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June 3, 2004
Sistani Signs Off On New Iraqi Gov't

The Coalition garnered a qualified endorsement from Ayatollah Ali Sistani today, the most influential Shi'ite cleric in Iraq, for the new transitional government. Sistani issued a rare written statement indicating his modest, if unenthusiastic, approval:

Iraq's new interim government Thursday won crucial recognition Thursday from Iraq's most revered cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Iraqi Shiites' supreme religious leader. Sistani, in a written statement issued by his office in the holy city of Najaf, shied away from a formal endorsement of the new government. But he said it could make itself worthy by improving life for Iraqis and by erasing "the consequences" of the U.S. occupation. ...

Sistani's rare comments were considered highly significant. He holds considerable sway among Iraq's majority Shiite population, so much so that he was able to force the United States to significantly modify its timetable for Iraqi self-government earlier this year.

While his words were not enthusiastic, they were far more welcoming than anything he had said about the now-dissolved Iraqi Governing Council.

No one doubts that Sistani disapproves of infidel Americans, Brits, and their allies holding control over Iraq and especially over Najaf and Kufa and the holiest of Shi'a shrines. However, Sistani has managed to separate his distaste for the occupation from the urgent necessity of getting an effective and sovereign Iraqi government in place, because Sistani sees that as the most direct route to get rid of the CPA. At the same time, he needs to establish his primacy over upstarts like Moqtada al-Sadr and maintain his political influence on all sides. So far, Sistani has been nothing short of brilliant at managing all of these efforts.

The CPA deserves credit for keeping Sistani engaged in the process, a feat that had to be extremely difficult to do successfully. We could bemoan the involvement of Islamic mullahs in the 'new Iraq', but anyone who thought that Iraq would become scrupulously secular had to be fooling themselves. During Saddam's long reign of terror, the mosques provided a central focus for resistance, which is the reason Saddam targeted the Shi'a after 1991. After liberation, especially in the aftermath of the invasion, it was only natural that Iraqis look to the mosques again for guidance.

In a bit of good analysis, the CPA identified Sistani as not only a highly-respected mullah but also flexible enough to involve in building a new government. I suspect that the cleric Sadr murdered may have been another; perhaps the CPA finally went after Sadr (far too late) to demonstrate that the Coalition would not allow radicals to assassinate moderates working with them, even if at arm's length like Sistani.

Their work with Sistani may wind up being the single biggest non-combat victory in Iraq. Hopefully we can continue to make the most of this relationship to leverage Sistani's influence in establishing civil order and government by the Iraqis, for Iraqis.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 3, 2004 12:35 PM

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