Quietism and the U.S. Postion in Iraq

Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani is a key figure in Iraq, who is widely recognized for his leadership of the larger Shi’ite community.  Al-Sistani has both a huge following and historical ties with Iran.  Unlike Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi Army, al-Sistani has also been extremely careful in publically discussing Iraqi political and military issues.  Al-Sistani limits his public appearances and much of what is said about his positions is generated through the statements of various proxies.  This makes it difficult to be certain of his current positions on a sustained US position in Iraq, a strategic and/or status of force agreement, the current leadership of the Iraq government, Muqtada al-Sadr, and Iran.

Experts also disagree about the extent to which Sistani has seen some loss of influence, faces a challenge from Shi’ite politicians and parties, and has become more cautious in taking political stands. Furthermore, there are conflicting reports about the extent to which he holds private policy discussions, some of which are reported to oppose any lasting relations with the US.

Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) Iraq-U.S

Al-Sistani has constantly avoided answering questions in regards to fighting against the U.S.-led forces; however, his position on a lasting presence of US troops seems to be better defined.  An al-Sistani official, who has long served at his Najaf office, has stated that Al-Sistani "rejects the American presence.”   Another official has made it known know that al-Sistani is concerned about the intentions that the U.S. might have.
On May 22, 2008, al-Sistani met with Iraqi government leaders including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.  According to a press conference after the meeting in Najaf, al-Sistani conveyed four points concerning the ongoing Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) negotiations between Iraq and the U.S.  Al-Sistani emphasized that any long-term pact in Iraq should maintain four key terms:
•    Safeguarding Iraqi’s interests
•    National sovereignty
•    National consensus
•    Approval by the Iraqi parliament.

It was also reported by parties inside the Shi’ite bloc that al-Sistani reassured al-Maliki that he would not interfere with the ongoing negotiations.  Al-Sistani allegedly pledged that he would keep his distance from the negotiations but did stress the importance of parliamentary approval. 

"Sistani emphasized that everything should be done to get back total sovereignty on all levels," said Sheik Abdul Mehdi al-Karbala'e at Friday prayers.


In regards to violence, Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani’s stance is complex to say the least.  Al-Sistani has long practiced a form of Shi’ism known as “quietism.”   This is a non-confrontational form of Islam, and differs sharply from the “activist” posture taken by Sadr.  Much of what al-Sistani has said indicates that he strongly opposes violent acts. Yet, his refusal to ask for the disarmament of the Mahdi Army is worrisome for the U.S.

•    In 2004, during the intense fighting between al-Sadrs’ Mahdi Army and the U.S.-led coalition forces, Sistani was credited for brokering a cease-fire.  

•    In 2006, after the bombing of the Shi’ite shrine in Samarra, al-Sistani refused to support the all-out Shi’ite uprising against U.S.-led forces or Sunnis. 

•    Multiple calls have been made for al-Sistani to ask the Mahdi Army to disarm, yet he refused basing his decision on the need to protect the Shi’ite community from Sunni extremists.   Al-Sistani has also said that only the person who has created such militia can disband it.

•    Questions regarding whether fighting the U.S presence in Iraq is allowed by Islam sent to his Web site have been ignored. All visitors to his office who had asked the question received a vague response. 

•    Al-Sistani's affirmative response also carried a stern warning that "public interest" should not be harmed and every effort must be made to ensure that no harm comes to Iraqis or their property during "acts of resistance."

Current Fatwa’s and His Web Site

One of the most reliable ways to understand al-Sistani’s positions on current issues is by looking at the fatwa’s that he has issued.  In addition to fatwa’s, al-Sistani will answer most questions sent to him via his website. 

Recently, it was reported by the AP Press that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, had been issuing fatwa’s legitimizing an armed resistance against US-led occupations.   This was according to three prominent Shi’ite officials speaking in the condition of anonymity. Although these fatwa’s are said to be issued orally and only to close followers, the US military has no indication that Sistani seeks to “promote violence” against U.S.-led troops.  

In response to the Western reports, al-Malaf Press writes in Arabic that “Reliable, well-placed sources in the offices of four high-ranking Shi’a clerics in Iraq denied what was reported.”   The only fact that one can rely on is that, until Ayatollah al-Sistani releases a fatwa to his community, made public by him, speculations are just that. 

There are however, some fatwa’s found on his website which gives us a better understanding of his position.

•    On one of his fatwa’s made public on his website, he blames Washington for many of Iraq's woes.  

•    In another reply to a question on his Web Site, al-Sistani wrote,” Changing the tyrannical (Saddam Hussein) regime by invasion and occupation was not what we wished for because of the many tragedies they have created."

Division of the Mahdi Army

On June 13, 2008, al-Sadr’s chief spokesman announced the reorganization of the Mahdi Army.  Al-Sadr made the decision to divide his militia into two distinct branches transforming one into a peaceful organization and the other into a small armed wing of experienced fighters.   Al-Sadr describes this new secret paramilitary as “the special companies” who will operate in “total secrecy” attacking only Americans, not Iraqis.  

The other branch of the Mahdi Army will be transformed in order to provide both social services to Iraqis and to concentrate on politics.  Even though al-Sadr has decided to not take part in the oncoming provincial elections, he has made it clear that the Mahdi Army will be supporting “technocrats and independent politicians” to keep other parties from dominating the political scene. 

It is unclear how these new developments will play out. What is clear is that Ayatollah al-Sistani has yet to openly comment in depth on any of these issues.  He is still formally a “quietist,” regardless of what his private and proxy positions may be.

Appendix One
Background Paper on
Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husaini Sistani

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani

Under Saddam’s regime, even though they were a majority, Shi’ites’ were under represented and suffered extreme repression.  After the removal of Saddam Hussein, “Shi’ite Islamist organizations have become dominant in post-Saddam politics.”   An undisputed Shi’ite religious leader is the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. 

Brief History

Born in Masshhad, Iran, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husaini Sistani was brought up in a family known for their religious background.   Before moving to Najaf, at the age of 21, he lived and studied in Qum, Iran.  In Najaf, Ayatollah Sistani began to study under Ayatollah Abu’l-Qasim Musawi Khu’i where he learned the classical, non-activist tradition, which “discourages a mujtahid from any interference with political matters at the state level.”   

After the death of his mentor Khu’i, he became the only marja’ (religious authority) and began to teach in the same classrooms of Khu’i.  This enabled Sistani to increase his followers day by day, especially in Iraq and the Persian Gulf.  According to Sistani’s Web site, Ayatollah Sistani has the highest rank among the mujtahids and scholars throughout the Islamic World, and especially in the hawzahs (schools) of Najaf, Ashraf, and Qum.

Sistani has followed the “quietist” role of “marja-e-taqlid” (source of emulation) and is the most senior of the four Shiite clerics that lead the Najaf-based “Hawza al-Ilmiyah” (a grouping of Shiite seminaries).   His work is focused on studying and teaching theology, Shari’a law, and ethics.  Sistani also has a network of agents (wakils) throughout Iraq and among Shi’ites outside Iraq. In August 2004, Sistani was treated in Britain for a heart problem which has reportedly reduced his schedule in early 2008.    However, this has not prevented him from providing his religious and social services through his Web site and the social networks which he has developed.

Social Services

Sistani has developed a vast social network in southern Iraq and in multiple provinces in Iran.  His Web site places many of his services and his main office in Qum, Iran.  Within Iraq, his growing network can be found in the southern cities of Amarah, Basra, Karbala, Kufa, Najaf, and Nasiriyah.   According to Sistani’s Web-site, he offers the following social services:

•    Grand Ayatollah Sistani Residential Complex
•    Mahdi Housing Complex
•    Al-Zahara Housing Complex
•    Thammenul Hojai Housing Complex
•    Residential Complex on Serai Road
•    Iraqi Immigrants Relief Center
•    Relief Center for the Poor, Needy, and Affected People
•    Help Center for Afghan Refugees
•    Eye Hospital
•    Imam Sadiq (a.s.) Charitable Clinic
•    Rogayyah Charitable Maternity Hospital

Political Involvement

During Saddam’s rule, al-Sistani remained in Iraq while other Shi’ite groups, such as Da’wa and SCIRI members fled to Iran.  Throughout that time, al-Sistani adopted a low profile and had no known contact with the United States. Although a religious leader, Ayatollah al-Sistani has not held an official position in government.  This however, does not take away from his political power due to his broad Shi’ite popularity. 

In 2004, during the intense fighting between al-Sadrs’ Mahdi Army and the U.S.-led coalition forces, Sistani was credited for brokering a cease-fire.   This act demonstrated the type of critical role he is capable of playing.  His influential involvement did not stop there, after the bombing of the Shi’ite al-Askari Shine in Samarra, sectarian violence started to increase.  Calls were made for al-Sistani to ask the Mahdi Army to disarm, yet he refused basing his decision on the need to protect the Shi’ite community from Sunni extremists.  

In April 2006, he also helped forge United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) as well as brokering the compromise over the selection of the Prime Minister.   In early 2007, al-Sistani was influential in convincing al-Sadr to end his boycott of the UIA and returning to parliament.   Finally, according to an article in Newsweek, after receiving multiple death threats, al-Sadr supposedly asked al-Sistani for advice.  Al-Sistani is reported to have advised al-Sadr the following: “You have two options: bear the consequences, on you and the Shi’ites in general, or withdraw into a corner.”  This contributed greatly to al-Sadrs decision on moving to Iran.  Most importantly, this demonstrates Sistani’s ability to be influential in dealing with al-Sadr.

Al-Sistani has chosen to follow his mentor Khu’i, in the sense were he is a “quietist.” Sistani apposes a direct political role for clerics like those seem in Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini, yet he does believe in clerical supervision of political leaders.  For that reason al-Sistani has not been shy about meeting with Iraqi leaders to include a recent meeting with Prime Minister al-Maliki on May 22.   Although he does not meet with the U.S., he has met with U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI).

Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani represents a key figure capable of stabilizing Iraq.  His known reluctance to the current Iraq-U.S. negotiations in regards to long term U.S. military presence can also increase tensions already created by the Sadrist protests.  It is also imperative the United States recognizes that al-Sistani has both a huge following and strong ties with Iran.  He is also recognized for his moral leadership of the larger Shi’ite community.

Post Sistani

Ayatollah al-Sistani is in his late 70’s, and has suffered from heart problems.  His ailing health condition has become a reason for concern.  With the death of Sistani, the Shi’ite community, and Iraq as a whole is likely to see a competition to take his position.  According to Dr. Babak Rahimi, “the leading candidate to replace al-Sistani is the Afghan-born, Najaf-based Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayadh.”  There are however two other Najaf-based ayatollahs who can also become potential candidates, Grand Ayatollah’s Bashir Hussein al-Najafi and Muhammad Said Hakim. 

The fact that al-Sistani has yet to announce who would assume his role is of great concern.  If he is to pass away without direction, the only thing that is certain is that a political vacuum will commence.  There appears to be some resentment with the fact that Ayatollah Fayadh is of Afghan descent.  He is likely to antagonize the Sadrist nationalists, who view him as an Afghan foreigner who should not have a say in Iraq’s politics.  

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy

Jose Ramos