Monday, September 24, 2007

There's Something Happening Here

As Cernig observed, the BBC and AP reported that two more aides to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani were killed late last week. While the BBC and AP both claim that the recent killings bring the total of Sistani aides felled in recent months to 5, by my count there have been 7*. They are:
-Sheikh Rahim al-Hasnawi, a representative of Sistani's in the Najaf's al-Mishkhab district, killed on June 6.

-Abdallah Falak, the financial manager of Sistani's office, killed on July 20.

-Kazim al-Budayri, in charge of protecting the Imam Ali Shrine, was killed days after Falak. Al-Budayri served as a personal guard to al-Sistani before his appointment to guard the shrine, one of the holiest to Shi'ite Muslims.*

-Sheikh Fadil al-Aqil, a representative of Sistani, killed on August 2.

-Muslim Battat, an imam, was killed after evening prayers at a central Basra mosque August 31

-Amjad al-Janabi, killed near Basra on September 20.

-Ahmad al-Barqawi also killed on September 20.
While I have attempted to probe the depths of this evolving story (on this site and elsewhere), the perpetrators and exact motives remain shrouded in mystery. The list of potential suspects includes, but is not limited to, the Sadrist current (or at least breakaway factions thereof), Iran, US forces, Sunni insurgents, SIIC and Dawa. In fact, there is a distinct possibility that different groups were behind the assassinations at different times.

Each group has something to gain by intimidating and cajoling Sistani - though oddly enough, since none has taken credit, it remains unclear whether Sistani has received the intended message. Then again, perhaps Sistani is aware of the identity of his current adversaries, but prefers to remain silent on the matter for any number of reasons.

For a fuller discussion of the various players, what they stand to gain, some speculation as to the possible perpetrators, as well as the exacerbation of the Shiite-Shiite rift signified by these attacks, check out this post. Little has changed between now and then in terms of clarifying the matter, and so there's not much to add to that analysis. Cernig does make a good point though:
...[I]t may well be significant that, even though everyone knows these killings are contributing to political turmoil and leading to greater Shiite on Shiite violence, no-one in either the Iraqi leadership or the Coalition forces feels strongly enough about it to launch a major investigation to uncover the culprits behind any conspiracy to set Shiites at each others' throats.
True. Beyond the fact that an assassination of Sistani could set off massive Shiite-on-Shiite violence, though, the fact that Sistani is such a prominent figure would seem to be more than enough justification for a thorough and determined investigation. And yet, nothing. The government (SIIC, Dawa) has not taken action, and other parties remain silent in demanding such (Sadr).

The timing of this, from Juan Cole, also deserves mention all things considered:
Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that former prime minister Ibrahim Jaafari visited Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf on Saturday. Jaafari was expected to meet with representatives of the Sadr Movement later that day. Al-Hayat says that two main interpretations of the visit have been put forward. One is that Jaafari is attempting to repair the rifts in the United Iraqi Alliance, the ruling Shiite fundamentalist bloc created by Sistani in the fall of 2004. In that case he was getting Sistani's blessing for the effort and seeking his intercession with Muqtada al-Sadr, who has withdrawn his bloc from the coalition.

The second interpretation is that Jaafari is attempting to make a new bloc in parliament that would include the Sadrists, and which would undermine Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. In that case he was seeking Sistani's blessing for the effort or at least ensuring that the grand ayatollah was not dead set against it.
Perhaps the timing was coincidental, though perhaps not. It should be noted, as well, that it's not only aides to Sistani that have been targeted in assassination attempts as of late. Governors and other local leaders have been killed, including representatives affiliated with SIIC (with Sadr's forces suspected in the plot). Again, Cole:
Al-Hayat also reports on the worsening security situation in the south. It reports one member of the federal parliament as complaining about a wave of assassinations in Basra. Some 100 persons were cut down just in the past week, he alleged, including two aides to Sistani. He demanded the resignation of the Basra police chief and threatened a vote of no confidence against the minister of the interior if nothing was done to stem the killings.
While the details and nuances of this intrigue remain uncertain, the violence is a symptom of the shifts in the underlying Shiite political/religious tectonic plates, and the intensifying conflict for money, power and resources brought on by a receding coalition presence. Perhaps that is the main takeaway. The fear is that these are the mere tremors, with the earthquakes and aftershocks still to come. If Sistani himself is actually taken down, we could be looking at 8+ on the Richter Scale.

*(It could be argued that since al-Budayri was no longer in the employ of Sistani at the time of his death, he should not be counted as an aide in terms of this tally. However, al-Budayri had recently served as Sistani's bodyguard, and had been reassigned to a prestigious post with Sistani's blessing. This one could go either way, but if he were excluded from the count that would still leave the total at 6, and not 5, as widely reported.)

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