After years off-stage, Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Sistani takes charge

By Reuters Staff
June 29, 2014
(Volunteers, who have joined the Iraqi Army to fight against predominantly Sunni militants, carry weapons and a portrait of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani during a parade in the streets in Baghdad's Sadr city June 14, 2014. An offensive by insurgents that threatens to dismember Iraq seemed to slow on Saturday after days of lightning advances as government forces regained some territory in counter-attacks, easing pressure on the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad. REUTERS/Wissm al-Okili ()

(Volunteers, who have joined the Iraqi Army to fight against predominantly Sunni militants, carry weapons and a portrait of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani during a parade in the streets in Baghdad’s Sadr city June 14, 2014. REUTERS/Wissm al-Okili)

Najaf is far from Baghdad’s palaces and the battlefields of northern Iraq. Its mud-brick houses, dirt alleys and concrete office blocks project little in the way of strength or sway. But it is here, where Iraq’s most influential clerics work from modest buildings in the shadow of a golden-domed shrine, that the country’s future is being shaped.

Over his past three Friday sermons, Iraq’s top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, an ascetic 83-year-old of almost mythological stature to millions of followers in Iraq and beyond, has seized his most active role in politics in a decade.

From his spartan office in the holy city of Najaf, down an alleyway protected by armed guards, Sistani has asserted his dominance over public affairs, demanding politicians choose a new government without delay and potentially hastening the end of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s eight-year tenure.

The cleric, a recluse who favors a behind-the-scenes role, kicked off his newly assertive stance on June 13 with a call for Iraqis to take up arms against a Sunni insurgency – the first fatwa of its kind in a century, clerics familiar with Sistani’s thinking say, motivated by his fear the state faced collapse.

Tens of thousands of men have heeded the call, bolstering an army that at times seemed close to implosion. Sistani’s appeal for an inclusive government has further been seen as an implicit rebuke of Maliki, even by some of the premier’s supporters.

On Friday he called on political blocs to choose a prime minister, president and speaker of parliament by July 1, meaning Maliki could be replaced within days.

“Today, the roadmap is clear and there is a timetable. It’s as if Sistani has put all the parties in a corner,” a Shi’ite lawmaker said.

Read the full story by Alexander Dziadosz and Raheem Salman here.

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