The top Shiite religious authority in the holy city of Najaf has remained silent despite increasing friction reported among Iraq's Shiite political parties. Najaf has long avoided direct involvement in politics, but it is unprecedented for religious leaders to remain silent during a period of dangerous uncertainty.
Iraq has been experiencing political and societal division since the Tishreen movement protests began in late 2019. The demonstrations began in Baghdad but spread into the predominantly Shiite south. A state crackdown killed more than 600, and the escalation led to the Iranian and US military confrontations in Iraq in 2020.
The protesters demanded better services and an end to corruption and sectarian rule in Iraq. Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi resigned in 2020. The following government of Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi pledged to focus on reconciliation and political stability
Elections in late 2021, however, created more tensions, as Shiite politicians divided into two groups: supporters of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who formed the largest bloc with 74 seats, and the Coordination Framework, who gained about 56 seats.
The Sadrists refused to form a coalition with the Coordination Framework, and the conflict between them led to violence. Kadhimi's house was targeted with a drone in late 2021. In August of last year, tensions boiled over into armed conflict between the two sides in Baghdad's Green Zone, leaving more than 70 dead.
Sadr has since left politics, creating a dangerous imbalance in Iraq. The Sadrists have always been a part of successive governments, constituting a political dynamic which prevented intra-Shiite violent confrontation in Iraq. Their current seat on the sidelines poses a serious challenge to political stability in Iraq and might create new waves of violence any time.
At present, there is a three-way conflict in the Shiite community among the Sadrists, the Coordination Framework and the Tishreen Movement. Further division among Kurdish and Sunni political parties is pouring more gas on the fire.
Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite religious authority figure, used to comment on politics during a weekly Friday prayer in Karbala delivered by one of his two representatives, either Sayyed Ahmad al-Safi and Shaikh Abdulmahdi al-Karbalai. The event had two-part speech, first religious and then political.
The Friday prayer had a significant influence on the Tishreen Movement. Sistani encouraged the protesters to demand their rights from the government, thus imposing pressure on the governing coalition. Abdul-Mahdi's resignation was in part due to the pressure imposed by Sistani via the Friday prayer.
Sistani, who is 92, stopped the Friday prayer in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He had already stopped the political part of the event months earlier. The Friday prayer did not return as the pandemic subsided, and Sistani spokesman Sayyed Ahmad al-Safi stated in April 2022 that it would not resume. "Some political entities did not respond to much of what the religious authority showed," Safi said.
Sistani has thus remained silent since early 2020 despite the dangerous developments.
Sistani still influences Iraqi politics in different ways, although he has shunned politicians since 2016 when his representative, Sheikh Abdulmahdi Karbalai, accused politicians of irresponsible governance and widespread corruption.
This had a strong influence on the Iraqi public. Relatedly, the participation rate declined significantly in the last two elections in 2018 and 2021. These elections witnessed turnouts around just 20-30%. The previous elections in 2014 saw a rate of 60%.
After leaving politics, Sadr has been the only political figure received by Sistani or prominent members of his office. This suggests that Sistani does not agree with Sadrists remaining outside of the government due to the resulting imbalance.
But Sadr has resumed his activities on Twitter, and recent reports indicate that he is planning to accept an invitation to visit Iran in preparation for his return to politics.
Najaf's religious authority is not limited to passive reaction. Religious figures' previous statements about different events were circulated widely on the relevant occasions.
For example, the Iraqi parliament is currently discussing an amendment to Iraq's electoral law that would return the country to a Sainte-Lague method of allotting seats in parliament by political party. This method was previously rejected by Sistani as it favors larger political parties over smaller ones and independents. The current law, where votes go to individual candidates, was enacted in 2020 in response to the protests.
The parliament finalized the first reading of the new amendment, but failed to conduct the second reading last week, leading to the withdrawal of the draft law from the parliament. This followed an old video from Karbalai circulating in which he said the Shiite religious authority rejected the Sainte-Laguë method and demanded the continuation of the system installed in 2020.
Najaf's religious authorities appear to still maintain influence in Iraqi politics despite Sistani's lengthy silence. But his absence has the potential to leave the religious authorities without a long-term leader, thus weakening Najaf's influence in Iraqi politics.