John Amato provides some perspective on the most ominous development of the week, when Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani announced that he can no longer restrain his followers. Sistani announced this in the last few days. But, as one of Amato's readers pointed out, David Ignatius reported that Sistani was worried about this back in July.
David:.. the most important and powerful personality in Iraq is signaling the Bush administration this week that he is worried that the situation in Iraq is spinning out of control. He is the crucial person. If he gives up on this effort-this effort is over…
So what happened in the interim? What tipped the balance?
For starters, Sistani began to express this concern (if his concern is to be dated to Ignatius' comment) at the same time as he issued a fatwa condemning the Israelis for the attack on Qana, in Lebanon.
For several days Lebanon has been exposed to a continuous Israeli aggression, targeting its defiant people and its infrastructure on a wide scale. This has led to hundreds of people being martyred and wounded and tens of thousands of people being displaced as well as vast destruction to houses, roads and other civilian establishments.
All this blatant repression is occurring under the persistent disregard of the whole world - except for a few ineffective words of condemnation and disapproval here and there. The world community needs to move on to stop the continuation of this flagrant aggression.
This, in turn, came not long after Moqtada al-Sadr announced he and his militia would not sit by as Israel attacked Lebanon.
The radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr said Friday that Iraqis would not ''sit by with folded hands'' while Israel struck at Lebanon, signaling a possible increase in attacks from his mercurial militia, the Mahdi Army.
In a written statement, Mr. Sadr also said that he considered the United States culpable in the conflict unfolding in Lebanon, since America was the largest foreign ally of Israel.
And since this warning about increasing violence in Iraq, from both the Shiite leader--Moqtada al-Sadr--whose power seems to be growing and the Shiite leader--Sistani--whose power seems to be waning, we've seen events like this:
British troops abandoned a major base in southern Iraq on Thursday and prepared to wage guerrilla warfare along the Iranian border to combat weapons smuggling, a move that anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called the first expulsion of U.S.-led coalition forces from an Iraqi urban center.
"This is the first Iraqi city that has kicked out the occupier!" trumpeted a message from Sadr's office that played on car-mounted speakers in Amarah, capital of the southern province of Maysan. "We have to celebrate this occasion!"
It's perhaps worth noting that Amara, the town where Sadr celebrates having expelled coalition forces, is the same city where one of Sistani's top aides was just assassinated.
Gunmen have killed a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a revered Shia cleric, in the southern Iraqi city of Imara.
Police said that Sheikh Hassan Mohammed Mahdi al-Jawadi, 56, was gunned down in front of his office by gunmen in a car on Sunday.
Mind you, I'm not suggesting that's all there is to this, that there is nothing more to the decline into full-scale civil war than a reaction against the Israeli attack on Lebanon. The article on Sistani's increasing marginalization lists much more tangible reasons--like Shiite vulnerability to Sunni attacks
--that Shiites are switching loyalty from Sistani to Sadr.
Hundreds of thousands of people have turned away from al-Sistani to the far more aggressive al-Sadr. Sabah Ali, 22, an engineering student at Baghdad University, said that he had switched allegiance after the murder of his brother by Sunni gunmen. "I went to Sistani asking for revenge for my brother," he said. "They said go to the police, they couldn't do anything.
"But even if the police arrest them, they will release them for money, because the police are bad people. So I went to the al-Sadr office. I told them about the terrorists' family. They said, 'Don't worry, we'll get revenge for your brother'. Two days later, Sadr's people had killed nine of the terrorists, so I felt I had revenge for my brother. I believe Sadr is the only one protecting the Shia against the terrorists."
And when it comes right down to it, Sistani's waning influence seems to relate primarily to the failure of his requests and warnings to have any effect.
He said a series of snubs had contributed to Ayatollah al-Sistani's decision. "He asked the politicians to ask the Americans to make a timetable for leaving but they disappointed him," he said. "After the war, the politicians were visiting him every month. If they wanted to do something, they visited him. But no one has visited him for two or three months. He is very angry that this is happening now. He sees this as very bad."
I'd hazard to saw that, while everyone long recognized Sistani to be critical to our success, the Bush Administration and its allies never ceded the issues to him that would ensure he'd continue to exert influence. They didn't give him the things he asked for, and as a result, people turned to Sadr, who promised to take those things rather than ask nicely.
We're only now rushing the Intelligence Community to come up with an NIE on Iraq (and we know the quality we get when we rush NIEs), after John Negroponte stonewalled on the NIE for over six months. Wouldn't it have been nice to have had some assessment on these issues--particularly the relative influence of Sistani and Sadr--back when we still had time to respond effectively?