Ayatollah Sistani on the Mahdi Army: "the law is the only authority in the country"


sistani.jpg

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

With the Iraqi government applying pressure to the Sadrist movement and Muqtada al Sadr to disband the Mahdi Army, Iraq's senior Shia cleric has weighed in on the issue. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most revered Shia cleric in Iraq, backed the government's position that the Mahdi Army should surrender its weapons and said he never consulted with Sadr on disbanding the Mahdi Army. Instead, the decision to disband the Mahdi Army is Sadr's to make.

Sistani spoke through Jalal el Din al Saghier, a senior leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a rival political party to the Sadrist movement. Saghier was clear that Sistani did not sanction the Mahdi Army and called for it to disarm.

"Sistani has a clear opinion in this regard; the law is the only authority in the country," Saghier told Voices of Iraq, indicating Sistani supports Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and the government in the effort to sideline the Mahdi Army. "Sistani asked the Mahdi army to give in weapons to the government."

Sadr did not consult with Sistani on the issue of disbanding the Mahdi Army, disputing a claim from Sadrist spokesmen who intimated Iraqi's top cleric told Sadr to maintain his militia. "The top Shiite cleric had not been consulted in establishing the Mahdi Army, so [he] could not interfere in dissolving it," Saghier said. "Whosoever established the al-Mahdi army has to dissolve it; Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr established this army and it is only him who has to dissolve it."

Sistani's statements are the latest in a series of moves to politically isolate the Sadrist movement and delegitimize the Mahdi Army. On March 25, the Iraqi security forces started an operation in Basrah designed to clear the city of the Mahdi Army. After meeting early resistance in Basrah and fighting broke out in Baghdad and the South, the Iraqi military rushed reinforcements to the southern city. Six days after the operation began, Sadr ordered his fighters off the street. The Mahdi Army took significant casualties while the Iraqi Army secured the southern cities of Hillah, Kut, Karbala, Najaf, Diwaniyah, Nasiriyah, and Amarah in days. Clashes are still ongoing in Sadr City.

On April 6, Iraq's Political Council for National Security moved to bar the Sadrist movement from participating in upcoming provincial elections in October if it did not disband the Mahdi Army. The plan had the full backing of Sunni, Kurdish, and Shia political parties.

The move caused panic inside the Sadrist movement as their political isolation became apparent. "We, the Sadrists, are in a predicament," Hassan al Rubaie, a Sadrist member of parliament said the day the Political Council for National Security announced the plan. "Our political isolation was very clear and real during the meeting." he said, referring to the meeting of the Political Council for National Security, where the legislation was announced. "Even the blocs that had in the past supported us are now against us and we cannot stop them from taking action against us in parliament."



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READER COMMENTS: "Ayatollah Sistani on the Mahdi Army: "the law is the only authority in the country""

Posted by Matthew at April 10, 2008 12:54 AM ET:

Hi BIll and DJ, great reporting as usual but I'm really confused. If Sadr is so isolated, how come the media going on about how he won a huge propaganda victory against Maliki? Someone is greatly misreading the situation...

Posted by coldoc at April 10, 2008 1:00 AM ET:

That clucking sound you hear is the "chickens coming home to roost" to quote a famous minister.

Posted by valdez at April 10, 2008 6:53 AM ET:

This is good news. Will MSM ignore it?

Posted by Neo at April 10, 2008 8:02 AM ET:

Coming from Sistani this is "very" big news.

He draws a clear distinction between himself and other militant religious leaders (in Qom) in saying he has had no part in either setting up and will have no direct part in it's disbanding.

He makes clear that he recognizes the authority and laws of the government on the matter. Sadr's militia is clearly at odds with the law of the nation and should not look to religious authorities to sustain it.

The legal obligation to disband his militia is left to Sadr, not that of the religious authorities to execute. This shows Sadr where his responsibilities lie and at the same time draws clear distinction between Sistani and more activist religious figures who involve themselves with political maters. Sistani also seems to be avoiding putting the religious establishment in direct line of responsibility for Sadr's political decisions. This avoids the possibility of a backlash against the religious establishment for opposing Sadr and his Iranian backers.

Posted by Solo at April 10, 2008 8:04 AM ET:

The move caused panic inside the Sadrist movement as their political isolation became apparent. "We, the Sadrists, are in a predicament," (Now that's what's you'd call an understatement)

Posted by Neo at April 10, 2008 8:23 AM ET:

Bad politics is like snow accumulating on a mountainside. It piles up, and piles up, and piles up, until . Sadr better scramble for the political high ground because I think I just heard a crack and a rumbling noise.

I'm not so sure that the fight in Southern Iraq will play out like the slow strangulation of AQI in the north. It may be very different in character. This could move very fast once things get started. I'm not offering a prediction, but saying it is entirely possible and people need to be prepared for it.

Posted by Marlin at April 10, 2008 9:15 AM ET:

Amir Taheri has an interesting article this morning on what he feels really happened in Basra.

A GAMBLE that proved too costly.

That's how analysts in Tehran describe events last month in Basra. Iran's state-run media have de facto confirmed that this was no spontaneous "uprising." Rather, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) tried to seize control of Iraq's second-largest city using local Shiite militias as a Trojan horse.

[...]

The Iranian plan - developed by Revolutionary Guard's Quds (Jerusalem) unit, which is in charge of "exporting the Islamic Revolution" - aimed at a quick victory. To achieve that, Tehran spent vast sums persuading local Iraqi security personnel to switch sides or to remain neutral.

The whole article is well worth reading.

New York Post: IRAN'S BUSTED IRAQ BID

Posted by Neo at April 10, 2008 9:39 AM ET:

Well, That New York Post article was interesting. I'm not sure what to think since I have seen speculation of all sorts. The article is consistent with known facts, which is more than I can say some other sources. Keep digging the truth about what is happening in Southern Iraq will eventually come out.

Part of the problem is neither side is really sure where it stands. Iran doesn't know how much it's money has bought them in real support. The US doesn't know how strong JAM is. The Iraqi army is called on to fight against fellow Shiites and is untested under those conditions.

Posted by Steve-o at April 10, 2008 10:35 AM ET:

deĀ·leĀ·gitĀ·iĀ·mize [dee-li-jit-uh-mahyz]
-verb (used with object), -mized, -mizĀ·ing. to remove the legitimate or legal status of.

Ouch.

Posted by Caleb at April 10, 2008 10:51 AM ET:

May I suggest that whoever took the decision to start using the perjoritive "criminals" when referring to the JAM forces is definitely a brilliant leader. Perhaps it was Maliki himself. Perhaps it was one of his aides. We will likely never know for sure. Would that Bush, or someone around him, had as much political/PR savvy. Sistani can, if he wishes, maintain that he is not issuing any kind of condemnation against Sadr or JAM, only against criminals, and who can not be against criminals. Well, at least in Iraq. The American Left sides with criminals all the time against the establishment order.

A big A+ for the change of language as regards the resistence elements from Baghdad to Basrah.

Posted by crosspatch at April 10, 2008 11:35 AM ET:

All of this is just *so* important in a strategic sense and in a scale much larger than just Iraq and Iran. What the global Shiite community is going to be presented with is a real alternative to Iran's "islamic revolution" in Iraq's religious freedom. As Iraq contains many of the most holy sites in Shiia Islam, there is a lot of contact and migration back and forth for religious pilgrimages and such. Iranians will get a chance to experience Iraq and Sistani's "way" of doing things and it might actually lead to a fertilization of a demand for change in Iran. It could also, in the long term, lead to a moderation of the more revolutionary Shiite agitation such as groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon to a more political approach as played out by the Shiite parties in Iraq. The result could be good for everyone involved. There is going to be a need to get past some very strong personal egos first, though.

Posted by mjr007 at April 10, 2008 12:24 PM ET:

Strategically, it makes all the sense in the world. Badr co-opting his militia with the IA, MNF, IP, and Kurdish Peshmerga makes all the sense in the world. Al-Hakim knows what side on which his bread is buttered.

My deeper concern, however, is Maliki. Is he going to be able to remain in control once the Sadr Brigade is eliminated? Al-Sadr has broad-based support in the South of Iraq. Questioning whether the people will be swayed by and trust Maliki's accelerated rush to control.

It seems the Sunni, Kurds and Shia are coming together at least on their face. The enduring cohesion will be the ultlimate test of Maliki's power given the eventual significant draw-down of our troop presence there.

Posted by bard207 at April 10, 2008 12:28 PM ET:

When the trial balloon of seeking opinions from Shia clerics was floated by the Sadr camp the other day, was it a naive move or was it a way to seek a graceful exit from the Militia issue?

If I was seeking business advice, I would already have a good hunch on what Warren Buffett would say compared to what Donald Trump would say.

Would the Sadr camp pose that question without already having a good hunch on the position that Sistani would take?

Posted by MattR at April 10, 2008 12:34 PM ET:

Marlin, I'm confused. I thought the Iraqis started the Basra battle.

About the MSM, I put sistani in google news and it mostly came back with LongWarJournal.org. Way to go guys. I could sure use some more insights as to what is going on. Bush said this was a defining moment, it petered out, maybe it's bigger politically than militarily, what's the deal?

Bill, I hope you're taking good notes because I want to read the book you should write. And to think that my son, taking AP History, is still stuck on the great depression when so much history is going on right now. I asked him about whether they were talking about Iraq and he said no, the teachers weren't allowed to for fear of offending someone.

Posted by Richard1 at April 10, 2008 12:36 PM ET:

Bill or DJ:

What is the state of the Badr Corps? Are they still considered a militia and if so, are they supported by the Iraqi government?

Posted by DJ Elliott at April 10, 2008 1:03 PM ET:

The Badr, like the Peshmerga, are in the process of being folded into ISF or pensioned off.

One of the little heralded laws passed by GoI last fall stipulated the integration of legal militias into the ISF or their pensioning.

A major part of the 2008 budget argument was because the KRG wanted 100,000 under the MoD's budget (transfer to IA) and 90,000 pensions. Some of the other parties considered that excessive but, KRG got it.

I have no hard numbers on Badr incorparation into ISF. Due to their higher average age, most would have been pension elgible...

Of note, due to the activities of JAM, they were specifically excluded from integration into ISF.

The PM was starting to go hard core on JAM long before these latest events and the press was not paying attention...

Posted by Marlin at April 10, 2008 1:25 PM ET:

I would certainly like to know the details for this optimism in Basra.

The Basrah area has been interesting lately, but OPSEC forbids me from telling too many stories. Suffice it to say, that if we have another go 'round, the IA will be ready.

Mudville Gazette: They'll set about ye

Posted by David M at April 10, 2008 1:58 PM ET:

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 04/10/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front lines.

Posted by Soldier's Dad at April 10, 2008 2:12 PM ET:

"Bush said this was a defining moment, it petered out, maybe it's bigger politically than militarily, what's the deal?"

I'll jsut offer an intellectual exercise.

Imagine going down to the local trade union hall. There you will find a group of people hoping to get assigned to a relatively good paying union construction job. Identify yourself as a reporter and ask them how they feel about the Union Leadership....in front of Union Officials. What answer would you expect to get?

Now Imagine the Governor announcing that Government Union Scale construction jobs will no longer be handled thru Union Hall but rather the State Unemployment Office.

The Union leadership will predictably call for picketing the State Unemployment Office to keep anyone from getting work thru the State Unemployment Office.

The Governor then has a choice..give in to Union demands or call out the national guard to remove the Union Enforcers who are stopping people from going to the state unemployment office.

The Union will point out that it has 1 million members..what they won't talk about is how many members they would have it their members could get Union Scale without belonging to the Union.

Union dues,having to attend endless Union rallies,burning down your non-union neighbors house because he doesn't belong to the union,its all a bit of a burden for a carpenter that just wants a decent days wages for a decent days work .

The Governor doesn't need to defeat the union...he just needs to provide a safe enough environment and enough Union Scale jobs so members of the union that want to leave the Union can.

The media views everything thru culture and politics and religion. Most of the world is made up of carpenters hoping to make a decent days wage for a decent days work. If the Union is the only way to do that...they will join the union.

Malliki went to Basra armed with 25,000 jobs. He only has to provide enough security for 25,000 people to cross the picket line.

Posted by Neo at April 10, 2008 4:07 PM ET:

I still think there is a great deal of uncertainty in how many people JAM actually has actively supporting and fighting for it. The number of 60,000 active fighters has been around pretty much since the aftermath of the shrine bombing in 2006. I contend that that may have been the high water mark of the organization as Shiites in the neighborhoods came joined in reaction to both the bombing and the security situation. At that time you had two distinct groups within the organization. First would be core members who in fight for the long haul. The second group were the neighborhood people who joined in to defend their homes, to get some work, or teenagers joining up for something to do.

The figure of 60,000 seems like a reasonable figure for the timeframe of spring and summer 2006, but have they been able to sustain those numbers since? Did the neighborhood people stay on? Factor into this also that both the US and IA have been working hard to suppress Sadr's organization within Bagdad and other areas of the South for two years now. During this time we have never seen a level of opposition that would indicate anywhere near 60,000 active fighters. Supposedly Sadr has always been holding the bulk of these fighters in reserve for the real fight ahead. Baloney, who actually believes that a militia group can hold an active reserve of fighters for more than two years? Can anyone actually give a historical precedent for this belief? Use it or loose it! This isn't a professional army we are talking about, it's a gorilla force that has been constantly beat on by the US and IA for almost two years now.

Iran could well have believed these numbers too. Did they have a much larger show in mind prior to General Petraeus congressional testimony ? Did their numbers fall short? Did we see only part of what JAM had available during the last fight or was that it? If not, what's keeping them waiting?

Until I see otherwise, I am working with the reverse set of assumptions from what many "experts" have been working with. The biggest assumption is that real JAM numbers reflect what we have been seeing for the last two years. There is no large army waiting for the signal to revolt. We have already seen most of what they've got. The rest is a work of fiction! Sadr hasn't been holding back his people in an attempt to rejoin the political process or to keep the peace between Shiite groups. He has holding a truce to survive, to keep his organization from being ripped to pieces, and to maintain the fiction of his numerical dominance in the South.

The larger JAM numbers are a bluff. Call it!!!

Posted by Mark Eichenlaub at April 10, 2008 4:52 PM ET:

I may have missed it but are there any updates on whether or not the Sunni and Kurdish volunteers are going to go to Basra?

Posted by DJ Elliott at April 10, 2008 5:34 PM ET:

Mark Eichenlaub:

There is a common flaw in reporting in Iraqi and US press. They tend to refer to predominately Kurdish IA Bdes as Peshmerga, the predominately Sunni IA Bdes as Sunni, and the predominately Shia Bdes as Shia.

This is intentional reoccuring propaganda to support the theme of a divided Iraq in civil war.

- The 3rd IA Bde is in Basrah and has a significant percentage of Anbaris.
- The 14th IA Bde is in Basrah and has a significant percentage of Kurds.

The entire IA is volunteer. They do not have a draft.

Note: This happened all last year in the press descriptions of the bns/bdes from the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Divisions deploying to Baghdad. They were all described as being "Peshmerga" because they were majority Kurdish despite their being IA and somewhat mixed...

Posted by mjr007 at April 10, 2008 5:37 PM ET:

"The larger JAM numbers are a bluff. Call it!!!"

Good call Neo.

Posted by AQI Losses at April 10, 2008 6:29 PM ET:

This is great news.

Sadr's isolation keeps on growing and growing and growing...

Posted by Mike H. at April 10, 2008 6:51 PM ET:

If I'm not mistaken the Quietist movement of Grand Ayatollah Sistani extends into Iran. The Mullahs might be required to notice the senior cleric's take on the situation.

Posted by mjr007 at April 10, 2008 7:38 PM ET:

"Posted by Mike H. at April 10, 2008 6:51 PM ET:

If I'm not mistaken the Quietist movement of Grand Ayatollah Sistani extends into Iran. The Mullahs might be required to notice the senior cleric's take on the situation."

You may be right Mike H. This makes sense. Then of course we have Mookie playing catch up on the religious education to become a Mullah just doesn't cut it. From a strictly Shia Islamic standpoint, Mookie may have less of a say in matters than we realize.

When Grand Ayatollah Sistani speaks, his words will carry added weight not only with the local Shia but in Iran as well.

Excellent and encouraging point.

Posted by Brady at April 10, 2008 9:36 PM ET:

With Iran trying to exert its influence and undermine the US and Iraq policy in Iraq by having their Quds forces come in and wreak havoc, the question I have is why doesn't the United States do the same thing within Iran? I believe there are disgruntled groups within Iran that would like to disrupt things so why can't we fight State Sponsored Terrorism with State Sponsored Terrorism so to speak and then Deny any involvement.

Posted by Michael at April 10, 2008 10:02 PM ET:

Good... finally good to hear from Sistani. He has taken a rather neutral position along this entire pathway to liberty. He wisely and rarely expresses opinions at the right times.

Posted by Joseph Sixpack at April 10, 2008 10:52 PM ET:

This story is now over 24 hours old. Has anyone seen any mention of it in the establishment meda - or even in any other media.

Posted by Marlin at April 11, 2008 7:37 AM ET:

I find it encouraging that al-Maliki is requiring that the Iraqi Army take the lead in the battle for Sadr City.

The struggle for control of Sadr City is more than a test of wills with renegade Shiite militias. It has also become a testing ground for the Iraqi military, which has been thrust into the lead.

Iraqi soldiers, suffering from a shortage of experienced noncommissioned officers, have often been firing wildly, expending vast quantities of ammunition to try to silence militias that are equipped with AK-47's, mortars and rockets. But pulling back from their positions earlier, they now appear to be holding their ground - albeit with considerable American support.

Iraqi politics has played a role in shaping the military strategy. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has decreed that American ground forces should not push into the heart of Sadr City, according to a senior American officer. American commanders also want to limit the United States' profile in an area that has long been a bastion of support for Moktada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric.

New York Times: Fight for Sadr City a Proving Ground for Iraq Military

Posted by Marlin at April 11, 2008 9:46 PM ET:

A little more detail on the Iraqi desertions in Basra.


Brigadier al-Ittabi attributed the mass desertions at the outset to the deployment of local forces who were unwilling to fight their neighbours and whose families were vulnerable to militia threats.

Sources in Basra said that the Iraqi troops started to gain traction only after Mr al-Maliki drafted in two extra brigades, one from the Sunni city of Ramadi and the other from Karbala, where the al-Mahdi Army's rival militia, the Badr Brigades - loyal to the main Shia party in Mr al-Maliki's Government - holds sway.

The Times: British accused of appeasing Shia militia in Basra