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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Spotlight Is Now on Top Cleric

In asking his supporters to flood Najaf, Sistani is staking his influence to effect an end to standoff.

August 26, 2004|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The dramatic return Wednesday of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to Iraq transformed the political scene, offering both the U.S.-backed Iraqi government and rebel cleric Muqtada Sadr a chance to avoid a bloody showdown in Najaf.

There is no guarantee that Sistani's call for his followers to flood into the holy city will end the siege at the Imam Ali Mosque. If the move fails, Sistani's prestige could decline. But each time the widely esteemed senior cleric has stepped onto the political stage, he has vastly altered the dynamic, forcing shifts in U.S. policy and deference to his views.

Sistani, 74, arrives this time at a critical moment. The shrine is occupied by Sadr's militiamen, who have kept Sistani and his supporters from entering for months. Sadr's forces are in turn under siege by U.S. and Iraqi troops. The fighting has left scores dead and destroyed parts of the Old City.

Numerous attempts to reach a peace deal have failed. The people of Najaf are exhausted by the fighting. The Iraqi government has vowed to storm the shrine unless Sadr's forces give up. And Shiite Muslim clerics around the world have warned that any direct attack on the holy site could have disastrous consequences.

Sistani faces the challenge of threading his way through these various interests while maintaining a certain distance from all of them. In particular, though he shares the government's aim to expel Sadr's forces from the mosque and tamp down popular support for the anti-American cleric, he does not want to be seen as overly sympathetic to the U.S. and the closely allied and dependent Iraqi forces.

To that end, Sistani has given a simple but direct challenge to both Sadr and the U.S.-backed Iraqi forces: Leave the shrine and the Old City and let Shiite religious authorities, led by him and three other grand ayatollahs in Najaf, take over again.

Whether both sides will accede to Sistani's wishes remains to be seen. But both are well aware that Sistani wields enormous clout, and his followers are nothing if not loyal and legion.

Sistani, who had been in London since Aug. 6 for a heart procedure, had been following the events in Najaf closely. He returned to Iraq on Wednesday and immediately put out a call to mosques.

"Stop the repeated desecration of the holy sites from all sides," Sistani said. "Return responsibility for holy sites to the Marjaiyah and to those who are approved by the Marjaiyah."

The Marjaiyah is the group of Shiite grand ayatollahs who have attained the highest level of learning in the fields of Koranic study and jurisprudence. Only four people currently have that rank, Sistani being the first among equals.

Najaf is the seat of the Marjaiyah's influence. Over the last year, the city's stature has grown along with that of Sistani, as he has asserted himself at crucial junctures. But Sadr's actions in Najaf have posed a challenge to Sistani and the Marjaiyah.

"Najaf used to be a neglected place. Now everyone goes to Najaf, all the politicians go to Najaf, the media goes to Najaf," said Jaber Habib, a political science professor at Baghdad University who watches Shiite politics.

Within hours of Sistani's call for people to go to the holy city, Shiites from Basra, Baghdad, Kut, Samawah and other towns were preparing to leave for Najaf.

If the march on Najaf proves successful, it will be the second time Sistani has effected a political shift by sending his followers into the streets.

After last year's U.S.-led invasion, Sistani objected to U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III's plan to have an appointed commission draft a constitution and then hold elections to choose a government.

When Sistani strongly argued for a direct vote, the timetable for elections was accelerated and the constitution was made subject to a referendum.

Bremer then pressed ahead with a proposal for a caucus system to choose an interim government for the June hand-over. Again Sistani objected, saying that he saw no reason general elections couldn't be held instead. His aides called on his followers to march peacefully, and tens of thousands poured into the streets of Basra and other cities last winter.

Those demonstrations helped bring the United Nations into the process of selecting the interim government.

Other Shiite clerics have turned to their mass followings to underscore their power at crucial moments. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei did so in 1979 during the Iranian revolution, putting opponents in the difficult position of either ceding ground or using force.

The response to Wednesday's call could be greater than the last time. If tens of thousands descend on Najaf, it could force Sadr's militia, as well as U.S. and Iraqi forces, to agree to Sistani's demands, so as to avoid violence.

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