Ayatollah Sistani and The Battle of Najaf

While in the hospital, Sistani received a steady stream of urgent memos and calls pleading with him to issue a statement. Shiites across the Middle East began criticizing Sistani for his silence on the chaos unfolding in Najaf. Khafaf argues that the reason Sistani did not issue a statement is that he did not believe there to be any practical benefit to doing so. Unlike politicians who issue hundreds of statements in support or condemnation of this or that, Sistani tended to make few, but powerful interventions when he believed he could make a real difference on the ground.

After recuperating in London, Sistani decided to travel back to Najaf against the advice of Iraqi officials, who wanted an all-out final assault against Sadr. This time he would transit via Kuwait and drive to Najaf from Basra at the head of a large convoy to force a brief cease-fire. Neither the Americans nor Iraqis wanted to risk putting Sistani's life in danger.

Sadr then visited Sistani, and during their tense meeting, an agreement was finally hashed out. The Mahdi Army would abandon its weapons and leave the holy shrine. Its militants from outside Najaf would return to their hometowns. In response, US forces would withdraw, and Iraqi security forces would forgo pursuing the militants.

Sadr did not want to bear the humiliation of having his militiamen walk out of the shrine alone, so he suggested allowing those amassed outside Najaf to enter and provide them with cover. During the meeting with Sistani, Sadr denied reports that non-Iraqi Arab jihadists were fighting alongside the Mahdi Army, but he did admit that  three Iranians had been fighting among his men, including a female suicide bomber.

In a final twist to the story, the signed agreement did not reach the Mahdi Army in time. The agreement was that the militants were to vacate the shrine by 10 a.m. Sistani’s staff frantically began distributing copies of the agreement at 7:00 am, but Sadr's forces could not clear the shrine in just three hours. They, therefore, asked for an extension, which was granted, but when they asked for a second and a third extension, the Iraqi forces began to think they were being deceptive and buying time.

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