Middle East


Behind Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s Tactics

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (Undated File photo: AFP-Getty Images).

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is not expected to escalate his position to the point where he might issue a fatwa calling for jihad and armed resistance, since he does not believe in wilayat al-faqih [the right of Islamic jurists to rule].

Nevertheless, Al-Sistani has enough experience and knowledge of the fragility of the Iraqi scene to acknowledge the diversity of Iraq and of the Shiites themselves. He is also careful to be in constant dialogue with the Iraqi Governing Council. The essence of Al-Sistani’s position is that the Iraqis do not need to resort to violence to acquire their rights as long as they have peaceful means available to them. But should these means no longer be available, then other means, including armed resistance, should be sought.

The religious figure, after consulting and meeting with the Governing Council, has insisted on holding elections. This initiative seems to be the result of a hidden agreement between the two sides. In order to ensure Iraq’s future sovereignty and independence, Al-Sistani has also urged a bigger role for the United Nations. [Ambassador] L. Paul Bremer III [the U.S. presidential envoy to Iraq] received the news with dismay, because he believed that the United Nations had left Iraq of its own free will. [U.N. Secretary General Kofi] Annan, on the other hand, welcomed the initiative and invited the Governing Council for a meeting in New York in the presence of a suspicious Bremer.

Al-Sistani wished to make sure that this would not be seen as a settlement of the controversy or as a concession from the Governing Council. So he called for protests in Baghdad and Basra as a show of force and an indication that he is serious about his position. He also sought to prove that he is a representative and popular figure who knows the Iraqis’ mood and opinions and that he is the one capable of leading them to independence.

He argued that even if the United Nations were incapable or unwilling to play a substantial role in Iraq, the transfer of authority should not be postponed.

The Americans were too late in discovering the importance of Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini, whose popularity they thought was just a passing phase in the Iranian revolution. This time they have recognized Al-Sistani’s position. They have also realized that what they thought was a sign of weakness, Al-Sistani’s lack of a clear political program, was in fact a sign of power and influence over a large sector of the Iraqi people. Will this acknowledgement be the beginning of an agreement on certain mutual concessions between Al-Sistani and the occupying power concerning the issue of elections? Or is it just a temporary political maneuver?

Al-Sistani is a reasonable religious figure who is capable of weighing the difficulties before him. This is a guarantee that Iraq will not be led toward any unknown adventures or risks. This does not imply surrender, but the patience and wisdom necessary to achieve independence, sovereignty, and freedom...and a readiness to use all, and any, means necessary at the right time.