Sunday, April 18, 2004

How will Sistani react to an invasion of Najaf? 

It seems that negotiations have broken down and US troops are preparing to invade Najaf in an effort to capture the renegade cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. A decision to invade Najaf could have drastic consequences. Najaf is the holiest city of Shiite Islam, site of the Imam Ali Mosque, the burial place of Muhammad's son-in-law Ali. Invading Najaf could transform the current insurrection by Sadr's fringe group into a general Shiite rebellion.

Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the well-respected voice of moderation in the Iraqi Shiite community, has repeatedly warned the United States to stay out of Najaf. The big variable is how Sistani would react to an invasion. His threats thus far have been vague; if the United States ignores his warnings, he says he will "take a different, stronger position" on the occupation. That could mean anything from a mild rebuke of US actions to an all-out declaration of war. It seems to me that the US is taking a real gamble here. If Sistani decides he's had enough of collaborating with the occupation, Southern Iraq could easily descend into full-fledged guerrilla war.
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