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Could Sistani Be Iraq’s Last Hope?

Many in Iraq are looking to the country’s highest Shiite authority, Ali al-Sistani, as a last resort for a solution to the ongoing and dire political crisis there, writes Ali Abel Sadah.
Iraqis carry a poster of top Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani during a demonstration in Najaf, 160 km (100 miles) south of Baghdad June 13, 2007. Dozens of residents took to the streets in Najaf protesting the latest bomb attack in Samarra's Golden Mosque Shi'ite shrine.     REUTERS/Ali Abu Shish    (IRAQ) - RTR1QQY3

On April 15, 2013, Martin Kobler, Head of the UN mission in Iraq, met with Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shiite authority in Najaf, a meeting which observers described as the most important since the outbreak of protests in Ramadi and other provinces.

Kobler quoted the cleric, the most influential in Iraq, as saying that he has a “roadmap” to solve the crisis that erupted on Nov. 25, 2012. Kobler said the map “includes the return of the leaders of Iraqi political blocs to the negotiating table by adopting moderate positions.”

Half a month after that meeting, however, the crisis seems irreversible, amid possible armed clashes looming between the Shiite-led government of Nouri al-Maliki and Sunni leaders carrying out protests against Baghdad. There are Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish calls for Sistani to intervene now.

The last thing that Sistani said about the crisis was that he “feels great concern, now more than ever, about the future of Iraq,” Kobler quoted him as saying.

Sistani is widely accepted by the various ethnic and religious groups in Iraq, and he is viewed as a man of peace and a primary sponsor of dialogue in the country. But this presence of his is different from that of the city of Qom, where the religious Hawza is in control of political decisions and the identity of the state.

Clearly, Sistani has been imposing his style from Najaf for decades, whereby he separates between the state — from whose poles he keeps the same distance — and the religious affairs of the public. His idea seems closer to the Vatican, and much farther from Qom's concepts of Hawza and Velayat-e faqih.

But Sistani's calls concerning the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites are not being heeded. Sheikh Abd al-Mahdi al-Karbalai, a representative of Sistani in the holy city of Karbala, said that “the authority's concern is like a wake-up call for all of the political forces in Iraq as well as for the regional and international parties.”

Karbalai was very pessimistic, saying that “Sistani does not see any concrete initiatives to solve the crisis, [especially] since there are further complications.”

Abdul Hussein Abtan, the Shiite leader of the Supreme Council, said that “the political crisis will not be solved before we are committed to a truce, and more importantly, before we implement the recommendations of the religious authority, Ali al-Sistani.” Abtan further told Al-Monitor over the phone that the “Sistani recommendations include paying attention to the problems of citizens and seeking calm.”

Meanwhile, some Iraqi observers went so far as to ask Sistani to intervene and directly call on the parties to refrain from pushing the country to the brink of civil war.

Yassin al-Bakri, a political science professor at the Nahrain University, told Al-Monitor that "the performance of the political forces involved in the conflict has exhausted the chances of dialogue and understanding. They are no longer thinking of settlement deals to get things back to normal. Everything now sets the stage for bad future prospects in the country.”

According to this bleak picture painted by Bakri, the domestic public finds that the only solution is Sistani's intervention. Bakri continued, “There is no solution yet. Everything has reached a dead end, and all that is left is for the Shiite cleric to intervene in order to curb the tendencies of the political forces and prevent an armed conflict between the communities.”

The growing calls for the intervention of the religious Hawza in Najaf are due to the failure of the dialogue initiative launched by the Sunni and Shiite Waqf in Iraq, which are two intergovernmental institutions that take care of the religious affairs of the two communities in Iraq.

The initiative's failure was due to the loss of public confidence in the Sunni and Shiite officials in these institutions. These are often accused of subordination to Maliki, as some observers, commentators and journalists in Iraq say.

However, Sistani is not interfering as per the Iranian way either. He is setting the stage for a "secular" idea that separates the state from religious institutions, but makes an appearance whenever the political process reaches dangerous stages. Sistani is adopting his own ways, the most recent of which consisted of abstaining, three years ago, from meeting with political leaders in protest against their negligence in “civilian jobs” and “their neglect of the needs of the public.”

Since the outbreak of Sunni protests, Sistani has pushed Maliki to make concessions, and prompted him in January 2013 to make concessions and “give justice to the Sunnis in Iraq.” As Maliki demanded the dissolution of parliament — which is headed by Osama al-Najafi, a leader of the Sunni Iraqiya List — the authority channels informed two envoys of the government that “the supreme authority refuses to dissolve parliament, and recommends dialogue and maintaining calm.”

But the current crisis reflects significant risks threatening the future of the democratic experiment in the country, unless the parties to the conflict return to dialogue. A student in the Najaf Hawza said that “the center of religious authority is surrounded by great concerns about the situation and there is a strong resentment of the performance of Iraqi politicians,” but no one knows, precisely, what Sistani is up to in the coming days.” 

Ali Abel Sadah is a writer and journalist from Baghdad working in both Iraqi and Arab media. He was the editorial manager of a number of local newspapers, and was a political and cultural reporter for more than 10 years. He has published in various newspapers and magazines covering Iraqi political affairs, human rights and civil society.

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