the country.

Al-Zaman reports that a procession toward Najaf has already begun from the other Shiite holy city of Karbala, to the northwest of Najaf.

It also reports that Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has fully endorsed Sistani’s call for a march on Najaf. SCIRI is represented on the caretaker government by Finance Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi.

Ash-Sharq al-Awsat says that Muqtada al-Sadr has issued a communique also calling on Shiites to come to Najaf. The Sadrists will inevitably attempt to piggy-back on Sistani’s new activism. But since he is insisting that they leave the shrine, they are playing a weak hand.

The interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, dispatched two cabinet ministers to consult with Sistani. They are Minister of State Qassim Dawoud and Minister of Provincial Affairs, Judge Wael Abdul Latif.

The stakes here are enormous. If Iraqi police fire on the peaceful demonstrators again, or if US troops refuse to make way for Sistani, there could be a big social explosion in Iraq. If Sistani is successful in his plan, on the other hand, it will further increase his authority in the Shiite South and perhaps even transform him into a nationalist hero.

All this is important because Sistani is insisting on the January elections being held on time. If they are postponed he will almost certainly send his followers into the streets to protest, and could well bring down Allawi.

posted by Juan @ 8/26/2004 06:00:30 AM

Dozens Dead in Kufa Mosque Mortar Attack

(August 26, 2004) — Abdul Hussein al-Obeidi of AP reports that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has arrived in Najaf and gone to a house about a mile from the besieged shrine of Ali. He has asked the thousands of marchers with him to wait outside the city.

Caretaker Prime Minister announced a 24-hour truce in Najaf. American-appointed Najaf Governor Ali al-Zurfi threatened that if the mosque crisis is not resolved in 24 hours, he will begin military operations again (the clip was shown on al-Jazeerah).

Iraqis in Kufa who went to a mosque to pray before walking to Najaf came under mortar fire, which killed dozens and wounded a large number. The Sadrists blamed the US military, which denied having mortar emplacements anywhere near the shrine.

The US military suggested that the Mahdi Army has engaged in wild, undisciplined mortar fire. (This is true, but unless a clear target is identified near the mosque that they might have actually been aiming at, it seems a little unlikely that they would hit their own mosque with hundreds of worshippers inside.)

The main source of violence in Kufa in the past 24 hours has been Iraqi police or national guards, who have fired on unarmed demonstrators.

Before Sistani’s arrival, protesters from Diwaniyyah to Najaf’s east who arrived at that side of the holy city had received fire from Iraqi police, and there were an unknown number of casualties.

Iraqi police also fired on peaceful demonstrators in Hilla who were heading for Najaf, killing at least two and wounding 23, according to Australian Broadcasting.

Al-Jazeerah is quoting ccasualties during the previous 24 hours from Iraqi health officials as 74 dead, 300 wounded.

Tony Karon at the Time Magazine weblog, has a fine overview of the situation which does an excellent job of explaining Sistani’s political dilemma and the way he is trying to resolve it.

posted by Juan @ 8/26/2004 09:10:46 AM

Najaf Police Round Up Reporters at Gunpoint

Iraqi police, angered by news coverage of the standoff around the Imam Ali Mosque, rousted journalists from their hotel at gunpoint Wednesday night and took them to hear Chief Ghaleb al-Jazaeri criticize their reporting.
About 50 journalists were taken to police headquarters, including representatives of CNN, the British Broadcasting Corp., Agence France-Presse and several U.S. newspapers.

Iraqi police officials have expressed anger that journalists pay too much attention to al-Sadr and not enough to the police.

When the journalists returned to their hotel, many found their rooms had been ransacked, and some reported small amounts of money missing.

Al-Zurufi, the Najaf governor, later sent a bus to the hotel to collect journalists so he could deliver an apology, but the journalists refused to go.