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Sistani to Maliki: Security Vacuum Intolerable

Several important meetings have been held in Iraq this past week, the most important was this weekend’s meeting between the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki over the security situation in which Sistani warned Maliki that militias might fill any void left by the failure of the government to maintain security. Sistani has previously demanded that the Shi’a militias - mainly the Badr Brigades and the Mahdi Army - be supplanted by official Iraqi military and police forces. The point was driven home by the murder of a Sistani aid in the Shi’a city of ‘Amara shortly thereafter. Also of potential importance was a meeting recently in Salah al-Din Province between Shi’a, Sunni Arab and Kurdish Iraqi representatives with American and British diplomats and the Iranian ambassador to Iraq. Despite uncertainty about the details, the secrecy surrounding the meeting and its broad representation suggests some significance. Also, senior Shi’a figure Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim met with high-level Iraqi officials in Baghdad, as did, separately, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker.

Following up from our report last Thursday on the major showdown between the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr in Diwaniya, it now appears that U.S. and Iraqi forces have deployed throughout all areas of the city. There was a compromise ceasefire agreement between the ISF and the Sadrists, but Iraqi Defense Minister Abd al-Qader al-‘Abaydi abrogated it, and asserted that there would be no compromise with militias. As reported by the Iraqi newspaper Al-Mada (fourth article from top) on Sunday, U.S. forces have entered the city and with Iraqi forces have taken control of the entire city. The article specifically mentions the Nahda neighborhood as one under U.S. security control, and this was one of the two neighborhoods that the Mahdi Army had originally maintained control over.

The meeting between Sistani and Maliki was described thus by Al-Hayat:

The Shi’a religious authority the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani ‘rebuked’ the Iraqi government over its shortcomings in implementing security for civilians, warning against the rise of non-governmental armed groups attempting to fulfill this role in case of failure by the government. As stated in a release issued by Sistani’s office after a meeting with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Najaf, ‘the failure of the government to fulfill its duty in maintaining security and protecting the lives of citizens opens the way for non-official powers to betake themselves of this role.’

In a press conference following the meeting, Maliki told journalists that ‘Sistani stands as a support for the government,’ emphasizing that the government was able to solve the problems in the country and not ‘a salvation government’ which ‘enemies of the political process’ call for.

Sistani’s reference to “non-official” powers is clearly meant to indicate the Shi’a militias. Maliki’s reference to “salvation government” refers to the phrase used by leaders of the former Baathist regime who recently have called for an overthrow of the elected government and its replacement with one having a stronger hand which would “save” the country from violence. The article quoted two Sunni points of criticism. One, Salih al-Mutlak, head of the National Dialogue Party and a member of parliament, decried the reliance on Sistani and warned against the establishment of waliyat al-faqih, the religious doctrine which provides for rule by Islamic scholars and is the basis of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This concern is overblown, as Sistani, although of Persian origins, has been the main opponent of Iranian political theology and the leader of the “quietist” school in Iraqi Shi’ism, and has always supported the elected government in Iraq, insisting that it be inclusive.

There was also a negative reaction from the Muslim Scholars Association, an insurgent-linked but relatively moderate group of Sunni scholars who, as described by Al-Hayat, seemed to be reacting more to a Kurdish decision to stop flying the current Iraqi flag, which resembles the old Baathist Iraqi flag, in order to pressure the government to change it. The Kurdish policy change happened to take place at the same time as the Sistani-Maliki meeting, and the MSA argued that Sistani’s implied warning about militias pointed to similar developments in the Shi’a south.

Meanwhile, a top aid to Sistani, Shaikh Hassan Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawadi, age 65, was murdered in the city of ‘Amara, which is the capital of the Shi’a-dominated province of Maysan in southeast Iraq. According to a report in Al-Mada (fifth article from top), early Sunday morning unknown gunmen stopped Jawadi’s car in front of the Hussein Mosque in the Sarai neighborhood and opened fire. The Mahdi Army is known to have a heavy presence in ‘Amara, and this may have been payback for Sistani’s tacit approval of the anti-Mahdi Army operations which took place in Diwaniya last week.

Separately, an August 24 article in Al-Hayat discussed what appears to have been an important meeting of Iraqi Shi’a, Sunni and Kurd representatives with the presence of American and British diplomats and the Iranian ambassador, Kathmi Qomi. It appears to have been a “Camp David-style” meeting at a summer residence in the Salah al-Din Province. Citing sources close to Shi’a and Kurd leaders in the government, Al-Hayat described the meeting as having been focused around persuading the Iranian ambassador that Iran should pull back its involvement in Iraq in exchange for a “lowering of American pressure on Iran.” The article notes that the immediate flashpoint for the meeting may have been a 20-kilometer incursion by Iranian ground forces into Iraq, but the location of the alleged incursion was not given, and no specifics were given regarding the alleged American concessions to Iran.

The sources were not sure of the precise level of American and British representation (the presence of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was suggested but not confirmed), while the most senior officials named as being present - aside from the Iranian ambassador - were Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani (a Shi’a) and Muhassan abd al-Hamid, head of the Shura Council of the (Sunni) Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP). The political office of SCIRI (Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq), Iraqi’s largest Shi’a faction, also sent representatives, as did the two main Kurdish factions, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Kurdish National Union. Kurdish sources indicated that Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani met separately with the Iranian ambassador, the interior minister and Sunni Arabs from the IIP.

Over the weekend the head of SCIRI, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, met in Baghdad with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hushyar Zubari and Iraqi National Security Advisor Muwaffaq Zubaei. According to Al-Mada (twelfth article from top), Hakim, Zubari and Zubaei discussed issues related to security and the prime minister’s reconciliation plan with Sunni insurgents. The same source reported on meetings between former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Foreign Minister Zubari (second article), and Iraqi Interior Minister Bolani (tenth article). No details were given aside from the fact that they discussed matters relating to the two officials’ respective areas of responsibility.


Another excellent article, Kirk. I'm glad to read about "no compromise with militias", but the Iranian incursion with ground troops is disturbing.

So I'm not quite clear; why would we be giving concessions to Iran? As a sort of "please don't interfere in Iraq?"

Also, the bit about the militias filling a void if the government can't maintain security well, yes. It seems to me that one of our biggest mistakes was not going after the militias sooner. Your thoughts?


The first thing I want to emphasize is the qualifying language I used in describing this purported meeting. The story is based on second-hand sources talking to Al-Hayat. They weren't even sure - or weren't willing to confirm - if Khalilzad himself was there or if the representation was at a lower level. Al-Hayat has gotten things wrong on a couple of occasions, although certainly no more often then major American newspapers, so I don't mind using them as a source. The reason I included the story so prominently is that while it could be overblown, this could also be significant, and I hadn't seen it reported elsehwere.

As for why we would be giving concessions to Iran, frankly my view is that the State Dept. has been pretty weak on Iran lately, basically just buying time (although to be fair, I still think it is an improvement over the first administration). I wouldn't discount the veracity of the story because it suggested that concessions were being offered. I mentioned the Baker visit in part because of what it might connote in terms of how the current occupant of his former job is handling it.

I think that if we offered concessions it would be because we recognize that Iraq may be the key to dealing with Iran in the long-term. Air strikes aren't going to bring down the government in Tehran, although with time Sistani's theology might, assuming that Sadr doesn't get the better of him.

In re to not stopping the militias earlier, I would "thank" L. Paul Bremer for that. The Mahdi Army was established after April 2003.

Thank you, Kirk.