A memoir published in 2012 by a representative of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani sheds new light on the Battle of Najaf that unfolded in August 2004 in southern Iraq. Hamid al-Khafaf, Sistani’s Beirut representative, takes readers behind the scenes in a fascinating account of a crucial period in Iraq’s contemporary history in Al-Rihla al-‘Ilajiya li Samahat al-Sayyid al-Sistani wa Azmat al-Najaf ‘Aam 2004 (The Medical Journey of His Eminence Sayyid al-Sistani and the Crisis of Najaf in 2004).
Many parts of the book read like a fast-paced movie script, with intimate details of back-channel talks and frantic last-minute deals in an effort to avoid a catastrophe. US-backed Iraqi forces were itching to storm the holy shrine in Najaf to route the Mahdi Army forces fortified inside. Sistani, however, stood in the way.
The ayatollah did not want to see further violence in Najaf or have the shrine desecrated on his watch. Instead of a military solution, Sistani and his aides pushed for UN mediation, and when that failed, they personally intervened by negotiating a cease-fire with the Mahdi Army founder, Moqtada al-Sadr. In the end, thousands of Sistani followers poured into the shrine, providing cover for the militants, who walked out without their weapons, defeated but alive.
This was not the first time that Sistani had intervened to end a conflict in Najaf. In April 2004, another battle had raged between the Mahdi Army and US-Iraqi authorities. Khafaf reveals how Sistani’s office drafted a four-point cease-fire agreement in Sadr’s name and addressed it to the “Shia House,” an informal group of Shiite figures and political parties. Sistani’s son, Sayyid Mohammed Ridha, presented the letter to Sheikh Mohammed Mehdi Asifi, the representative of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Iraq.
It was well-known that Iran was providing Sadr with political, financial and military support. Sistani’s son gave the letter to Asifi so he, in turn, could hand it to Sadr to sign. In early August 2004, the terms of that cease-fire agreement were broken, leading to much fiercer fighting. Given that the holy shrine of Najaf was in danger, the stakes were much higher as well.