Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric has been quietly issuing religious edicts declaring that armed resistance against U.S.-led foreign troops is permissible — a potentially significant shift by a key supporter of the Washington-backed government in Baghdad.
The edicts, or fatwas, by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani suggest he seeks to sharpen his long-held opposition to American troops and counter the populist appeal of his main rivals, firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia.
But — unlike al-Sadr's anti-American broadsides — the Iranian-born al-Sistani has displayed extreme caution with anything that could imperil the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The two met Thursday at the elderly cleric's base in the city of Najaf south of Baghdad.
So far, al-Sistani's fatwas have been limited to a handful of people. They also were issued verbally and in private — rather than a blanket proclamation to the general Shiite population — according to three prominent Shiite officials in regular contact with al-Sistani as well as two followers who received the edicts in Najaf.
All spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
A powerful cleric
Al-Sistani — who is believed to be 79 or 80 — has not been seen in public since a brief appearance in August 2004, shortly after returning from London for medical treatment for an unspecified heart condition. But his mix of religious authority and political clout makes him more powerful than any of Iraq's elected leaders.
For American officials, he represents a key stabilizing force in Iraq for refusing to support a full-scale Shiite uprising against U.S.-led forces or Sunnis — especially at the height of sectarian bloodletting after an important Shiite shrine was bombed in 2006.
It is impossible to determine whether those who received the edicts acted on them. Most attacks — except some by al-Qaida in Iraq — are carried out without claims of responsibility.
It is also unknown whether al-Sistani intended the fatwas to inspire violence or simply as theological opinions on foreign occupiers. Al-Sadr — who has a much lower clerical rank than al-Sistani — recently has threatened "open war" on U.S.-led forces.
The U.S. military said it had no indications that al-Sistani was seeking to "promote violence" against U.S.-led troops. It also had no information linking the ayatollah or other top Shiite clerics to armed groups battling U.S. forces and allies.
A senior aide to the prime minister, al-Maliki, said he was not aware of the fatwas, but added that the "rejection of the occupation is a legal and religious principle" and that top Shiite clerics were free to make their own decisions. The aide also spoke on condition of anonymity.
Fatwas are theological opinions by an individual cleric and views on the same subject can vary. They gain force from consensus among experts in Islamic law and traditions.
In the past, al-Sistani has avoided answering even abstract questions on whether fighting the U.S. presence in Iraq is allowed by Islam. Such questions sent to his Web site — which he uses to respond to followers' queries — have been ignored. All visitors to his office who had asked the question received a vague response.
The subtle shift could point to his growing impatience with the continued American presence more than five years after the U.S.-led invasion.
It also underlines possible opposition to any agreement by Baghdad to allow a long-term U.S. military foothold in Iraq — part a deal that is currently under negotiation and could be signed as early as July.
'Rejects the American presence'
Al-Sistani's distaste for the U.S. presence is no secret. In his public fatwas on his Web site, he blames Washington for many of Iraq's woes.
But a more aggressive tone from the cleric could have worrisome ripples through Iraq's Shiite majority — 65 percent of the country's estimated 27 million population — in which many followers are swayed by his every word.
A longtime official at al-Sistani's office in Najaf would not deny or confirm the edicts issued in private, but hinted that a publicized call for jihad may come later.
"(Al-Sistani) rejects the American presence," he told the AP, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment to media. "He believes they (the Americans) will at the end pay a heavy price for the damage they inflicted on Iraq."
Juan Cole, a U.S. expert on Shiites in the Middle East, speculated that "al-Sistani clearly will give a fatwa against the occupation by a year or two." But he said it would be "premature" for the cleric to do so now.
Stern warning it mind 'public interest'
Between 10 and 15 people are believed to have received the new fatwas in recent months, the Shiite officials told the AP.
Most of those seeking al-Sistani's views are young men known for their staunch loyalty to al-Sistani who call themselves "Jund al-Marjaiyah," or "Soldiers of the Religious Authorities," according to the Shiite officials.
Al-Sistani's new edicts — which did not specifically mention Americans but refer to foreign occupiers — were in response to the question of whether it's permitted to "wage armed resistance," according to the two Shiites who received them.
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," they said.
"Changing the tyrannical (Saddam Hussein) regime by invasion and occupation was not what we wished for because of the many tragedies they have created," al-Sistani said in reply to a question on his Web site.
"We are extremely worried about their intentions," he wrote in response to another question on his views about the U.S. military presence.
Opposes disarming Mahdi Army
Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army twice revolted against U.S. forces in 2004. It has since periodically attacked U.S. troops and battled them for seven weeks in Baghdad this year.
In perhaps another sign of al-Sistani's hardened position, he has opposed disarming the Mahdi Army as demanded by al-Maliki, according to Shiite officials close to the cleric.
Disarming the Mahdi Army would — in the views of many Shiites — leave them vulnerable to attacks by armed Sunni factions that are steadily gaining strength after joining the U.S. military fight against al-Qaida.
"Al-Sistani would love Muqtada (al-Sadr) to disappear but he will not break the community by openly going against a popular Shiite cleric," said Vali Nasr, an expert on Shiite affairs at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. "If he orders militias disbanded and a car bomb again kills many Shiites, he will be held responsible."