Sistani inching towards declaring jihad against U.S.?

Here’s a nice turd in the progress punchbowl.

Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric has been quietly issuing religious edicts declaring that armed resistance against U.S.-led foreign troops is permissible — a potentially significant shift by a key supporter of the Washington-backed government in Baghdad…

So far, al-Sistani’s fatwas have been limited to a handful of people. They also were issued verbally and in private — rather than a blanket proclamation to the general Shiite population — according to three prominent Shiite officials in regular contact with al-Sistani as well as two followers who received the edicts in Najaf…

A longtime official at al-Sistani’s office in Najaf would not deny or confirm the edicts issued in private, but hinted that a publicized call for jihad may come later.

“(Al-Sistani) rejects the American presence,” he told the AP, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment to media. “He believes they (the Americans) will at the end pay a heavy price for the damage they inflicted on Iraq.”

It’s always hard to know how seriously to take these stories given the anonymous sourcing and sectarian agendas at work. If the “Shiite officials” quoted here are Sadrists, or even Badrists (i.e. SCIRI), then no wonder they want to maintain a public perception that Sistani approves of irregular militia forces. On the other hand, five sources is a lot of corroboration. The rose-colored spin on this would be that it’s only because Maliki has succeeded in Basra and now in Sadr City that Sistani feels he can triangulate by getting a little more aggressive with U.S. forces; until recently, they were the only thing keeping Sadr and the Mahdi Army from trying to impose a thugocracy and clerical rule, which Sistani has always supposedly opposed. Now that the government has a firmer hand, he can be the good Shiite populist resisting foreign occupation.

The not-so-rose-colored view? He thinks it’s time for us to go and this is his way of nudging us towards the exit. Exit question: Think Barack Obama can get a meeting with him?