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

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.

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.

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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.

And last August, after Prime Minister Allawi and US officials had failed to contain the army of militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, Sistani successfully negotiated an end to bloody fighting between supporters of Mr. Sadr and US forces in the Muslim holy city of Najaf. Though Sadr was allowed to remain free, Sistani defused a battle that threatened to inflame the predominantly Shiite south of the country.

Shiite clerics say that there has been one principal concern behind most of Sistani's political pronouncements: that the country's majority Shiite population never be frozen out of Iraqi politics again, and that the senior religious leaders, or marjiya, in Najaf play their part in safeguarding the communities' interests.

Under the Ottoman Empire, Iraq was dominated by a Sunni Arab elite. When the British set about cobbling together the modern Iraqi state in the 1920s, they mostly leaned on the old Ottoman administrators and Amir Faisal, the Sunni Arab they imported to be Iraq's king.

In the early 1920s, the British devised a partial election process to ratify their vision for Iraq, and also imposed a military treaty that left British forces largely in control of the country. That decision was the source of much of the turbulence and revolution that marked Iraq's early years.

At the time, the most important ayatollahs in Najaf issued fatwas telling their followers not to vote, because they felt the process would lead only to an unfair order. But the upshot of their abstention was that the clergy lost all influence over the process. The chain of events led to the Baath revolution and Hussein's reign, during which Shiites suffered heavily.

"In the 1920s, the marjiya were saying it was wrong to have an election under occupation, exactly what the Sunnis are saying today,'' says Mr. Jabbar. "The Shiites quickly recognized their mistake and vowed to correct it at the earliest opportunity. This is the first opportunity."

"The marjiya have studied everything surrounding the 1920 revolution - the British ended up writing our constitution,'' says Mr. Sagheer, the Sistani aide. "Now we insist that the same mistake not be made again."

Not Ayatollah Khomeini

While Sistani's involvement so far has been a moderating voice, stressing the need for free elections and the protection of Sunni and other minority rights in any Iraqi government, he is not a believer in a strict separation of church and state.

He's long rejected the thought of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who lived in exile in Najaf before leading Iran's Islamic revolution and called for wilayat al-faqih, or the guardianship of the jurisprudent, that directed clerical rule. But Sistani has also written about the need for clerical influence in political life.

"Sistani in his fatwas does talk about ... the guardianship of the jurisprudent in social issues,'' says Mr. Cole, the history professor. Sistani's preference is "that clerics mostly leave running the state to lay persons. But the implication is that Shiite lay persons will be influenced by Sistani's fatwas on legislative issues."

Analysts note that one of the main differences between Shiite and Sunni Islam is the hierarchical nature of Shiism. Almost all Shiites adopt an "object of emulation," or marja al-taqlid, a senior cleric whose rulings on what is permitted under Islam they closely follow. Sistani is the most widely followed marja in Iraq.

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