U.S. Urged to Engage Shiite Clerics

The Associated Press
Friday, December 8, 2006; 5:31 PM

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The Iraq Study Group is urging Washington to push for direct contacts with two key Shiite clerics who have made clear they want nothing to do with the United States.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr, who have vast influence among Iraq's majority Shiites, would lose credibility if they talk to the Americans.

Al-Sistani has steadfastly refused to meet with American officials, but has been a major source of moderation in a country engulfed by violence since 2003. While suspicious of U.S. intentions, he is credited with keeping most Shiites from taking up arms against the Americans.

In contrast, al-Sadr is a tireless advocate of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and runs a militia that fought American forces in Baghdad and across central and southern Iraq in 2004. His Mahdi Army militia also is blamed for much of the sectarian violence in Iraq.

The bipartisan U.S. report said the Bush administration "must try to talk directly" to al-Sistani and al-Sadr, as well as militia and insurgent leaders.

But the recommendation appeared to pay little heed to the fine line the clerics must tread to avoid falling victim to the political treachery of today's Iraq, where something as inconsequential as a casual greeting to a U.S. soldier can sometimes mean death at the hands of insurgents.

Iraqis close to both clerics rejected the idea.

"It is impossible, not even in dreams," said Bahaa al-Araji, one of 30 lawmakers loyal to al-Sadr. "We see the Americans as an occupation force."

While the Iranian-born al-Sistani represents the ancient Shiite clerical establishment in the holy city of Najaf, al-Sadr is a revolutionary leader and a master of street politics. Al-Sadr is at odds with al-Sistani and other top clerics over what he sees as their acquiescence to the United States.

The elder cleric, maligned by some Sunni Arabs for his Iranian origins, must strike a delicate balance between his opposition to violence and the deep anti-U.S. sentiments widespread among Shiites and Sunnis alike. Talking directly to Washington would go a long way to disrupt that.

Al-Sistani has been powerless to prevent Shiite death squads targeting Sunni Arabs since a revered Shiite shrine was destroyed by suspected Sunni militants in February. He has appealed for an end to the violence, but that did not stop Sunnis and moderate Shiites from accusing him of not doing enough to stop the bloodshed.

The stakes are even higher for al-Sadr, whose relatively young age and lack of academic pedigree leave his family name and uncompromising anti-U.S. stand among his main assets.

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