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August 25, 2004
Sistani Returns To Iraq While Allawi Fiddles

The Allawi government continues to let the situation in Najaf drag on without taking action to eject the forces of Moqtada al-Sadr from the Imam Ali shrine, despite issuing several ultimata over the past few days. In the meantime, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has returned from his medical treatment in London and wants to lead a march into Najaf to quell the crisis:

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani arrived Wednesday in Basra, Iraq, from London, where he had been receiving medical treatment, according to a spokesman for al-Sistani in Baghdad.

Before he arrived, al-Sistani -- one of Iraq's most influential Shia leaders -- asked all Iraqis to "march to Najaf in order to rescue the city," according to his spokesman in his Damascus, Syria, office. ...

On Tuesday, Iraq's interim government again gave the militiamen an ultimatum to leave the mosque. Shortly afterward, an al-Sadr aide said the cleric was ready to negotiate a cease-fire and end the standoff.

Allawi had been playing for time up to now, and may have even been playing for popular support. The Los Angeles Times noted yesterday that Iraqis in Najaf had mostly lost patience with Sadr and his Mahdi militia and wanted Allawi's government to end the standoff. However, the continual back-and-forth ultimata and negotiations strains Allawi's credibility, which will come back to haunt him in Fallujah and other places with intractable insurgencies.

Allawi could also be waiting for Sistani's return to Najaf. It's possible that Sadr's forces could be convinced to leave the shrine under Sistani's guarantee of protection, and it might have been worth it as a tactical move had Allawi not issued so many dire warnings of action. The Mahdi army would have been flushed from the only other building Allawi would not gladly raze to be rid of them, and Sistani's presence in the shrine (along with a strong contingent of Iraqi-American security forces) could guard against their return. But that type of eleventh-hour reprieve would tend to undercut Allawi's tenuous grip on power and strengthen Sistani immeasurably.

As long as Sistani refrained from demanding power, that might be tolerable. But how long would he resist the temptation?

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 25, 2004 6:23 AM

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