Sistani is ill, the south is in flames — again — and Baghdad is on edge. It’s been a bad week in Iraq.
While the Shi’a south seems to be on the verge of conflagration, Baghdad and elsewhere is rife with rumors that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is dying of a heart problem. He has been flown to Beirut and will continue on to London for treatment. From his office in Los Angeles:
Due to many calls, inquiring about the health of our grand scholar, Ayatollah Seyyid Seestani [sic], please be informed that he is sick with a heart problem and is under the supervision of several medical specialists. We hope that they send us a report about his well being as soon as possible.
As we thank all of those who are asking about his health, we urge all the Mo’mens to raise their hands in supplication to the Almighty Allah swt to bestow upon him health and shade him with total protection as soon as possible.
It should also be known that the Ummah of Islam, particularly the Shi’a, are in dire need for his presence in this sensitive era, the time that requires brave stands and honorable decrees.
Peace and blessings be upon you all.
Predictably, a representative for Sistani in Baghdad, Sheikh Jalaladin al-Sagheer, claimed to know nothing about anything, but would get back to me.
Despite al-Sagheer’s studied cluelessness, Sistani’s flight out of the country indicates his health condition is indeed very serious, because he hasn’t left his home in Najaf in years. His reclusiveness is, in part, a source of his authority, lending him an oracular air.
This news of his health problems first broke yesterday, but the continued fighting in Najaf, where the ayatollah lives, has made getting medical attention to him difficult. He’s in critical condition, my Shi’a friends say, possibly on his death bed. Dijla Radio, a local station here, is reporting that he’s suffered a severe heart attack. But so far, no one in Baghdad really seems to know the full situation. All anyone is sure of is that if Sistani dies, the fighting in the south could get a lot worse as Moqtada al-Sadr and other leaders in the Shi’a community jockey for power.
Juan Cole, who knows a lot more about this than I do, says this:
It is not clear that the other three grand ayatollahs have Sistani’s high opinion of parliamentary democracy rooted in popular sovereignty. He would probably be succeeded by Muhammad Said al-Hakim, an Iraqi and distant cousin of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). SCIRI certainly does not have a long-term commitment to democracy, though Muhammad Said al-Hakim has never identified with that party himself. The other two possible successors are Bashir Najafi, a Pakistani, and Muhammad Fayad, an Afghan. Bashir Najafi is more vehemently anti-American than Sistani. Another contender is Sayyid Kadhim al-Haeri, sometimes called the “fifth grand ayatollah”, who is still in exile in Qom. He is a follower of Iran’s Khomeini and a radical reactionary on social issues. He had been Muqtada al-Sadr’s mentor but has broken with him.
While Moqtada’s Mahdi Army can be fairly well relied upon to attack Coalition forces, al-Hakim’s Badr Brigade (the military arm of SCIRI) might be persuaded to help settle the inter-Shi’a rivalries by taking on Moqtada’s boys. The Badr Brigade is the largest militia in Iraq after the Kurdish pesh merga, numbering around 10,000 men.
Meanwhile, I’m hearing reports from my fixers of fighting in Basra, Amarra, Najaf, Karbala, Nasariyah, Sadr City and the al-Shu’lah and al-Sha’ab ‘hoods in Baghdad.
A., my old friend, tells me four British troops have been killed in Basra and that Amarra is completely controlled by the Mahdi Army. He went to Karbala yesterday to visit friends of his and saw three mosques filled with “thousands” of weapons, including Katyusha rockets, Strella SAMs and more Kalashnikovs than he could count. Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army has apparently used the two-month cease fire to regroup, train and purchase more weapons from Iran, and it’s likely that a lot more mosques than those three in Karbala have been turned into arms depots.
Things in Iraq have taken a radically bad turn, in my opinion, and the postponement of the national conference seems a bit of a storm in a teacup in comparison. The Americans and the Iraqi Interim government have bigger problems — e.g., another two-front insurgency — than whether a veneer of legitimacy will be slathered on by the seating of an Interim National Council.