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Sistani stresses need for unity over sectarianism in battle for Iraq

Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani stresses the need for Iraqis to support the army and avoid sectarianism in battling the current Sunni rebellion sweeping the country.
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   (IRAQ - Tags: CIVIL

As the security situation in Iraq has been severely deteriorating, news was posted on June 13 claiming that Shiite cleric Ali Sistani has issued a call to arms to confront the Sunni rebellion in the west and north of Iraq. Yet these reports are unfounded, and contradict the nationalist, humanitarian, and nonsectarian principles adopted by Sistani.

Sistani has only issued one official statement regarding the recent incidents; it was posted on June 11 on his official website.

“[Sistani] is following up on the recent security developments in the provinces of Ninevah and surrounding areas with great concern. He stresses the need for the Iraqi government and the rest of the political leadership to unify their rhetoric and join efforts to face the terrorists and protect the citizens from these evil acts, and to reiterate its support for the people in the armed forces and encourages them to be patient and determined in the face of the aggressors,” the statement read.

On June 13 during the Friday sermon, preachers encouraged those capable to take up arms and volunteer with security forces to fight terrorism.

Sheikh Abdel Mahdi Karbalai, the official spokesman for Sistani, was one of these preachers

Karbalai, however, did not mention anything related to jihad and did not call on Shiites to fight Sunnis. 

He instead said that “everyone needs to get prepared morally and physically to confront the enemies.”

Al-Monitor contacted a prominent figure in Sistani’s office to verify statements that local and international websites attributed to him. The figure said the news was inaccurate, and clarified Sistani's stance:

  • First, we called on those who are able to take up arms to volunteer, provided that they do so under the auspices of security agencies, and only in a legal way.
  • Second, volunteering is a public duty that aims to fill the shortage security agencies are facing in order to fight the enemies. Volunteering is not for everybody and is used according to need. Also, school and college students should stay away from this issue and dedicate their time to education.
  • Third, volunteering should be legally and meticulously governed to avoid chaos and illegal acts, such as granting militias a role.

Sistani’s office later issued a statement asking “all citizens, specially in the mixed areas where Sunnis and Shiites exist together, to exercise the highest degree of restraint and work on strengthening the bonds of love between each other, and to avoid any kind of sectarian behavior that may affect the unity of the Iraqi nation and all kind of armed manifestations outside of the official Iraqi army."

Moreover, Sistani’s office officially asked the TV channels to remove his photo from their programs and reports and put the Iraq map up instead to remind people of the unity of Iraq.

Two parties to the conflict aim to transform the current situation into a sectarian confrontation. The first group is made up of Sunni extremists, including armed groups and religious figures. The second group is composed of Shiite extremists, including Shiite militias and their supporters. Furthermore, external groups that are supportive of this sectarian inclination have begun to support it and expand its scope.

Religious figures are also divided over this issue: Some called for unification and the refusal of sectarian strife, while others took on extremist views, calling for violence. Sistani represents the flag bearer of the first view, which is also supported by prominent Shiite religious figures such as Sayyed Hassan Sadr. The latter issued a statement calling on politicians to unify their visions and take decisions opposed to the concept of sectarian and ethnic quotas. He also called for holding a comprehensive conference to take a unified decision based on a meticulous analysis of the true nature of the situation.

On the Sunni side, Sheikh Ahmed Kabisi has since 2003 been criticizing the terrorist acts in Iraq and supporting the political process in the country. On June 10, Kabisi issued a fatwa calling for mobilization against all terrorist groups taking control of a number of Iraqi regions, and granting the status of martyr to whoever dies confronting them.

It is worth noting the importance and necessity of the national stance taken by these clerics, as they are able to prevent the collapse of the country into a sectarian war. This time, if such a war erupts, the circle of its repercussions will be much wider than in 2006 and 2007, especially if we take into consideration the considerable capacities of terrorist groups and the failure of the government to achieve national reconciliation.

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