SISTANI’S FATWAS….Via Robert Farley and a bunch of other people, Hamza Hendawi and Qassim Abdul-Zahra of AP report that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential cleric in Iraq, may be moving in a worrisome direction:

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.

….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….Between 10 and 15 people are believed to have received the new fatwas in recent months, the Shiite officials told the AP.

….It is impossible to determine whether those who received the edicts acted on them. Most attacks — except some by al-Qaida in Iraq — are carried out without claims of responsibility.

All the usual caveats apply here. The purpose of the fatwas is murky, the leakers may have axes to grind we don’t know about, and it’s a good idea not to overreact to daily news from Iraq.

That said, this ranks fairly high on the worry meter. As badly as the U.S. occupation of Iraq has gone, it would have gone way, way worse if Sistani hadn’t cooperated with us. And for the most part he has, mostly by tolerating our presence and refusing to countenance the kind of active resistance favored by Mutqda al-Sadr. But these recent fatwas might be a sign that this is changing. Eric Martin:

Sistani is moving in this direction, at least partially, because of public sentiment and Sadr’s ability to capitalize on his anti-American stance. Opposing the American presence is popular. That’s not going to change any time soon.

But why now? There has to be some reason not just for the fatwas themselves, but for leaking their existence to the press at this moment in time. Maybe Sistani was feeling the heat from Sadr. Maybe after five years of waiting for us draw down, his patience has finally run out. Or maybe it was just a shot across the bow, a way of telling us that a long-term American presence is not in the cards.

There’s no way to know for sure based on this single report. Still, it’s probably not too much to say that if Sistani turns openly against us, our continued presence in Iraq will truly become impossible. He may have decided that if we’re not going to set a timetable ourselves for leaving, he’s going to set one for us. Stay tuned.

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