I’ve been following the events in Najaf with interest over the last 3 weeks, because I believe that the confrontation between the US military (working at the behest of the interim government) and the followers of Moqtada al-Sadr will, in many ways, set the parameters for Iraq’s future. There are three major groups in Iraq, Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. The attitudes of the Sunnis and Kurds toward their American occupiers are already set (hate, and love, respectively). Our status with the Shiites is more complicated, and they’re the majority.

The big news this week, which has not been covered all that thoroughly, is that the leading Shiite religious leader in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, had returned early from London to put an end to the American siege of the holiest site in Shiite Islam. It wasn’t a coincidence that the fiercest fighting came after Sistani, one of the few people in Iraq who has any real popular support, had to leave the country for heart surgery. After weeks of brutal combat and unceasing and ineffective threats to assault the Shrine of Imam Ali and kill all of the Sadrists inside from the Iraqi interim government, Sistani made his triumphant return, and called on his followers to march to Najaf where they would enter the Shrine of Imam Ali and put an end to the fighting. Thousands of Shiites came from all over the country to join Sistani in reclaiming the shrine from Sadr’s followers and defusing the ongoing siege, and the subsequent cease fire was a fait accompli. Nobody dared fight once Sistani had put his foot down.

Sistani’s move certainly helped out the Americans, in that it prevented an inevitable final showdown that probably would have left us with less support than ever before among anyone but warbloggers, and it helped out the Sadrists who had occupied the shrine, and who were all going to die or be captured. But the big winner was Sistani himself, who showed the Americans, the Iraqi interim government, Moqtada al-Sadr, and everyone else paying attention the power of popular legitimacy.

As usual, I’m finding Juan Cole to be the most useful source of information on all things Iraqi. Christopher Allbritton has been posting some amazing first hand reports as well. Salam Pax has been on the scene as well.