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Sistani silent so far on Anbar violence

Iraqi Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani has remained silent regarding developments in Anbar, in line with his vision of a clear division between religious authorities and the state.

The Anbar military operations took place under tense and sectarian circumstances. The Iraqi people have become divided regionally, ideologically and politically. Many groups raised their voices to criticize Iraq’s Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who remained silent regarding the events unfolding in the country.

While Shiite crowds have been demanding support and a strong stance on the part of Sistani in the recent military campaign, Sunnis harshly criticized him, considering his role to be insignificant in the equation given his silence and failure to react swiftly. 

Resigned Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi made a scathing comment on Sistani's position on his official Facebook page. He said that Sistani’s rhetoric has no connection whatsoever with reality and has been lost amid the sounds of bullets and the roar of cannons. Hashemi demanded that he issue a fatwa allowing soldiers in the Iraqi army to abandon their missions. Hashemi also criticized the US position, considering the United States to be biased toward and colluding with Iran against Iraq's Sunnis.

Many international newspapers around the world raised the question about Sistani's silence on the events unfolding in Iraq. The Christian Science Monitor published an article titled "Who can end Iraq's Sunni-Shiite violence?" The article described him as an "advocate for democracy" in Iraq, demanding him to take up a leading role to end the country's current crisis. It was widely re-published in  newspapers and news websites.

However, these scenarios and perceptions about Sistani's position fail to consider the circumstances of the situation in Iraq and the political vision of the Shiite authority in Najaf. Any analysis that does not take these two factors into account must be deemed unviable.

The rapid developments in Iraq and the diverse variables on the ground have complicated the situation in an unprecedented way, which make any wise political decision-making difficult. The most significant variables in the Iraqi situation are:

First, the fledgling  political process in Iraq requires statesmanship, since any abnormal development — such as ousting the government by illegal means — would pave the way for demolishing the rest of the democratic framework in the country. Therefore, Sistani was keen to avoid any interference in the political process, or impose certain visions to establish legal grounds allowing the religious authority to flagrantly interfere in the political process.

Second, indications confirm that there is a quasi-consensus internally and externally to prevent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki from taking up power for a third term. Thus, analysts believe that Maliki's operations in Anbar in the run-up to the elections, can be seen as his last attempt to mobilize early support for his electoral campaign by fomenting sectarian conflict in the country. From this perspective, any interference on the part of Sistani will give a chance to the warring political parties to use it to their advantage and further exacerbate the situation. 

Third, Sistani has showed his discontent with Maliki's government for two years and supported the peaceful demands of Sunni and Shiite protesters on many occasions. A source close to the religious authority in Najaf told Al-Monitor that there is a conviction that the operations in Anbar will be swiftly carried out and that the military institution should not come under political criticism. The failed government is to be censured and not the army. The army ought to be supported in its defense of the country and its mistakes ought to be corrected in such a way that does not undermine its institutional position in the country, according to the source.

Sheikh Bashir al-Najafi, a cleric coordinating with Sistani's office, issued a statement on the occasion of the anniversary of the foundation of the Iraqi army on Jan. 6, warning against using the army as a political card to win the elections, referring to those who failed to properly serve the nation as the reason for the impasse the country is facing today.

For his part, Shiite cleric Sayyed Hussein al-Sadr issued a statement earlier on Jan. 5, warning about targeting innocent people in the operations against terrorism. Other Shiite political leaders, such as Muqtada al-Sadr and Ammar al-Hakim, stressed the necessity of a professional work on the part of the army and the need to distance it from the political conflicts and from the massacres that are being carried out against innocent people.

Fourth, the conflict in Anbar has taken a different turn when tribal forces, such as the Abu Risha group joined forces with the army, with the support and coordination between the Iraqi government and the US. The representative of the religious authority in Karbala praised this cooperation between the tribes and the army.

In his latest initiative titled "Our Steadfast Anbar," Ammar supported this coordination.

He stressed the need to solely authorize the Iraqi armed forces to defend the country's border in Anbar against terrorism, and said that the region's people ought to join the ranks of the army in their fight against terrorism. This is not to mention the government's pledge to set up economic projects to speed up the reconstruction process in the province. This further confirms the decision of the religious authority in Najaf not to interfere, as mentioned before, and the need to wait for the situation to calm, because any interference on its part is likely to impede the initiatives.

According to Sistani's political vision, the religious authority ought not to lead the political process in the country, which is in direct conflict with velayat-e faqih (which advocates clerical rule in a country). Sistani insists that the religious authority should limit its missions to the advisory and guiding role within the general framework of democracy, without any discrimination on sectarian or political basis. Sistani regards the religious authority as a social institution with humanitarian missions, and not as a political party with a political vision to rule the country.

Finally, the situation in Anbar has yet to degenerate into a sectarian conflict as happened previously in 2006 to necessitate an urgent interference on the part of Sistani to help bring needed calm.  Therefore, Sistani will continue to play his role as guarantor of peace and security by preventing sectarian tension among sects and religions, and coordinating with all parties without interfering in political affairs, which would be seen as an attempt to apply clerical rule in Iraq. It's clear for observers that Sistani's position and savvy in dealing with the political crisis will eventually tip the balance in favor of the political and social system in Iraq in the long run.

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