Correction to This Article
Colbert I. King's Oct. 28 column, "The Grand Ayatollah Behind the Curtain," referred to Moqtada al-Sadr's organization as the Badr Organization. It is the Mahdi Army.

The Grand Ayatollah Behind the Curtain

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, October 28, 2006

The question directed this week to the National Security Council press office was straightforward: "Has the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani met with any American official, either military or civilian, since the U.S. invasion in 2003?" The answer reveals the extent to which the Bush administration is now, and always has been, out of its depth in Iraq.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is Iraq's most powerful figure. Under the reign of Saddam Hussein, Sistani was forced to keep a low profile, since he was part of the Shiite majority that Hussein's ruling Baath Party controlled with a heavy hand. Sistani was on the receiving end of assassination attempts by Hussein's thugs. But all that changed in the spring of 2003, when the United States toppled the Iraqi regime.

Today, Sistani's Shiites are the major political force in Iraq. They are leaders in the new government; they run the key Interior Ministry; and one of their own, Nouri al-Maliki, serves as prime minister. Were it not for Iraq's liberation from Hussein's tyranny by U.S. troops, Sistani and his followers would still be under the thumb of Sunnis.

The average Iraqi may not be happy to see the country occupied by foreigners. But if any Iraqi should feel even a tad kindly toward his American liberators, it ought to be the grand ayatollah. After all, he is the chief beneficiary of Hussein's defeat. It's not too much to think that if the president of the United States visits Iraq, Sistani would at least meet him face to face to say thank you. Think again.

Back to the question that started this column: Has Sistani met with any American official in the past 3 1/2 years? Frederick Jones, the NSC's communications director, said yesterday that no American official has ever met Sistani.

But how, you might ask, can that be? After all, since Hussein's statue was pulled down in 2003, Iraq has been visited twice by President Bush. Vice President Cheney has been there, too. Two different secretaries of state -- Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice -- have dropped in. So have Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, countless high-ranking Pentagon brass and enough U.S. senators and members of the House of Representatives to warrant a congressional annex in the Green Zone.

How is it possible that leaders of the world's most powerful nation -- a country that has generously sent 140,000 of its finest sons and daughters to fight, suffer and die to free Iraq from the Baathist grip -- have not met the Iraqi leader with the most to gain from Hussein's defeat?

It's because the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has designated himself off-limits to Americans. He will not let Bush, Cheney, Rice and company in to see him because they are non-Muslims and thus he considers them to be kafir, or infidels. Sistani regards himself as too good to meet with those who freed him.

What's weird is to hear folks in Washington speak about Sistani's views as if they just got off the phone with him. "Sistani doesn't want clerics to have a role in government," one Washington foreign policy expert told me. "Sistani believes Islam should be the national religion," said another. "Sistani is a pragmatist," said a third. All this is asserted with confidence, when in reality these people know only what they have heard from someone else -- a Muslim go-between or a Sistani envoy.

Bush and his high command have never set eyes on the man. Yet Sistani controls them as if they were puppets on a string. It's like something out of "The Wizard of Oz."

Consider what happened in 2004: Barricaded in a Najaf slum miles from Baghdad, the unseen Sistani was able single-handedly to block the United States from staging a handover of power without elections. He did so by issuing a fatwa that sent thousands into the streets. The Bush people were forced to give ground. A law was drafted that led to elections in 2005.

Sistani's chief competition is not the United States but an anti-American Shiite cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, and his Badr Organization, which has infiltrated Iraqi military and police units. The Iraqi parliament, truth be told, responds to the calls of the firebrand cleric.

What have we come to? In addition to al-Sadr, today's Iraq is under the influence of a Muslim cleric, Sistani, who, according to Newsweek, forbids music for entertainment, dancing and playing chess, and forbids women from shaking the hands of any men other than their fathers, brothers or husbands. His whole purpose is to promote Shiite theology and keep Iraq as a democratic, but decidedly Islamic, state.

Billions spent, thousands of Americans dead or maimed, U.S. armed forces exhausted, stretched thin and working around the clock -- for that? Is this what George W. Bush had in mind?

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