Up until the moment that these lines were written, there has been no independent testimony of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s arrival in Iraq or Najef. He has not been seen or photographed at any point – only footage of an airplane landing in Kuwait and a motorcade heading for Basra and then Najef.
That is not to say Sistani never arrived as reported, but his face has not been shown until now.
Ahead of his dramatic peace mission to Najef, Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, took the enigmatic step of calling on all Iraqi Shiites to congregate in the embattled city of Najef and save the revered Imam Ali shrine.
For three weeks, radical cleric Moqtada Sadr and his Mehdi Army had been holed up in the mosque, locked in battle with US and Iraqi forces that ravaged the Shiite city. Sistani sounded his call to the Shiite masses Wednesday night, August 25, shortly after he was flown into Basra from London and ahead of his arrival in Najef, on Thursday, August 26.
This action was the last thing needed or expected by the US Marines 11th Task Force, which had just finished purging the Old City of Najef of Sadr’s militiamen around the shrine. It also confounded the US officials and CIA officers who had arranged to fly him home from a London clinic, three days after he underwent heart surgery. Their purpose was bring to the embattled city a steadying, temperate figure, authoritative enough to take charge of the sacred mosque and end the hostilities in a manner that would justify in the eyes of the Shiite masses the three weeks of bloody battles fought by American and Iraqi forces against the renegade Sadr.
The 73-year old ayatollah’s unforeseen step is seen by our sources as an act to absolve himself personally of the taint of American collaborator, an aspersion that might have been prompted by his arrival in Najef immediately after US Marines had disposed of the last Sadrist militiamen in the Old City. It was his way of telling the people that, as soon as they delivered him on Iraqi soil in Basra, the Americans had finished their task and bowed out. From that moment on, the Shiite leader determined to be seen functioning as an independent agent.
A simpler explanation would be that it was a demonstration of strength in numbers.
His call on Shiites to flock to Najef had the following effects:
They responded en masse, streaming across the country from Baqouba and Baghdad as well as from the Shiite towns of the south, clogging the roads and highways and blocking them to American and coalition military movements.
Sadr’s followers who were scattered around Basra, Nasiriya, Hilla and Baghdad’s Sadr City were provided with an opportunity to mingle with the mass movement of Sistani supporters, cover for reaching Najef and Kufa to fan the flames of combat which had died down around the beleaguered Imam Ali shrine.
The presence of Sadr’s fighters among the pilgrims was the cause of the awful carnage inflicted on them around the Kufa mosque and outside Hilla. Up to 75 Iraqi Shiites paid with their lives and more than 350 were injured in fire directed at the crowds. There is no absolute knowledge of who fired first or why. But according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources on the spot, some of the shots appeared to come from Iraqi National Guardsmen and police officers. They detected Sadr’s militiamen hiding behind pilgrims and when they tried to arrest them, the fake pilgrims pulled guns out from under their robes
Melees also broke out when genuine Sistani followers found themselves crowded in among Sadr fighting men.
The most serious incident, which has not been reported until now, occurred late Thursday afternoon when Ayatollah Sistani’s convoy on its way to Najef was bombarded with mortar shells outside Hilla. The drivers accelerated and drove out of danger at top speed. No information is available on the identity of the would-be assassins, whether they were Sadr’s followers, Iranian agents, Iraqi Baathists or al Qaeda.
In the final reckoning, neither Washington, nor the US military command in Iraq and Najef or Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi were overanxious to see the returning ayatollah go straight into ceasefire talks with Sadr, who suddenly materialized after being invisible for ten days, the moment he arrived home in Najef. They may be heaving a deep sigh of relief over the temporary cessation of the battle that systematically undermined them all. But they pin very little hope on the “positive deal” hastily cobbled by Sistani solving the fundamental issue of the Sadr revolt and expect the conflict to flare up again in the weeks or months ahead.