Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Sistani to Be Officially Invited to Riyadh

The impact of a visit by Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, to Riyadh may be likened to the Egyptian ruler Anwar Sadat’s historic peace pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1979 in terms of its seismic effect on established Middle East and Islamic mores.

Yet Jordan’s King Abdullah advanced the idea during a spur-of-the moment trip to the Saudi capital on July 19 as a rejoinder to the Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim Jaafari’s hasty trip to Tehran. This is reported exclusively by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East sources.

His host accepted the idea in principle. But the Saudis have much to consider first. The normal questions of agenda for talks, program of the visit and the content of a joint communique assume abnormal ramifications in this case. For instance, will the ayatollah insist on visiting the kingdom’s often restive Shiite regions in the east and, if so, how will this sensitive encounter be managed?

A Sistani visit, should it materialize, would have far-reaching implications:

1. It would be taken as Sunni Saudi recognition for the first time of Middle Eastern and Iraqi Shiite Muslims as equals.

2. It could mark a new concord between the Sunnis of Arabia and Iraqi Shiites as a companion of the pact former Iraqi prime minister, the Shiite Iyad Allawi, is developing with Iraqi Sunni leaders. (See separate article in this issue.) The two accords would be two halves of a mutually supportive and guaranteed whole.


Riyadh is borne by a Shiite leader into a position of influence in Baghdad


3. This would be the first Saudi-Shiite pact directed against the world Shiite power base, Iran. The Saudis have always been careful not to provoke their prickly neighbor or challenge its primacy in the Shiite world for fear of reprisals including terrorist attacks. In a historic departure from this stance, the Sunni Saudis by hosting Sistani would be directly challenging Tehran’s lead-role. Prince Abdullah appears impelled to embark on this extreme course by the rage stoked up over 10 years at the sanctuary and bases Iran granted al Qaeda fugitives from terrorist attacks in the kingdom.

4. Riyadh has traditionally sided with Sunni Iraq against Shiite Iran while publicly striking a neutral pose in their conflicts. However, a Saudi understanding with the Iraqi Shite cleric would commit Riyadh to a more definite position; by embracing Sistani and the Allawi-Sunni deal, the Saudis would acquire an important position of influence in Iraq.

5. This understanding would shift the balance of power in the Persian Gulf, tilting it in Riyadh’s favor to Iran’s detriment. While Jaafari discussed virtual pipelines in Tehran, Sistani could open the way for a more formidable deal, the export of Iraqi oil to Saudi oil ports and refineries.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington, Baghdad and Amman sources disclose that Allawi was the author of the planned Sistani visit to Riyadh. He took it first to Sistani in Najef. Only when the Shiite cleric approved the plan last week, did he present it to the Jordanian monarch. Our Islam experts stress that Sistani rarely travels anywhere except in extraordinary, preferably historic, circumstances. Abdullah, a leading sponsor of Allawi’s peace initiative with Sunni and guerilla representatives, immediately set out for Riyadh to put the plan before crown prince Abdullah. He came away with the de facto Saudi ruler’s consent in principle to start setting the plan in motion.

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