WASHINGTON, Aug. 25 (UPI) -- Iraq's top Shiite Muslim religious figure flew home from London Wednesday in a development that could mean peace or escalating war between U.S. forces and Shiite militias clashing in the holy city of Najaf.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani made a surprise, unexpected return to Iraq, flying to Kuwait and then crossing the land border to Basra in a motorcade Wednesday. He plans to travel to Najaf Thursday.
As the fighting in Najaf raged over the past three weeks, Sistani was in London quietly having heart treatment. But he hit the ground running when he got to Basra, issuing a statement focusing on the continued fighting in Najaf, the burial place of the Imam Ali, after the Prophet Mohammed, the holiest figure in Shiism.
Since Aug. 6, the Mehdi Army militia of Moqtada Sadr has been fighting against at least 2,000 heavily armed U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies from the government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. The U.S. and forces and their Iraqi allies have now bottled up Sadr's forces in the holiest shrine in Najaf, but tensions in the city and throughout Iraq, with its 60 percent Shiite majority are running very high.
Sistani called upon Iraqi Shiites in a statement read for him in the southern, Shiite port city of Basra to march in overwhelming numbers to the "burning city" of Najaf in order to save it and end the crisis. "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," he said.
The bold move and statement was contrary to Sistani's long-established way of operating. The 73-year-old cleric survived and maintained his position during the long Baathist dictatorship of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein by always acting shrewdly but with great caution and circumspection.
Sistani continued that pattern after the U.S. military and it sallies toppled Saddam in March-April 2003 and installed its own Coalition Provisional Authority. Bush administration senior officials have generally looked upon him as a constructive, stabilizing figure that they sought to build up. Consequently they were taken by surprise when their attempt to crush Sadr and his supposedly small Mehdi Army this past April instead sparked off sympathetic violence throughout Iraq and made Sadr a leading national figure of resistance to the continuing mainly U.S. occupation.
In the short term, Sistani's action took center stage and forced both U.S. military officials and Sadr to say they would heed his call and seek a peaceful, negotiated end to the fighting. U.S. Rear Admiral Greg Slavonic said U.S. forces would not respond directly to Sistani's call, but if Prime Minister Allawi asked them to, then they would. "The Iraqi leadership is leading this effort. ... We will follow whatever course of action the Iraqi leadership decides," he said.
One of Sadr's spokesmen, Mahmoud al-Soudani told the al-Arabiya television network that their forces were ready to enter talks in response to Sistani's call. "We are ready to respond to any call from Sayed Sistani or anyone else to stop the bloodshed," he said.
The three weeks of fighting in Najaf has already killed hundreds and it appears to be reaching a high noon crisis point for all four major parties involved.
For Allawi and his still-fragile government, the fighting is a show of strength to prove that they and not Sadr weld effective power across much of Iraq.
The issue is not limited to Najaf. Sadr's writ runs across most of the huge working class-slum district of Baghdad now known as Sadr City, home to 2 million people and right bedside the nerve center of Allawi's young government and the Green Zone where U.S. officials are concentrated.
For Sadr, the fighting could lead to his fiery death as a heroic martyr for the Shiite faith and the Iraqi national cause, following in the footsteps of his father and two brothers who were killed some year sago, apparently on the orders of Saddam. Or it could lead to his emergence as either a restless but powerful junior baron in the new Iraq if he can -- and if he wants to -- cut a deal with Allawi. So far, however, there is no real sign of that happening.
For the United States and the Bush administration, the stakes are sky high too. They hope they can crush, arrest or destroy Sadr's forces and erase his growing charismatic spell across Iraq. But they also run the risk of setting off a ferocious popular rising that could even embroil neighboring Iran, if they miscalculate and if Sadr dies a martyr's death.
Over the past year and a half, U.S. policymakers and officials in Iraq have consistently treated Sistani with care and respect. But they have overestimated both his willingness to cooperate wholeheartedly with them, and to enforce his religious standing on Iraq's 15 million Shiites even when he chooses to work with them.
For Sistani, his return and new call are actions to ensure that he does not remain sidelined. For all his religious eminence, Sistani is no charismatic hero to stir up millions of poor Shiites in Iraq's urban slums and Sadr is. Therefore the grand ayatollah could lose much of his political leverage if he displays no serious effort to prevent the Najaf shrine being destroyed or takes no action to prevent Sadr dying in a manner that would enrage scores of millions of Shiites in Iraq and Iran and around the world.
Sistani's latest move could offer a peaceful resolution of the crisis, but along more complex and lines than either Allawi or the Bush administration want.
On the other hand, if the fighting in Najaf erupts again, the United States could run the risk of alienating Sistani and adding his own legitimizing presence to the already strong anti-American sentiments across the country of 25 million people.
Also, the prospect of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Shiites converging on Najaf could pose huge new security challenges for the U.S. forces already there. The 136,000 U.S. troops currently spread out across Iraq are mostly exhausted and certainly over-stretched and undermanned even without having to face the possible danger of enormous mass demonstrations that could easily set off a huge new wave of violence.
Therefore although Sistani's new initiative may offer some hope for a peaceful resolution, it appears far more likely to increase the danger sand tensions in what is already an ominous situation.