In the rear, where the coalition was fighting for the allegiance of
millions of Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, one of Iraq's most
prominent Shiite clerics, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a
fatwa, or edict, instructing Muslims to remain calm and not to
interfere with allied forces seeking to defeat irregular troops.
From New York, Sheik Fadhel al-Sahlani, who is the grand ayatollah's representative in the United States, said by telephone that he had not received a copy of the fatwa. But he said, "the essence of such a fatwa is to protect the people from any fighting and war casualties."
"They cannot stand as if they are supporting Saddam and be the coalition's target," he said.
The fatwa seemed to be a reversal in tone. On March 27, the grand ayatollah, who may have been under pressure from Baghdad, issued a fatwa forbidding any cooperation with invading forces.
But it's only a reversal in tone, not in content; the bottom line, either way, is that Shiite civilians are being told to stay out of the fighting -- for now.
As to the main fighting, there's still a lot of uncertainty about what's going on. That the Republican guard around Baghdad would put up less of a fight than the regular army in the south seems too good to be true, and like the early reports of mass surrenders, news from this war which seemed too good to be true has often turned out to be too good to be true. (Which leaves me wondering a bit about the latest report of mass surrenders, 2000 troops or so from the Republican Guard themselves).
But unless Saddam can somehow drag his neighbors into the fighting in a major way, he can't hold out forever. So, barring that event, or a stunning battlefield reversal (it's not yet beyond possibility that we've been led into some sort of elaborate trap, using all the stuff which hasn't shown up in battle reports, for whatever reason), we're back to the questions we started the war with: how ugly he goes down, which could be very ugly yet, and more importantly, what happens in the aftermath.