Reports from earlier today said Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the supreme spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shi’ites, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. Initial reports were that gunmen opened fire on his entourage as he was traveling from his office to his home in Najaf. But this may be a lot less bad than early reports sound. I was forwarded an e-mail from Sistani’s representatives that read in both English and Arabic:
Regarding the assassination plan of his Grand Eminence, Sayyid Seestani
We have received many calls regarding the welfare of his Grand Eminence Ayatullah Sayyid Ali Seestani, (may he live long). Many different stories have been broadcast about the incident that occurred in the past few hours.
An unusually armed person, approaching his Eminence’s home, was stopped by a few concerned individuals. The suspect is now being held by officials and is being interrogated as to the certainty of the assassination plan.
We would like to thank all believers for their devotedness and their close attention, and more importantly we have assurance from his Grand Eminence home in Najaf that he is well and not injured.
Whether this was a serious assassination plot or just a lone gunman “unusually armed” who screwed up is frightening. (Aside: What does “unusually armed” mean? Suicide belt? I don’t know, but I’d like to.) Following on the heels of the bombing in Arbil on Sunday, which killed some of the Kurdish leadership, any attacks on Sistani have to be treated seriously. With one successful attack and possibly one unsuccessful attack on the leadership of the two groups opposed to Saddam’s regime, the insurgency is hoping to stir up nuclear meltdown-scale trouble in the months before the sovereignty transfer on June 30.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-SistaniThe possible groups who would want Sistani dead include Ba’athists and Sunnis, foreign fighters or a rival Shi’ite faction. Sistani is, frankly, target number one if disrupting the transfer of power to Iraqis is the goal.
Why? Because he’s a unifying force for Iraqi Shi’ites, who make up 60 percent of the country’s 25 million citizens. Following his lead, most of the various Shi’ite groups in Iraq speak with one voice, making Iraq’s Sunni community very nervous about their role in the new Iraq. Especially if the United States and Sistani can make a deal regarding elections and the transfer of power.
Foreign fighters and jihadists would also like to remove Sistani. As I mentioned earlier, Al Qaeda and groups affiliated with it, such as Ansar al-Islam, are hoping to bog down the United States in Iraq. If Sistani were killed, that would throw any deals the U.S. might be close to making with the Shi’ite leadership, leading to confusion, delay and possibly escalating violence as Shi’ites begin revenge killings against Sunnis, followed by inevitable Sunni retaliation.
The third possibility, that a rival in the Shi’ite community might have been behind the attempt — assuming there was an attempt — should also be considered. With Sistani dead, there would be a power vacuum that leaders like Moqtada al-Sadr, the young firebrand preacher who has set up shop in Sadr City in Baghdad and who has called for resistance to the occupation, would like to fill. A similar situation arose after the assassination of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, the former head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).
There are a number of possible successors, including Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Said al-Hakim, the new head of SCIRI. But no one has the authority or commands the respect of Shi’ites like Sistani does, so it’s more likely that the Shi’ite community would collapse into various factions, each vying for leadership. The United States would lose a partner in the transition. Sunnis and jihadists would be emboldened.
At any rate, my suspicion — and it’s just a hunch — is that this was the work of Ba’athists. But they screwed up. To cover for the screw up, Ba’athist agents began whispering that the attempt was a lot more successful than it really was, in the hopes of stirring Shi’ite anger. (Apparently, reporters just heard about all this after the fact, so they might be getting spun by one side or both. An Associated Press reporter said that there was no unusual security activity or heightened alert in Najaf during a midday visit.)
While full-on sectarian violence is highly unlikely to result from an unsuccessful plot, a few revenge killings and other tit-for-tat exchanges between Shi’ites and Sunnis could escalate as the weather gets hotter and the electricity for air conditioning remains unreliable. Iraq is on a knife’s edge. Any push — or an accumulation of small nudges — could knock it into chaos.