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Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Sistani's March 

Multiple sources are reporting that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, in defiance of his doctors' orders, has departed London twelve days after heart surgery in hopes that he can end hostilities in Najaf by leading "all believers" on a march to the Imam Ali shrine. As usual, the most reliable coverage comes from Juan Cole (thanks to Zemblan patriot T.H. for the tip):
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" . . . .

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 . . . .

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 . . . .

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.
The remarks above, from earlier tonight, appear to be prophetic. Cole's latest update indicates that all hell is about to break loose:
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 . . . .

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

As I write very early Thursday morning, Sistani's convoy had left Basra on its way to Najaf several hours to the north.

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