BAGHDAD — Iraq's senior Shiite Muslim religious figure Thursday called on the country's controversial militias to disarm, marking one of the most overt forays into matters of politics and policy by the influential cleric.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, regarded as the moral voice of Iraq's Shiite majority, called for a government of technocrats rather than political loyalists or sectarian interests and said that only government forces should be permitted to carry weapons on the streets.
"Weapons must be in the hands of government security forces that should not be tied to political parties but to the nation," said the Iranian-born Sistani in a statement released by his office in Najaf after he met with the newly designated prime minister. "The first task for the government is fighting insecurity and putting an end to the terrorist acts that threaten innocents with death and kidnapping."
Sistani's views, representative of the clerical leadership based in the seminary city of Najaf, seemed to echo the statements of U.S. leaders who are eager to stem the cycle of sectarian violence and chaos so that they can begin withdrawing American-led military forces. But Sistani's statement alarmed many secular and Sunni Iraqis who fear increased involvement of powerful Shiite clerics in matters of state.
"I'm so worried about the fact the marjaiyah [top Shiite clergy] is given so much power," said Hatem Mukhlis, a secular Sunni Arab politician. "The Americans should be really aware of what's happening. It's giving a lot of power to Sistani that he shouldn't have."
A cleric close to Sistani acknowledged that the statement did signal a new role for the Shiite clergy, that of "monitoring" the performance of the next government and weighing in, perhaps more frequently, on broad policy issues.
"The marjaiyah intends to interfere in some issues," Sheik Abu Mohammed Baghdadi, a Najaf cleric, said in an interview. "This monitoring and direct interference is an essential matter that has never before been proposed by the clergy. The marjaiyah, through this act, is expressing the voice of the people."
Sistani's statement followed a meeting with Prime Minister-designate Nouri Maliki, a conservative Shiite leader. Maliki came to Najaf to solicit Sistani's views in the midst of efforts to form a government, reinforcing a growing relationship between Shiite politicians in Baghdad and their religious counterparts in Najaf.
Sistani, the most senior of the marjaiyah, the four top Shiite clerics in Najaf, has weighed in on political matters before, notably in 2003 when he demanded that direct elections for a national government be held before a constitution was drafted.
More recently, he criticized the government for its inability to protect Shiite holy sites from a series of bombings by insurgents.
But Sistani's statement Thursday was among his bluntest and comes at a time of sensitive discussions over the selection of the Iraqi Cabinet and on the status of armed political groups.
"Now we have to go to Sistani," quipped Saleh Mutlak, a Sunni Arab lawmaker. "What kind of democracy is this?"
Observers said the statement also showed an attempt by the senior Shiite clergy to bolster what some worry is its waning influence on the streets in the face of the growing popularity of Muqtada Sadr. The radical Shiite cleric controls as many as 35 of 275 seats in the national parliament as well as a militia allegedly involved in the killing of Sunni Arabs.
But Maliki was probably making his own political calculations as well, enlisting the clergy's support to stave off pressure from his Shiite coalition and from minority Kurdish and Sunni blocs to fill key posts according to sectarian power-sharing formulas.
On the other hand, many view such an arrangement as the most expedient way of promoting a sense of national unity and stanching ethnic and sectarian tensions.
In his statement, Sistani called for a government of "qualified figures, technically and administratively, who have integrity and decent reputations" without regard to "personal, party, sectarian or ethnic interests."
Avoiding a government dominated by sectarian fiefdoms was the main subject of discussions between Maliki and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her visit to Baghdad with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Wednesday and Thursday.
Before leaving for Bulgaria, Rice told reporters in the heavily guarded Green Zone that she believed Maliki and his advisors were committed to appointing ministers based on competence, especially in sensitive posts overseeing the country's security apparatus and Oil and Finance ministries.
"Obviously, the key now is to get the government up and running, to get ministers who are capable and who also will reflect the value of a national unity government and then to get about the work of dealing with the security situation, dealing with the economic situation," news agencies quoted Rice as saying.