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Shiite clerics run country behind scenes
Najaf, Iraq Press, December 2 , 2003 – Barely nine months ago, the ayatollahs in Najaf had almost no say in Iraqi politics.
Secluded in their modest offices in the city, their major job was to advise followers on matters with purely a religious character.
Their fatwas, or edicts, found no place in the country’s strictly controlled media. Their movements were severely curtailed and even their sermons were screened in advance.
Those daring to defy the government were either imprisoned or killed.
But since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the clerics have made a powerful comeback so much so that the United States, the mightiest military power in the world, now heeds to their fatwas.
With unrest and violence raging in the so called-Sunni Muslim triangle, an area about one third of the country, it is not in the US interests to antagonize the majority Muslim Shiites.
Aware that it is in their hands to make or break decisions regarding the future of Iraq, the clerics are showing almost no signs of bending under pressure whether from the US occupiers or their hand-picked Governing Council members.
The much-trumpeted transfer of power to Iraqis hit a snag even before the ink of the agreement had dried.
The United States and the council had to give in and pledge major revisions, not because of large-scale demonstrations denouncing the deal, but because the Shiites most senior cleric, ayatollah Ali Sistani was unhappy with it.
Sistani, 70, with a snowy long beard, leads the life of an ascetic. In his bare house in an old quarter of Najaf, he sits on an old rug and shuns today’s amenities and luxuries.
But it is in his modest house that major decisions are made.
Members of the Governing Council visit him regularly for advice and reports say that he has recently got a letter from US President George W. Bush.
Emboldened, some clerics have even poured scorn on Bush’s surprise visit to Baghdad on Friday to mark America’s Thanksgiving holiday.
Abdulaziz al-Hakim, the leader of the largest and most influential Shiite political group, and the current head of the US-supervised council, believes that Sistani’s ideas and suggestions have to be respected.
For al-Hakim and his Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Sistani is marja al-taglid, or source of emulation, a position that enables Sistani exercises tremendous authority among his followers.
“It is necessary to respect the viewpoints of the marjaiya (religious source) in Najaf, namely the reservations made by Mr. Sistani,” al-Hakim said in an interview.
But the US’ attempt to appease the clerics in Najaf is said to have alienating the minority Sunni and Kurdish communities.
For centuries the Sunnis dominated the political scene in Iraq. Brushing their views aside and alienating them will most probably make the US task of a quick handover of power to Iraqis an extremely difficult job.