Vote confirms al-Sistani's stature as the most powerful man in Iraq

Election's timing, turnout attributed to Shiite cleric

February 06, 2005|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NAJAF, Iraq - Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani wasn't a candidate and he couldn't vote because he holds Iranian citizenship, but the aging cleric has emerged as the clear victor of Iraq's historic election.

Even before the final tally is known, al-Sistani's stature as the most powerful man in Iraq has been cemented by the stampede of Shiite voters to the polls, most of them to cast ballots for the slate of candidates he endorsed.

Though President Bush has accepted credit for the unexpected success of the election, Shiites recall that it was only because of al-Sistani's insistence on holding full democratic elections that the vote happened at all, said Ali Shawki, a religious scholar in the holy city of Najaf.

It was al-Sistani who forced former U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III to shelve plans to defer elections until after a constitution had been written, calling on hundreds of thousands of Shiites to take to the streets in January 2004 to press his point.

It was al-Sistani who instructed his followers to vote, issuing a fatwa, or religious edict, that it was a "religious duty" to participate in the election. And it was al-Sistani who united them under the umbrella of a coalition of Shiite parties, ensuring that Shiites voted for the same slate of candidates.

As results trickle in, the scale of the success of al-Sistani's strategy is becoming clear. In the Shiite provinces for which partial results are available, it is evident that Shiites obeyed his instructions in overwhelming numbers, casting their ballots overwhelmingly for the Shiite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance.

How he will exert that influence is one of the key questions confronting Iraq's still-uncertain future.

Many Sunnis, dismayed by their loss of influence in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, are concerned that the huge Shiite turnout will translate into a religious government in which the rights of the Sunni minority are trampled.

Shiite leaders insist that won't happen.

"The utmost wish of Sistani is that the constitution should neither be against our religion, nor should it be an Islamic government," said Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Iraq's interim vice president and the head of the Islamic Dawa Party, a leading party in the coalition.

"Politicians might ask Sistani's advice on general issues, but from now on the there will be a parliament that will write the constitution and form the government," al-Jaafari said. "He does not want to get involved in all the minute details."

Yet little is known about the Iranian-born al-Sistani, or what he really wants from his foray into Iraqi politics.

Snowy-bearded and stern-faced, he leads a reclusive existence in his modest stone house down a dusty alleyway near the gates to Najaf's holy Imam Ali shrine. He never speaks in public and disseminates his views through an assortment of representatives and spokesmen and on his Web site, www.sistani.org.

There, the Shiite faithful can learn the answers to theological questions such as: "Is shaking hands with girls permissible under Islam?" (Answer: "No") and "Is playing chess allowed?" (Answer: "It is absolutely forbidden.")

Born in the Iranian city of Mashhad, he moved to Najaf, the center of Shiite learning, to study theology in 1950, ascending to the most senior rank of the Shiite clergy over the past decade.

He is known as a religious moderate, an adherent of the so-called "quietist" school of Shiite religious thought, according to which religion and politics should be kept separate. That puts him at odds with the "revolutionary" school of Shiism, championed by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran, which holds that the clergy should wield political as well as religious power.

Yet al-Sistani is deeply involved in the nation's politics, and he is likely to continue to play at least some role in steering the process forward for the foreseeable future, his aides say.

"His role should be restricted to direction and guidance, and Sistani has told his students that during these past times, his guidance and direction were necessary," Ayatollah Ahmed al-Safi, al-Sistani's representative in the Shiite city of Karbala, said in a telephone interview.

Joyce Wiley, an authority on Iraq's Shiites at the University of South Carolina, say al-Sistani is most likely to exert a moderating influence on the Shiite community, restraining those who embrace more radical views.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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