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Iraq's critical Sistani factor

The Shiite cleric seeks an Islam-friendly Iraq, but not a theocracy.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 20, 2005


Car-bombs and assassinations that have killed hundreds and a threatened Sunni boycott haven't slowed the march toward Iraq's Jan. 30 election. Neither President Bush nor Iraq's Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is willing to change this trajectory now. Neither is the man who is, arguably, setting the pace of Iraq's democratic process: Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

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While it's difficult to predict much about Iraq's election and the country that will emerge, the leading Shiite cleric and the ayatollahs who follow him say that they are not planning to remake Iraq in Iran's image, with direct clerical rule.

"What we want is a constitution that respects differences, but also works for the Islamic identity of the Iraqi people and builds a society that doesn't oppose Islam, says Jalal Eddin al-Sagheer, a cleric who represents Mr. Sistani in Baghdad.

Sistani has indicated that involvement in politics can corrupt religious leaders and their message. But he also says that he wants Iraq to move in a much more Islamic direction than under the secular Saddam Hussein, says Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan and an expert on the Shiites of Iran and Iraq.

After Iraq's election, analysts say, there is little doubt that the man in the black turban with a long white beard will also guide the evolution of the constitution and its new laws by issuing occasional religious rulings on moral and social matters.

With the force of his estimated 4 million followers, and many more admirers behind him, he holds great sway over Iraqi popular opinion.

But a predominant Shiite influence over the new government could further upset Sunni militias who have already vowed to disrupt the election. The latest round of preelection violence occurred Wednesday when four car bombs rocked Baghdad killing at least 26 people. The Al Qaeda branch in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed responsibility.

A quiet, decisive role

Ayatollah Sistani - a recluse who weathered intimidation in the Hussein era and assassination attempts since the US-led campaign in Iraq began, and who rarely speaks in public - has often shown that his influence can trump the plans of the US and its Iraqi allies. Though he's been out of his home compound only once in the past six years (for heart treatment in London last August), he's played a decisive role in Iraq's transition, and won most of his battles with US officials.

When US administrator Paul Bremer was pushing for an Iraqi constitution written by US appointees in the summer of 2003, Sistani issued a religious ruling, or fatwa, saying that only an elected body could write the constitution. The US backed down. In November 2003, when Mr. Bremer was seeking to choose an interim government through appointments and indirect voting, Sistani ruled that only direct elections would do.

The US said Iraq was too turbulent for full elections and that a vote couldn't be held until a complete national census was held. Sistani's aides countered that food-ration cards issued to every Iraqi family could be used as registration documents for the elections. And that's what's happening now. When Bremer went to the US and cobbled together the current transitional process, most observers say it was largely with appeasing Sistani in mind.

"The Americans were simply reluctant to hold elections on any kind of accelerated timetable,'' says Mohammed Abdel Jabbar, the editor of the Sabah newspaper and a Shiite politician. "Sistani was the key player in this process," he says.