BAGHDAD – Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric has been quietly issuing religious edicts declaring that armed resistance against U.S.-led foreign troops is permissible – a potentially significant shift by a key supporter of the Washington-backed government in Baghdad.
The edicts, or fatwas, by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani suggest he seeks to sharpen his long-held opposition to American troops and counter the populist appeal of his main rival, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia.
But – unlike al-Sadr’s anti-American broadsides – the Iranian-born al-Sistani has displayed extreme caution with anything that could imperil the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The two met Thursday at the elderly cleric’s base in the city of Najaf, south of Baghdad.
So far, al-Sistani’s fatwas have been limited to a handful of people. They also were issued verbally and in private – rather than a blanket proclamation to the general Shiite population – according to three prominent Shiite officials in regular contact with al-Sistani as well as two followers who received the edicts in Najaf.
All spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Al-Sistani – believed to be 79 or 80 – has not been seen in public since a brief appearance in August 2004, shortly after returning from London for medical treatment for an unspecified heart condition. But his mix of religious authority and political clout makes him more powerful than any of Iraq’s elected leaders.
For American officials, he represents a key stabilizing force in Iraq for refusing to support a full-scale Shiite uprising against U.S.-led forces or Sunnis – especially at the height of sectarian bloodletting after an important Shiite shrine was bombed in 2006.
It is impossible to determine whether those who received the edicts acted on them. Most attacks are carried out without claims of responsibility.
It is also unknown whether al-Sistani intended the fatwas to inspire violence or as theological opinions on foreign occupiers. Al-Sadr – who has a much lower clerical rank than al-Sistani – recently has threatened “open war” on U.S.-led forces.
The U.S. military said it had no indications that al-Sistani was seeking to “promote violence” against U.S.-led troops. It also had no information linking the ayatollah or other top Shiite clerics to armed groups battling U.S. forces and allies.
A senior aide to al-Maliki said he was not aware of the fatwas, but added that the “rejection of the occupation is a legal and religious principle” and that top Shiite clerics were free to make their own decisions.