The media continues to speculate wildly on the timing of Grand Ayatollah Ali Taqi Al-Sistani's unexpected departure from Najaf to London for emergency heart treatment. While several of his spokesmen have denied that the medical condition of the 74 year-old cleric is critical, I have personally heard from an informed source who is a close relative of Sistani's agent in Basrah that he has been suffering from ischemic heart disease for some time and that he had recently experienced a myocardial infarction just 2 or 3 weeks before the fighting broke out in Najaf.
He was advised by his family and close supporters to leave Najaf immediately for treatment and rest in London. They had already coordinated with Iraqi, US and British authorities for the preparations. The old man stubbornly refused to leave, mentioning that he had remained in Najaf during even darker days. However, he resigned grudgingly to their suggestions later on. He was practically hauled to London by his son and his senior aides. My source also tells me that the other three senior clerics of the Hawza were also aware of what was to take place in Najaf, and that they had been advised by the governor's office and SCIRI to either leave Najaf for safer ground or lay low. He says that people from Sadr's office grew extremely uncomfortable on hearing this and that they had sent someone to either beg/convince or prevent Sistani from leaving Najaf. They have been claiming that Sistani was forced to leave Najaf by the Iraqi and US authorities ever since.
Sistani refused to take a US helicopter and instead was driven to Baghdad Airport by the Diwaniyah-Hilla-Baghdad road in a closely guarded yet inconspicuous convoy. He arrived in London via Beirut, and there was some footage of his arrival at Heathrow. He was with his son Mohammed Ridha and one of his aides, and they were received by his London agent under the eyes of gawking British security personnel. More footage was released yesterday of an old tired Sistani lying down in a bed at the Cromwell hospital. He is said to have been visited by an Iranian official who offered him Tehran's services, and that he snapped back at him that all he wanted was for Iran to leave him and Iraq alone.
So that settles all the conspiracy theories. Some people have been claiming that Sistani was flown away to London to 'remove' him from the scene in Najaf against his will. They underestimate the power of a supreme Hawza cleric, if Sistani wished, he could quite easily issue a fatwa or a statement from his hospital bed against the US actions. A supreme marji' can't easily be intimidated or silenced. They forget that Sayyid Mohammed Taqi Al-Shirazi issued the fatwa that sparked the massive 1920 uprising against the British while he was on his death bed, and he did indeed die days later but the revolt did not.
Also, the sensational media's talk of a power vacuum, or a struggle in Najaf among the clerics on the event of Sistani's death betrays their ignorance of the traditional Shia leadership hierarchy. Sistani would be succeeded by either Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Ishaq Al-Fayyadh or Grand Ayatollah Bashir Al-Najafi, with the former being the most likely candidate even though they are equals in terms of scholarship and Islamic jurisprudence. Al-Fayyadh is of Afghani origin, while Al-Najafi is Pakistani. Al-Fayyadh was also, together with Sistani, one of Al-Khoei's most favourite students and esteemed aides. Grand Ayatollah Abu Al-Qasim Al-Khoei (who is Sistani's predecessor) even allowed Sistani, Al-Fayyadh, and Mohammed Baqir Al-Sadr to issue fatwas on his behalf at many occasions. His followers are all over the Shi'ite world from Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.
Furthermore, Grand Ayatollah Al-Fayyadh is known to be the most moderate of Shi'ite marji'iya, even more so than Sistani. He belongs to the traditional old school of the Hawza (that of Abu Al-Hassan Al-Asfahani, Sadiq Al-Shirazi, Al-Barujardi, Hussein Kashif Al-Ghatta', Muhsin Al-Hakim, and Al-Khoei) that calls for a distinct seperation of state and religion and an utter contempt for the notion of Wilayet Al-Faqih (the rule of the jurisprudent) that was preached by Khomeini and taken up by the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
So I wish to comfort the sensational media that there will be no power struggles in the Hawza after Sistani's death. There will always be a peaceful consensus on who would be the supreme marji' in Najaf, as it has always been that way for centuries.