Top Muslim Cleric Urges Militias to Disarm

One of Iraq's leading Shiite clerics, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has called for the country's militias to lay down their arms. Madeleine Brand talks with Los Angeles Times correspondent Bourzou Daragahi about what the latest developments mean for Iraq, where the threat of civil war seems imminent.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick. This story coming up: President Bush met with reporters for an impromptu news conference at the White House. We'll hear more about what he had to say.

BRAND: But first, one of Iraq's leading figures is calling on the country's militias to disarm. Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani says only government forces should be allowed to carry weapons. Los Angeles Times reporter Bourzou Daragahi is with us now. He just returned from Najaf, where Sistani is based, and the place where there was some fierce fighting several years ago. Why is Sistani's action significant?

Mr. BOURZOU DARAGAHI (Correspondent, Los Angeles Times): Well, I think there's a couple reasons that it's important. I mean, first of all, he is backing a moderate policy, and that's not a huge surprise. He's backing a policy that the prime minister wants. He's backing a policy that the Americans want. And that's important for Americans that, you know, you have this big, very powerful figure, moral figure, who's making this very vocal statement about militias, which are perceived to be disrupting and destabilizing Iraq. And second of all, it's really important because he's also getting involved in politics. And many Iraqis and many outside analysts see that as kind of a dangerous step and one that seems to be happening more and more with the senior clergy in Najaf weighing in more and more explicitly and directly into, in the political fray.

BRAND: Well, leaving politics aside for the moment, will the militias do what he says? At least, will the Shiite militias do what he says and disarm?

Mr. DARAGAHI: Well, I mean, I think that's a good question. I don't think it's as simple as disarming. Because the militias have become so ingrained in the political fabric of contemporary Iraq, it's not going to be so simple as to just say, okay, put down your weapons. First of all, every Iraqi has an AK-47 in their--not every Iraqi, but just about every family. It's as common as an ashtray, really, an AK-47 in Iraq. And so you have a lot of weapons. It's not a matter of laying down your weapons. And second of all, these are the--these so-called militias are the people who are supporting the government. You have two very large militias, the Sadr Brigade and the Mahdi Army, that are a major component of the dominant political block in Parliament. Many of these folks have already been incorporated, to some degree, in the security ministries.

BRAND: Bourzou, another Shiite cleric with a lot of power, Muqtada al Sadr, controls a militia, a very large militia. So is this sort of setting up a confrontation between Ali Sistani, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and Muqtada al Sadr, who is very powerful politically?

Mr. DARAGAHI: I think that this confrontation has been going on for some time now. There is this battle for influence and presence in the Shiite community between the more moderate clergy such as Sistani and the radical young firebrands, such as Muqtada. I mean the confrontation is continuing. Whether that will continue into a sort of armed realm, that remains to be seen.

BRAND: You were just in Najaf, where Sistani is based. What's going on there now? Tell us what it's like there.

Mr. DARAGAHI: Najaf is relatively--when I was there, it was relatively quiet. There is a lot of hustle and bustle, a little bit of commercial activity as they are trying to rebuild the city from the fighting that took place there and somewhat devastated the area back in 2004. And one of the most interesting things that's happening there in Najaf is the increasing drawing in of the clergy into the political process. These clerics who were once rather isolated in their little seminary town are now, they have the whole world open to them, and they have this sort of brain trust there. And that brain trust is being increasingly called upon in matters of state. Many people are very worried about this.

BRAND: Bourzou Daragahi reports from Iraq for the Los Angeles Times. Thanks, Bourzou.

Mr. DARAGAHI: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.

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