SISTANI GETS HIS HANDS DIRTY.

SISTANI GETS HIS HANDS DIRTY. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim has evolved politically, and he has a plan. In short, he seeks to form an anti-Sadr government of "national unity" between his SCIRI party and their Shiite bandwagoners; the largest Sunni party; and the Kurds. Left out in the cold are all the rejectionists -- the hardcore anti-occupation Sunnis; the more intransigent Sunni political bloc, led by Saleh Mutlaq; and Moqtada al-Sadr and his Shiite satellites, including PM Nouri al-Maliki. Now, according to The New York Times, Hakim has the backing of the once-indispensable Shiite figure, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Well, sort of. Sistani loudly withdrew from day-to-day politics last year, recognizing that he was diminishing his influence by association with a government that couldn't deliver anything. According to the Times, he's backing the Hakim faction out of frustration with the civil war.

You might be surprised to learn I think this is fraught with peril for Sistani! The Bush administration -- certainly the Cheneyites -- are enthusiastic about the Hakim gambit because it clarifies matters for them. That is, everyone who's happy to be an occupation proxy is in the government and everyone who isn't is out. Hakim wants to kill a whole lot of Sunnis; the Bushies aren't going to need their arms twisted. Hakim, despite being Iran'd-up, has the virtue of not being Sadr -- and the Bushies are licking their chops for an anti-Sadr offensive after they're done with the Sunnis.

And here, of course, is where Sistani's interests diverge sharply from Bush's. Above all, for years, Sistani has pushed hard for Shiite political unity. Hakim is basically girding himself for a showdown with Sadr in the near future. Maybe Sistani has had it with Moqtada and wonders who will rid him of this meddlesome junior cleric. But Sadr is also far and away the most charismatic figure in Iraqi Shiite politics. There's no guarantee that Hakim can beat him, and if Sistani's fingerprints are all over the purge of the Sadrists, he's putting himself in jeopardy.

--Spencer Ackerman

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