Do you know how hard it is to explain to people that there is a Grand Ayatollah of Iraq? And that he's the guy who's probably running things, and has been for years? And that when he does things like this, bad things really do happen?
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.
And, while it's not a new thing for the media to ask Professor Juan Cole for his reaction to these things, it is welcoming to see his analysis appear in news stories:
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.
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.
I think this indicates that the Grand Ayatollah probably follows American electoral politics more closely than President Bush does right now and he clearly means to speak out when the time is right. And that he has begun to do just that means he already knows what he's going to say. Exactly what we don't need right now. That's what this means.