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ayatollah sistanis influential role

Since the fall of Baghdad to coalition forces, Shiite dominance over the political scene in Iraq has become evident. The Hawzah religious institution, with its preeminent Shiite clergymen, has become the center of this dominance under the leadership of the supreme religious authority Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

From the first days after the fall of the former dictator’s regime and coalition forces’ control over Iraqi cities, Sistani demanded direct free elections. His demand was one of the means he used to challenge occupation forces with their own weapon, democracy. Paul Bremer, U.S. Civil Administrator of Iraq, did not hide his discontent at Sistani’s demand and tried to ignore it, giving many justifications, the easiest being security conditions and the lack of a population census in Iraq.

From that date however, Sistani has assumed an important role in the politics of Iraq. In all major issues related to Iraq’s political affairs under occupation, visits to Sistani’s office in Najaf for consultation and reflection have not ceased. Members of the Iraqi Interim Government, leaders of political blocs and members of the Iraqi government are all regular visitors to his office, as are coalition delegates, and UN and Arab League members. Today, Sistani sends out political messages through his political visitors. He is keen not to appear on media outlets.


Who is Ali Sistani?

Ayatollah Ali Sistani is the most respected Shiite cleric in Iraq. Yet his personality is a source of controversy among those who support and oppose him. Supporters believe that he is one of the greatest scholars and the legitimate successor of Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoi, the former Hawzah authority in Iraq who died in 1992. On the other hand, those who oppose him (radicals who oppose the traditional Hawzah) believe that his authority has emerged as a result of a deal struck between Sistani and Abdul-Majeed al-Khoi, the son of Abu al-Qasem. According to this opinion, al-Khoi kept the financial resources and the institutions of his father and Sistani took over the religious authority. Those who oppose Sistani say that there are many who are more qualified than him, and sometimes accuse him of loyalty to Iran (given his Iranian nationality), as well as to the U.S.

In general, Sistani’s authority is characterized by his huge financial capacities derived from religious contributions collected by his religious institutions from his followers, and by his ability to appeal to influential members of Shiite social and religious communities.

On the political level Sistani is considered a key religious figure who has helped Shiites dominate the political process since the beginning of the occupation. Bremer’s memoirs reveal many aspects of this influence, suggesting that Sistani played an important role in ensuring electoral success for the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance list. While Sistani did not issue a clear fatwa instructing his followers to vote for a certain party, he urged them to actively participate in the elections and to be united as Shiites. Thus his followers went to the ballot boxes and voted for the Alliance list which won 128 seats out of the 275 parliamentary seats.

It should be mentioned that Sistani has given up the traditional approach which is rejecting a strong role for Shiite clerics in politics. According to this school of thought, widely accepted in Shiite jurisprudence, Shiite religious clerics should study and teach Sharia and religious thought, but should distance themselves, as much as possible, from politics. Sistani though has become one of the most notable authorities in Iraqi political affairs during the last four years.


Ambiguous position

Sistani’s divergence from the traditional Shiite school and involvement in politics has been prominent since the beginning of the US occupation, especially when he declared, in 2004, his opposition to the interim constitution (known as the Transitional Administrative Law TAL). He challenged the U.S authority on many articles (such as the role of religion in legislation) and he insisted that the constitution be written by Iraqis and not Americans, calling on Iraqis to demonstrate against the interim constitution. Sistani also played a major role in August 2004, when he intervened to help reach a cease-fire between the Mahdi army and U.S troops following fierce fighting in Najaf, which resulted in the Mahdi army leaving Najaf.

Nonetheless, Sistani has not taken a clear position regarding the rivalry between the two major political parties, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) and the Sadrists. But their behavior towards him provides some clues as to his allegiance.

Following initial animosity in 2003, SIIC has begun to consider Sistani as its religious authority. With the Sadrists the picture is very different. The Sadrist stream believes Sistani represents Iranian influence in Iraq. Of course, Sadrists also do not forget that Sistani played a direct role in expelling them from Najaf when he urged Americans to place this condition among the ceasefire terms, thereby depriving Muqtada al-Sadr the opportunity to establish himself in the Shiite religious center.

There are many assumptions regarding the nature of the role played by Sistani. Some consider him an Iranian tool because he holds Iranian nationality and others believe that he challenge Iran because he opposes the authority of the jurist and that of Ali Khamene’i (Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran). Some say that he made a truce with the Americans and did not call for armed resistance. Others say that he challenged Bremer and did not allow him to achieve U.S aims in controlling the Iraqi political process.

However, they all agree that Sistani is efficiently playing his role. This role is far greater than that of other religious authorities and Sistani’s words have become major guiding principles for the different political factions, not to mention millions of his followers across Iraq.