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Iraq's Most Influential Man Gets Pulled Back Into Politics

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose portrait is being held aloft by his Shiite supporters, has emerged in recent weeks to address the crisis facing Iraq.
Khalid Mohammed
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose portrait is being held aloft by his Shiite supporters, has emerged in recent weeks to address the crisis facing Iraq.

The most influential man in Iraqhas been speaking up again after a period of relative quiet. It's not Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, or the head of the ISIS militants who are taking over much of the west and north of the country. It's an aged cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who can be compared to something like a pope for the country's majority Shiite Muslims.

He stays out of the limelight, rarely meets with Westerners and doesn't do interviews. But he has generally been a calming influence and often helpful to U.S. efforts in Iraq.

One scene I remember from covering Iraq was a large bombing at a Shiite shrine in Baghdad. I saw a group of angry men arguing amid the shattered glass and debris along the main street. They were calling out for action, presumably revenge against Sunni Muslims whose partisans were responsible for the blast. Finally, a man at the center of the crowd reminded them that they could not respond without the direction of the Shiite religious hierarchy, meaning Sistani, who had been consistently preaching for restraint. That immediately quieted the crowd.

Sometimes, people compare Shiites to Catholics, who have the Vatican for guidance.

A Call To Arms

Iraqis talked about how Sistani lives in a simple home in a small alleyway in the holy city of Najaf, and talked of his supreme Islamic scholarship. You'd hear about them making visits to him to wish him well or seek his advice on some personal matter.

Sistani's influence has lessened some since, amid the chaos the country has experienced. But in the past two weeks, he has emerged to address the dire crisis facing the country amid the militant Sunni extremist surge. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the group leading the onslaught, targets Shiites directly in many cases.

Through his statements and spokesmen, Sistani called last week for the formation of a new government that would unite the nation — an apparent reference to Maliki's failure to win the trust of Sunnis and Kurds. And the week before that, Sistani issued a call to arms — telling able-bodied men to rush to the aid of the failed armed forces.

"Whoever is capable of holding a weapon and fighting the terrorists," Sistani's statement read, "must volunteer his name in the security forces in this sacred goal."

Influential Edicts

Sistani's website offers advice on family and social issues (for example, abortion is prohibited unless the mother faces grave danger or unbearable difficulty continuing the pregnancy). But he has also weighed in at crucial times since the U.S. occupation of Iraq (he spent years effectively under house arrest during the rule of Saddam Hussein).

Here's some background on the man and the role Sistani has played.

Sistani, who's 84 years old, according to his official biography, is Iranian born. But he does not adhere to the view of top clerics in Iran that clergy should also be political figures. Sistani's more traditional "Quietist" strain encourages distance between the clergy and government. But he has spoken out when national unity was threatened or when it looked like long-persecuted Shiites were on the verge of a communal setback.

In 2003, Sistani's call for quick elections forced U.S. officials to scrap plans for a long period of rule by leadership in effect appointed by the U.S. It was a major change of course that gave Iraqis — primarily the Shiite majority — a voice at the ballot. Sistani also urged people to vote.

Iraqi officials made frequent pilgrimages to his home in Najaf to consult on everything, from whether he would object to their candidacy for office to helping urge Iraqis to conserve electricity. As the Iraqi Shiite leadership became increasingly plagued by complaints of corruption and abuse, their popularity dropped and Sistani took more of a back seat. Some speculated that he felt burned by his association with the leaders. He also made at least one trip to London for extended medical treatment.

But he used his authority and representatives to, at times, settle rivalries between Shiite militias that often turned bloody and threatened to spiral.

A Call For Unity

Now, his statements concerning the new Sunni uprising highlight the country's desperate situation, one that surely distresses the elderly cleric.

"The father should urge his son, the mother urge her son, and the wife urge her husband to be brave in saving this country and its people," he ordered in the June 13 statement.

Then, possibly because that was seen as too sectarian, Sistani had more to say Friday. "Our call last Friday was for all Iraqi citizens, not for a particular sect," the edit stated.

Then Sistani appeared to focus on the Shiite leadership, widely criticized for marginalizing the minority Sunnis. He called for the leaders to adhere to the schedule required in forming a new government after the April parliamentary elections. This government, he wrote, should "avoid past mistakes and open new horizons toward a better future for all Iraqis."

Larry Kaplow is NPR's Middle East editor and reported extensively from Iraq. He can be followed @larrykaplow

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Larry Kaplow edits the work of NPR's correspondents in the Middle East and helps direct coverage about the region. That has included NPR's work on the Syrian civil war, the Trump administration's reduction in refugee admissions, the Iran nuclear deal, the US-backed fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
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