Sistani plays major role, but from sidelines

BAGHDAD — There is an Arabic phrase that aptly describes Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani’s role in this week’s elections: “Absent yet present.” Sistani, who wields vast influence among Iraq’s majority Shiites, has not publicly endorsed any candidates.

But there’s little doubt of his choices — and why.

The Iranian-born cleric has issued a binding fatwa, or edict, instructing followers to vote in Thursday’s parliamentary elections. He did not endorse any particular candidates, but his cryptic warning against “splitting the vote and risking its waste” suggested his support for major Shiite religious parties grouped in the United Iraqi Alliance. The Sunday fatwa urged Shiites to vote for those “who can be trusted with their principles and safeguard their high interests.” By avoiding an explicit endorsement of the Shiite coalition, Sistani can give the appearance of staying above the political fray, sticking to his role as the spiritual mentor of Iraq’s Shiites.

But the wording appears to be a subtle message to followers to vote for the alliance, made up of mostly loyal Shiite parties. “Typically, Sistani is being very, very clever,” said Vali Nasr, an expert on Shiites who lectures on national security affairs at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, California.

“Once he tells them to go out and vote, they know who to vote for and it’s not the Kurds, the Sunnis or the secularists.” A frail man in his mid-70s, Sistani has been a major influence on Iraq’s political scene since the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime. That leverage has been at the heart of an ongoing and somewhat divisive debate on the role of the clergy in a post-Saddam Iraq where religious groups, both Sunni and Shiite, are shaping the nation’s political future.

Sistani’a associates maintain that he sees himself as a father figure working for the interests of all Iraqis. But many, including secular Shiites, believe he is promoting Shiite interests with the aim of enshrining the community’s place as Iraq’s dominant political force.

The debate over the clergy’s role was fuelled by Sistani’s endorsement of the Shiite alliance in general elections held in January, a decision that helped the alliance emerge as the largest single bloc in the now-outgoing parliament.

That decision enraged the alliance’s rivals, like former prime minister and secular Shiite Iyad Allawi, who has repeatedly warned that the clergy’s involvement in politics could be the prelude to an Islamic state in Iraq.

Even with Sistani not openly supporting the alliance, his picture is on the tens of thousands of election posters belonging to the alliance. Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, an alliance leader, defended the use of Sistani’s image in the campaign in a news conference Monday, arguing that the practice did not violate any election regulations.

Associates of Sistani, however, have said he was disappointed with Jaafari’s alliance-led government and had no plans to repeat his public support for it in Thursday’s vote.

Some evidence even suggested that this may indeed be the case. He has, for example, broken the habit of regularly receiving at his home in the holy city of Najaf the alliance’s leaders, like Abdul-Aziz Al Hakim, another cleric, and Ahmed Chalabi, a former Washington insider.

But the minority Sunni Arabs who boycotted the January elections are expected to vote in large numbers Thursday, a move that would almost certainly eat into the share of the Shiites and the Kurds in the next 275-seat parliament.

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