Washington, April 4 (Reuters): A call by Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric asking his millions of followers to remain neutral in any fighting has undermined Baghdad’s hopes of unleashing “holy war” to expel US and British invaders, experts believe.
According to experts on Shiite Islam, word from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is likely to ease tensions around Iraq’s holy cities of An Najaf and Karbala, scenes of tough fighting earlier this week, and to limit the risk of clashes between ordinary believers and US-led soldiers.
“Neither the occupying army nor the local officials, in the presence of such an ayatollah, have authority more legitimate than his,” said Hamid Dabashi, a professor at Columbia University and an expert on the Shiites and their world.
Such “guidance” to followers should soothe fears of religiously motivated attacks on US-led troops, Dabashi said. However, he said the call may be short-lived.
Murtadha al-Kashmiri, a London representative of Sistani, said the cleric had asked followers not to take sides in the fighting. He denied earlier reports he had issued a fatwa.
“According to the information we received, there is no fatwa referring to Americans or Iraq, but he has asked people to remain neutral and not get involved,” Kashmiri said.
Under Shiite religious law, the Ayatollah’s authority outranks that of Iraq’s secular authorities, including President Saddam Hussein, as well as that of any invading general or army commander.
US officers, who have given orders to avoid damage to holy sites for fear of inflaming anti-western sentiment among Iraq’s persecuted Shiite majority, welcomed the Ayatollah’s position.
“We believe this is a very significant turning point and another indicator that the Iraqi regime is approaching its end,” Brig Gen Vincent Brooks said.
But Dabashi said the call could be a tactic, or even a ruse, to protect the sacred sites and the believers from harm at the hands of the invading armies.
Religious law allows Sistani to resort to taqiyah (dissembling for the good of the faith) to achieve those goals.
A fatwa from Sistani, issued earlier while he was under the control of Iraqi government agents, directed the people to resist efforts to topple Saddam.
Iraq’s information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf said that decree still stood. “As Muslims, their fatwa is to resist the American mercenary forces — they are evil — and to consider them invaders who should be resisted,” he told Al-Jazeera television.
Earlier on Thursday, the Shiite Al Khoei foundation in London said Sistani had issued a formal fatwa, directing believers to cooperate with the American-led forces. It was not possible to contact Sistani himself, who has until recently lived under house arrest on Saddam’s orders.
Ayatollah Sistani, whose followers pay him religious taxes and look to him for spiritual and practical guidance, is the supreme religious authority at the al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya theological school in An Najaf.
He is also responsible for the shrine of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet and the first leader of the Shiite community — a site sacred to Shiites around the world, including more than 60 million believers in neighbouring Iran.
Iraq is ruled by the pan-Arab Baath Party, which has traditionally espoused secular nationalist ideology, but, at times of crisis, Saddam — himself a Sunni Muslim — has invoked religious faith to bolster his policies.
Reports from An Najaf, about 160 km south of Baghdad, said US troops moved into the centre of the city, alarming some residents near the Ali shrine.
CNN footage showed soldiers trying to calm the crowd, who apparently feared they were planning to seize the shrine. The scene ended peacefully, as the US troops gently pulled back, and a cleric in a white turban tried to reassure the people.
US sources said members of the 101st Airborne had talks with Sistani about how to govern An Najaf in the absence of pro-Saddam forces. “I think he realised we really are here to help Iraqi people,” said one source.