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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ | NEWS ANALYSIS

Clerics Take Lead After Iraq Bombing

February 24, 2006|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Rarely since the U.S.-led invasion have Iraq's politicians appeared so insignificant and its religious leaders loomed so large as in the 48 hours since the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra.

Few Iraqis seemed to pay attention to statements by Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari and other political leaders who called for calm. But many winced with trepidation or smiled with satisfaction as, hours after the Wednesday morning attack, the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the paramount Shiite Muslim religious leader here, issued an unusually blunt statement suggesting it was time for "the faithful" to start protecting religious sites -- an apparent endorsement of militias.

Others watched to see what radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr would do as he rushed back from Lebanon after the blast.

Even Sunni Muslim political leaders, who announced Thursday they were pulling out of talks on forming a new government to protest the current transitional government's failure to safeguard their mosques and offices, were outflanked by Sunni clerics.

The Muslim Scholars Assn., an umbrella group for Sunni religious leaders, issued a condemnation Thursday of their Shiite counterparts "for calling for demonstrations knowing that these demonstrations can be infiltrated and they cannot control the streets." The statement noted that "the resistance controlled Samarra for two years, and nothing happened to the shrines."

The dominance of clerics from both sects on the political scene marks a dramatic reversal of 85 years of secular rule in Iraq.

"The clerics are the kingmakers, the peacemakers and the war-makers," Ismael Zayer, editor in chief of Al Sabah al Jadid, a daily newspaper, said in dismay. "People are marching by order of clerics and stopping by order of clerics."

Iraq's political leaders and U.S.-led forces can shut down the country for a time and reduce the violence by setting up checkpoints and flooding the streets with soldiers. But few doubt who really hold the cards.

"If the religious leaders decided to go all the way to a civil war they could, in no time," said Hassan Bazzaz, a political scientist at Baghdad University. "And if they really wanted to stop it, they could. The religious leaders are the ones who have the real power."

Unlike Sunni religious leaders, who are usually associated with local mosques, the Shiite clerics emerge from a system of religious schools and have a loose hierarchy. At the top in Iraq are the marjaiyah, the four most respected grand ayatollahs, of whom Sistani is considered the head.

The reality of clerical power here discomforts U.S. officials, who have tried to promote secular leaders or moderate Islamic political groups. American officials have little sway with religious figures on either side of the Sunni-Shiite divide.

Indeed, the religious leaders are notable for their lack of direct contact with American officials. Sistani, for example, has refused to meet with any since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Forces loyal to Sadr fought U.S. Marines in Najaf in the summer of 2004. And the vehemently anti-U.S. Muslim Scholars Assn. is believed to have close ties to the insurgency.

By contrast, secular politicians perceived as being close to the Americans have steadily lost power. The most notable example is former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. His attempt to build a coalition across Iraq's sectarian divisions was supported by U.S. officials, but the grouping fared poorly in the December parliamentary elections.

"We keep recirculating the same stale politicians over and over again," said Wayne White, a former State Department intelligence specialist who is a scholar at Washington's Middle East Institute. "A lot of Iraqis resent the occupation and associate a lot of the politicians who have been in circulation since 2003 with the United States."

Even leaders of Iraq's religious political parties, some of them scions of famous clerical families, have been so damaged by recent infighting that they have been sidelined in favor of the clerics themselves.

The rise of the clerics comes after decades in which secular politicians have failed to deliver decent government, culminating in the disastrous reign of Saddam Hussein.

Most of Iraq's current political leaders spent the Hussein years in exile, but the clerics mostly stayed in Iraq, often at great personal risk. They've been able to take positions that give them enormous moral authority among Iraqis, as opposed to politicians who have had to make compromises with one another and with the Americans.

Sistani, the top Shiite cleric, has barely budged from his house in Najaf for decades and has been outspoken in his insistence that the country's Shiite majority has the right to a direct say on the country's political future. He insisted on holding direct elections at a time when the U.S. was reluctant to do so.

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