Austin Bay

Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is a most remarkable man.

Consider these attributes: a Muslim theologian who promotes democracy, an Iraqi Shia leader who supports national reconciliation, an international Shia luminary who believes Sunnis and Shias and Christians -- and human beings in general -- have reasons to cooperate and accommodate. In a just world, he would win a Nobel Peace Prize.

British Maj. Gen. Andrew Graham said of Sistani in 2004: "The pro-democracy moderate Muslim cleric doesn't have to be found. That's Sistani. Fortunately, he is the most influential religious leader in Iraq."

Sistani's influence extends beyond Iraq, into Shia communities throughout the world, including Iran and Lebanon.

However, these inspiring attributes are the very reason the so-called "Soldiers of Heaven" militia targeted Grand Ayatollah Sistani for either kidnapping or assassination this past weekend.

News reports describe the Soldiers of Heaven as a "messianic Shia cult" intent on murdering Shia pilgrims visiting shrines in the Iraqi city of Najaf. The Shia pilgrims were commemorating Ashoura, the murder of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Imam Hussein, after the Battle of Karbala in A.D. 680. That murder fixed the schism between the Sunni and the Shia. Najaf (which isn't far from the modern city of Karbala) is also Sistani's home.

I'll get to the Battle of Najaf 2007 in a moment, but first consider who benefits from the mass murder of Shia pilgrims and senior Shia clerisy who support reconciliation and national unity. Here's the answer: the Islamo-fascist killers who fear the emergence of a democratic alternative to tyranny and terror in the Middle East.

Sistani offers a modernizing Shia alternative to Iran's radical leaders. That's why targeting Sistani immediately suggests a touch or two of Iranian involvement, at least in terms of funds and operational advice.

Radical Shia groups in Iraq benefit from such a horror. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has launched a new series of raids on Moktada Sadr's Shiite Mahdi Militia. That's put the Sadrists in a bind. Sadrist propagandists assert that the Shia radical militias protect Shias the government cannot defend. Savagery in Najaf plays into the propagandists' hands -- even though the nominal leader of the Soldiers of Heaven also called himself "the mahdi."

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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