Siege of Cleric’s Home Ends, Tribal Leaders in Control of Najaf
Dozens of men armed with knives and guns had surrounded Sistani’s home on Saturday and demanded that he leave Iraq within 48 hours, Mohammad Baqir al-Mohri told Reuters.
The incident is another signal of mounting tensions between Shiite groups in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq as they vie for political power in cities like Najaf, which is home to some 500,000 people.
“The siege has ended,” Mohri told Reuters in Kuwait. “The tribal leaders are now in control of the city.”
Sistani was not home at the time of the siege but his son was, the aide said.
“When the tribes arrived, the armed men had already left. Mister Sistani was not in the house. Nobody has seen him,” Mohri said. Sistani’s son-in-law and spokesman in Iran told Reuters the cleric was in a safe place.
Mohri, who is the head of the Congregation of Muslim Shiah Olama in Kuwait, had said over the weekend that he feared for the lives of Sistani and for two other Shiite spiritual leaders, Ayatollah Mohammed Saeed al-Hakim and Ayatollah Mohammed Ishaq Fayyed.
Mohri told the Associated Press that he suspected that the siege was led by followers of Muktada al-Sadr, the son of Ayatollah Mohammed al-Sadr, a senior spiritual leader who was assassinated in 1999.
But Mohri also told Reuters that he had received a message from Sadr, who is not currently in Najaf, denying any involvement with the siege.
Sistani had issued a fatwa, or religious order, last week instructing the local population to remain calm and not interfere with U.S.-led coalition forces, who at the time were still facing resistance from Iraqi forces in Najaf.
In a statement issued on his official Web site, Sistani said that the “lives of the great religious authorities in Najaf are threatened,” according to the Associated Press. The statement did not provide details on the threats but said coalition forces “bear the responsibility” to protect religious leaders.
U.S. Central Command spokesman Captain Frank Thorp said he did not know if U.S. troops played a role in the siege, but added, “Sistani is an Iraqi situation.”
Shiites represent a 60 percent majority in Iraq, but have long suffered discrimination from a Sunni ruling elite and at the hands of Saddam. The majority of the Iraqi Shiite population lives in southern Iraq.
Many prominent Shiite spiritual leaders live in Najaf, which is considered to be a center of religious pilgrimage and home to the tomb of Imam Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad and considered the first Shiite leader.
Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a prominent exiled Shiite Muslim leader who had just returned to Iraq after 12 years of exile was shot and hacked to death by a mob last Thursday while meeting with other clerics at a Najaf mosque.
Al-Khoei arrived in Iraq on April 3 and had urged support for U.S. troops. His father, Ayatollah Abul-Qassim al-Khoei, was a Shiite spiritual leader killed during the failed 1991 Shiite uprising against Saddam.