“Fatwas – Not Rifles – Will Decide the Battle”

Holding back on firepower, avoiding damage to a uniquely cherished Islamic shrine and a “slow, clean war” to minimize American and Iraqi civilian casualties, may make military sense to the United States in its battle against the cleric Moqtada Sadr around the Imam Ali mosque in Najef. But this policy could damage the city’s own political fabric and its standing in the Shiite world.

The ayatollahs and religious leaders of the shrine city preserved a stony silence over the fighting around the mosque as long as they could, hoping the Americans would make a quick job of wiping out Sadr’s forces and capturing him. But when this had not happened by Wednesday, August 18, Day 13 of the Battle of Najef, their patience ran out. The town’s clerics could no longer afford to stay quiet lest their silence be interpreted by the Shiite masses in Iraq, Iran, the Gulf emirates and across the Muslim world as betokening clandestine collaboration with the Americans and Iyad Allawi‘s interim Iraqi government.

On Wednesday, they issued no less than nine fatwas, or religious edicts – some of them less than admiring of the United States.

The first and perhaps the most important of the bunch came from ayatollah Kazam Khairi, who is generally seen as the most influential of Sadr’s followers and Iraqi Shiites at large. He forbade Iraqi security forces to go near the mosque. His decree came amid a small trickle of defections Tuesday and Wednesday from Iraqi National Guard and police units fighting alongside the Americans. But it raised a hard question about the conduct of Iraqi officers should they be ordered by US commanders to move their men into the mosque compound and seize Sadr. Their refusal would present the Americans with a quandary of who to send into the mosque in their place for the finishing stroke against the Sadrist rebellion.

Khairi wrote in his fatwa, “There must be a fundamental response to American arrogance that will lead to the withdrawal of all of the occupiers (the Americans) from Iraq.”

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, while awaiting heart surgery in a London hospital, wrote his fatwa in a different vein. He called for an end to the fighting in Najef and demanded that Sadr’s militiamen leave the mosque compound. He praised the new government in Baghdad and appealed for action to restore “law, order and security”.

Another important ayatollah, Mohammed Mudrasi Taki of Karbala, published an edict laying stress on the importance of not harming the mosque.

“Whoever damages the mosque first will be pay the consequences,” he wrote, ducking the attribution of guilt to any of the embattled forces.

Ayatollah Sadeq al-Husseini Shirazi from Najaf urged both sides to embrace the principle of non-violence. But he also wrote “American forces bear responsibility for what is happening.”

Ayatollah Sheikh Mohammed Yaaqubi said all sides must act wisely and unselfishly. This was taken as an implicit injunction to the hotheaded young Shiite cleric to come to terms with US and Iraqi authorities.

Abdul Aziz Hakim, a senior member of the defunct transitional governing council in Iraq and a leader of the Shiite SCIRI party, called on the Iraqi government to end the chaos in Najaf. He stopped short of assigning any blame.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources note that the conflicting fatwas are symptomatic of two untoward events.

  1. The absence of Sistani, a great unifying figure for the Najaf and Karbala Shiite clergy, leaves them headless and unable to agree on a common position to cope with the fast-moving events.

  2. Iranian ayatollahs from the Qom establishment are moving in to exploit the troubles in Najef to stir up strife and raise their own standing as the prevailing authority on ritual law in the Shiite Muslim world.

American military commanders in Iraq fully understand that these fatwas are far from being empty words.

“In Najaf, fatwas – not rifles – will decide the battle,” one senior officer said.

In the meantime, Sadr himself has taken encouragement from the war of the fatwas. The fighting continues around the shrine of Najef as these lines are written.

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