Update: Is al-Sistani about to call for US forces to leave Iraq?

Summary:  The Internet is buzzing with rumors about a change in al-Sistani’s policy towards the Americans in Iraq.  Strong opinions are expressed on both sides  — understandable, since this would be a game-changing event.  Unfortunately, many in this debate ignore reasonable standards of care in dealing with information from a foreign land, and a war zone with many players.  Info ops abound on all sides, into which naive bloggers toss their trusting readers.  Perhaps the big lesson here is “know the sources you rely upon.”

This is an update of my post of April 25, which I accidentally deleted when posting this update. 

What might happen if Al-Sistani calls for US forces to leave Iraq?  Professor Juan Cole has written three posts at his blog “Informed Comment” about disturbing indications that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani may be moving toward explicit opposition to the presence of US forces in Iraq. 

  1. Will Sistani Declare Jihad on US?  (23 May 2008)
  2. Sistani Aide: Jihad Fatwa May Come” (24 May 2008)
  3. Sistani Forbids Feeding Americans; Warns against Security Agreement” (25 May 2008)

Here is the evidence, as it appears in the English-language media.  No confirmation of the AP story (#1); no definitive rebuttal or denial.  The Iranian sources (6, 7) support the AP story, but are hardly unbiased.  Excerpts from each story appear below. 

  1. Powerful Iraqi cleric flirting with Shiite militant message“, AP (22 May 2008) — “Iraq’s top Shiite cleric quietly hints at harder views against US forces.” 
  2. Busted!!… Iraqi Press Denies AP Report On Ayatollah Sistani“, Gateway Pundit (23 May 2008) — Posts translation of an article published at the Arabic website Iraq Alalaan.
  3. Shi’a Clerics Dispute Sistani “Fatwas” Report“, IraqSlogger (23 May 2008) — “Najaf Scholars Reject Reports of Anti-Occupation Opinions.”
  4. Red Herring Fatwas“, Nibras Kazimi, posted at his blog talisman gate (23 May 2008) — Analysis by what appears to be highly partisan if knowledgeable writer.
  5. Sistani does not issue fatwa allowing armed resistance against foreign troops in Iraq“, Aswat al Iraq (Voices of Iraq), 23 May 2008.
  6. Is Sistani Promoting Attacks on Coalition Forces?“, Bill Roggio, blog of The Weekly Standard (23 May 2008) — Unlike Kazimi’s post (#4), this is imo the way this should be done.
  7. Fars News (24 May 2008) — In Persian.  A fatwa by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Najaf
  8. Ayatollah will not allow US-Iraq deal“, Press TV (24 May 2008) — “Iraq’s most revered Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has strongly objected to a ‘security accord’ between the US and Iraq.” 
  9. Iraq Security Officials Wary of US Pact“, Fars News (28 May 2008) — More vague rumors about al-Sistani’s views; somewhat contradictory to the 24 May story by Press TV.

A note on sources:  Included are brief descriptions of the sources for this information because their accuracy and reliability are as important as the information itself.  Too often this precaution is ignored on the Internet.  Worse are those bloggers who throw up anything they find.  If it suits their preconceived vision, it is considered reliable.  If not, any contradictory information warrants a headline of “busted.” 

Several of these sources are almost “black boxes.”  Any English-language news agency based in Iraq deserves some skepticism, as there are few neutrals in a war zone.  Are they valid sources of information?  Biased?  Paid outlets for dis-information?  Who can tell?

I.  “Powerful Iraqi cleric flirting with Shiite militant message“, AP (22 May 2008) — “Iraq’s top Shiite cleric quietly hints at harder views against US forces.”  Opening:

Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric has been quietly issuing religious edicts declaring that armed resistance against 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-Sistanisuggest he seeks to sharpen his long-held opposition to American troops and counter the populist appeal of his main rivals, firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia.

But – unlike al-Sadr’s anti-American broadsides – the Iranian-born al-Sistani has displayed extreme caution with anything that could imperil the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.  The two met Thursday at the elderly cleric’s base in the city of Najaf south of Baghdad.

So far, 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 Shiite population – according to three prominent Shiite officials in regular contact with al-Sistani as well as two followers who received the edicts in Najaf.  All spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

II.  “Busted!!… Iraqi Press Denies AP Report On Ayatollah Sistani“, Gateway Pundit (23 May 2008) — Posts translation done by Iraqi-American Haider Ajina of an article published at the Arabic website Iraq Alalaan.  This post draws a strong conclusion from little evidence, nor does he explain why this should be definitive.  One of several posts about this. Excerpt of the translation:

This is from a source close to the Office of the religious authority, Mr. Ali al-Sistani in Najaf today, Friday, blasted some news sites and denied that op-Sistani “is preparing to issue a fatwa calling for armed resistance against occupation”.   The source, who asked to remain anonymous, in an interview with “Newsmatik”, “There is no truth to this irresponsible rumors in whole or even in part.”

Source added that from the beginning of religious authority from the outset is that “Iraq is not ready for jihad or a military confrontation for the time being, after the devastation left by the great wars of the former regime.”   The source said that Sistani “supports the resistance to the occupation, but not by military means, for the time being.”

The author describes himself as a “Writer/Trainer/Thinker.”

III.  “Shi’a Clerics Dispute Sistani “Fatwas” Report“, IraqSlogger (23 May 2008) — “Najaf Scholars Reject Reports of Anti-Occupation Opinions.”  Excerpt:

Sources close to prominent Sh’a clerics in Najaf have expressed “surprise” at reports in the Western media which claim that Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has issued religious opinions suggesting support of armed resistance against the foreign forces in Iraq, going so far as to dismiss the reported rulings as “false,” according to a report by an online Iraqi news agency.

Al_Malaf Press writes in Arabic that “reliable, well-placed sources in the offices of four high-ranking Sh’a clerics in Iraq denied what was reported” regarding “fatwas” (religious opinions) issued by the Shi’a ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on the matter of armed resistance in Iraq against the foreign forces in the country.

IraqSlogger was founded in 2006.  From the IraqSlogger website:

IraqSlogger is a service of Praedict.  Praedict offers the next generation of media and insight.  We are a group of well-known professionals who have come together from media, marketing, and military backgrounds.  Praedict’s CEO is Eason Jordan {formerly CNN’s chief news executive} and its President is Robert Young Pelton {author, journalist, filmaker}.

… IraqSlogger is the world’s premier Iraq-focused information source. Our goal is that Iraqslogger becomes the go-to site for all those concerned about Iraq and teh people — Iraqs, Americans, and many others — there.

… Our first premium [i.e. for-pay] product offering is called IraqSafetyNet, targeted to meet the urgent need in Iraq for useful intelligence, security information, insightful advice, news, and independent analysis. With security conditions continually fluctuating, reliable information and advice on risk is at a premium. Our intelligence is gathered from a exclusive intelligence network, open source, and carefully developed personal contacts.

… Praedict will will soon offer a monthly subscription model combined with custom reports, content sales, and consulting. We stringently maintain our independence from political, special interest, and other sources. Praedict Limited is an ethical, secular, non-denominational and independent minded for-profit organization.

IV.  “Red Herring Fatwas“, Nibras Kazimi, posted at his blog talisman gate (23 May 2008) — Note his bio at the end.  Much speculation in this post, strong opinions, not much supporting evidence.  Kazimi might be correct, but provides no basis on which to evaluate his views.  Some quotes from his post to illustrate this:

I guess this is what happened: …

Not content with this answer, al-Sadr and probably Iran’s PSY-OPS teams tried a different track: they began to ask Sistani questions along the lines of “Do you support motherhood?”

But the next step in this PSY-OPS is to find the news outlet that would be more than willing to exaggerate the significance of all of this; a new outlet such as the AP that would have the gall to cite Juan Cole as “a U.S. expert on Shiites in the Middle East” without telling the unsuspecting public that Cole is a very controversial opponent of progress in Iraq, and that even within the left-leaning community of Iraq-watchers he’s considered a discredited kook.

The report reaches the pinnacle of duplicity when it casually adds that:

From his bio at the Hudson Institute:  Nibras Kazimi is a visiting scholar at the Hudson Institute. He also writes a weekly column on the Middle East for the New York Sun. Previously, he directed the Research Bureau of the Iraqi National Congress in Washington DC and Baghdad, and was a pro-bono advisor for the Higher National Commission for De-Ba’athification, which he helped establish and staff. 

V.  “Sistani does not issue fatwa allowing armed resistance against foreign troops in Iraq“, Aswat al Iraq (Voices of Iraq), 23 May 2008.  Hat tip to Gateway Pundit — Excerpt:

A close source to grand ayatollah Ali Sistani’s office on Friday denied news agencies’ reports the Shiite cleric issued a fatwa permitting taking up weapons to drive the foreign occupation forces out of Iraq. “The reports of issuing fatwa by the Shiite cleric Sistani permitting taking up arms to drive foreign troops out of Iraq were baseless”.

… The source, a cleric from Karbala associated with Sistani office, pointed out “Sistani’s stance is clear since toppling the former regime (of Saddam Hussein) by calling for sticking to civil resistance to drive foreign troops out of Iraq”.

Professor Cole’s analysis (26 May 2008) of this:

While this statement is true, it does not actually address the legal issue. Sistani was said by AP to have replied privately to Shiite militiamen who asked him about the legitimacy of attacking multi-nationaltroops in Iraq. He was said to have confirmed, in private and in person, that in Shiite law, attacking a foreign occupier is legitimate. There is no contradiction between him holding those views as a matter of considered opinion on the law, and his actual policy of encouraging peaceful resistance.

About the source, Aswat al Iraq:  “Aswat al-Iraq Is Iraq’s First Independent, Commercial News Agency“, Press Release, US Department of State (1 September 2005) — “Service launches in Arabic; English version expected in September.”  Excerpt:

The Internet service currently is funded by the Reuters Foundation, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation. Its Web site publishes 600 news items a month, mostly in Arabic, which are the work of 30 paid staff writers and reporters from three founding-member newspapers — al Sabah al Jadid, al Mannarah, and al Mada.

VI.  “Is Sistani Promoting Attacks on Coalition Forces?“, Bill Roggio, blog of The Weekly Standard (23 May 2008) — Unlike Kazimi’s post (IV), this is imo the way this should be done.  Excerpt:

While this certainly isn’t beyond the realm of possibility, I have spoken to several US intelligence sources who think this is highly unlikely. The primary reason is that one of the groups cited in the article, the Jund al Marjaiyah, which means the Soldiers of the Religious Authorities or Army of the Marja, essentially serve as “the Shia version of the Swiss Guard for Sistani’s religious circle.” This means their purpose is to protect the religious sites and the senior leadership of Sistani’s circle. If the Jund al Marjaiyah starts to conduct attacks on Coalition forces, this would invite reprisals and directly endanger the senior leadership and religious sites.

All of the sources believe the Associated Press may have been fooled by Sadrist members purporting to be close to Sistani. “It is not unheard for Iraqi Shiites to secretly claim Sistani’s blessings,” one source said. “We have seen Sadrists put words in Sistani’s mouth,” he added, noting that this happened when Sadrists claimed Sistani and other senior Shia clerics told Sadr to keep the Mahdi Army after Prime Minister Maliki ordered the Mahdi Army to disband.

Roggio blogs at The War Journal and has published aritcles in several major media.  Here is is bio.

VII.  Fars News (24 May 2008) — Nothing about this story on their site in English.  It is in Persian; translation from June Cole’s site.  They report this fatwa by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Najaf:

Question:  “I sell foodstuffs. Sometimes the Occupying Powers or their associates come to my establishment. May I sell them foodstuffs?”

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani replied:  “Selling foodstuffs to the Occupying Powers is not permitted.”

Fars News is a private news agency in Iran founded in 2003.

VIII.  “Ayatollah will not allow US-Iraq deal“, Press TV (24 May 2008) — “Iraq’s most revered Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistanihas strongly objected to a ‘security accord’ between the US and Iraq.” 

The Grand Ayatollah has reiterated that he would not allow Iraq to sign such a deal with “the US occupiers” as long as he was alive, a source close to Ayatollah Sistanisaid.  The source added the Grand Ayatollah had voiced his strong objection to the deal during a meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the holy city of Najaf on Thursday. 

The remarks were made amid reports that the Iraqi government might sign a long-term framework agreement with the United States, under which Washington would be allowed to set up permanent military bases in the country and US citizens would be granted immunity from legal prosecution in the country.

Press TV is the first Iranian international news network, broadcasting in English 24/7.  It is run by the Iranian government, founded in 2007.

IX.  Update:  “Iraq Security Officials Wary of US Pact“, Fars News (28 May 2008) — More vague rumors about al-Sistani’s views; somewhat contradictory to the 24 May story by Press TV.  Hat tip to Gateway Pundit.  Excerpt:

Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is yet to publicly comment, but an aide said he has called for the authorities to have a public debate on the issue. “He has always expected the officials to consult the people before taking a decision,” the aide said. “They should go ahead only if a majority of the people accept it.”

Fars News is a private news agency in Iran founded in 2003.

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6 thoughts on “Update: Is al-Sistani about to call for US forces to leave Iraq?

  1. Fabius, I told you about an interesting blog some weeks ago. There’s a very relevant blog entry on this topic. Talismangate, Friday, May 23, 2008.

    (Actually, I hope it’s no covert PsyOps product, but if it is one, then it’s a well-made one).
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    Fabius Maximus replies: It is IV above. I posted it while your comment was in WordPress limbo. He is a writer and visiting scholar at the Hudson Institute. Seems quite partisan. Or rather, open about his partisan feelsings — there are few or no neutrals in a war zone.

  2. If Fars News and PressTV are saying Sistani’s calling for a US pull-out, the US/IAF had better make damned sure they double, if not triple, Sistani’s protection – Sistani‘s made the Mullah ‘hit-list‘.

    Sistani is definitely no real friend of the US but his dislike of the Mullahocracy is at least equal and probably great deal more.

  3. So how important and relevant is this Sistani? Influential enough to end a tribal conflict? Powerful enough to initiate peace with Sunni factions? Powerful enough to launch a national strike? Powerful enough to cause a major uprising with 2% of population suddenly fighting foreigners? Powerful enough to take over Mahdi army from Sadr? Maybe once Sadr is dead?

    All that I read about Sistani is like “premier religious leader of the Iraqi Sunnis”, that doesn’t tell me much. He sounds a bit like Ghandhi with his passive resistance concept.

  4. Is Nibras Kazimi a member of the Iraqi National Congress? If so his comments about Juan Cole would make me suspicious of any analysis he would provide.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: BINGO. Thanks for the tip! I have added a larger bio for him.

  5. It’s absolutely necessary to listen to team A, team B AND to have a good B.S. detector. You’d fail if you dismiss one of these components.

    The “I depend on primary sources, speak fluent Arabic and am not an occupying soldier” type of information source is quite underrepresented and important imho.

  6. Cunctator, I think there is an important struggle going on here. Sistani is seen as the spiritual leader of Iraqi Shia. However, al Sadr seems to be approaching the Ayatollah in popularity; furthermore, he has a great deal of capital gained from standing up to the Americans, not to mention providing aid and protection to the poorest of the poor in Sadr City.

    I think the issue, then, is that Sistani would love to call a fatwa against the occupiers, yet to do so would be, in essence, to join with Sadr, which would be akin to anointing Sadr as your successor of sorts. Also, siding with Sadr against the Americans would mean you put yourself into his power for protection. From everything I’ve heard, Sistani dislikes Sadr and would be loathe to become some pawn in Sadr’s struggles.

    My suspicion is that Sistani knows his most powerful weapon is to do nothing, so he waits, and waits, and never puts himself in a position where he is either a) forced to seek protection from someone else or b) loses his image as the supreme leader. Note that this extends beyond simply not calling for resistance.

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