Aides say Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is angry and disappointed that Shias are ignoring his calls for calm and are switching their allegiance in their thousands to more militant groups which promise protection from Sunni violence and revenge for attacks.
"I will not be a political leader any more," he told aides. "I am only happy to receive questions about religious matters."
The extent to which he has become marginalised was demonstrated last week when fighting broke out in Diwaniya between Iraqi soldiers and al-Sadr's Mehdi army. With dozens dead, al-Sistani's appeals for calm were ignored. Instead, the provincial governor had to travel to Najaf to see [Muqtada] al-Sadr, who ended the fighting with one telephone call.
Al-Sistani's aides say that he has chosen to stay silent rather than suffer the ignominy of being ignored. Ali al-Jaberi, a spokesman for the cleric in Khadamiyah, said that he was furious that his followers had turned away from him and ignored his calls for moderation.
By most accounts, Sistani has been deft in his dealings with the U.S. occupation forces, using his influence as Iraq's most prominent jurist to hold out for an elections process that met his specifications. He has obviously been much less successful in cultivating support among poor, young Shi'a, who have come to form the core of the Sadr movement.
Hundreds of thousands of people have turned away from al-Sistani to the far more aggressive al-Sadr. Sabah Ali, 22, an engineering student at Baghdad University, said that he had switched allegiance after the murder of his brother by Sunni gunmen. "I went to Sistani asking for revenge for my brother," he said. "They said go to the police, they couldn't do anything.
"But even if the police arrest them, they will release them for money, because the police are bad people. So I went to the al-Sadr office. I told them about the terrorists' family. They said, 'Don't worry, we'll get revenge for your brother'. Two days later, Sadr's people had killed nine of the terrorists, so I felt I had revenge for my brother. I believe Sadr is the only one protecting the Shia against the terrorists."
I'm sure I'm not the only one who just flashed to the opening scene of the Godfather: "First I went to the police, like a good Iraqi. Then I said to my wife: For justice, we must go to Sayeed al-Sadr."
I recommend this report from the International Crisis Group to anyone interested in a better understanding of Sadr and his organization. One of Sadr's goals has been to create a prominent place for himself and his followers in the holy city of Najaf, the center of Shi'a learning in the world, and to challenge the traditional clerical hierarchy for leadership of Iraq's Shi'is. With Sistani apparently withdrawing from the political field, Sadr is significantly closer to this goal.