February 9, 2008


Powerful Shiite cleric quiets in Iraq (HAMZA HENDAWI and QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA, 2/07/08, Associated Press)

Recently...al-Sistani has noticeably lightened his schedule, according to a range of officials interviewed by The Associated Press.

They include well-connected clerics, lawmakers and employees at al-Sistani's office. They all spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

They also cautioned against interpreting their comments to mean that al-Sistani is seriously ill or incapacitated, stressing he has slowed down considerably due to his age and heart condition.

But their accounts offer a portrait of al-Sistani in his twilight. They said al-Sistani - who does not grant media interviews - has turned over many duties and decisions to his son, Mohammed Redha, who also is his most trusted aide.

The cleric has stopped teaching seminary students and has restricted his political meetings to a small and select group of mostly Shiite clerics involved in politics, they said.

Al-Sistani now spends much of his day in a residence adjacent to his modest, two-story headquarters on a small alley in the old quarter of Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad and the foremost center of religious study for the world's Shiite Muslims - who make up the majority in Iraq and neighboring Iran.

Al-Sistani does not project the charisma or bluster of other Shiite leaders - most notably Mahdi Army militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr - who rose to prominence after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. But al-Sistani's stamp is on nearly every pivotal decision since the U.S.-led invasion, even though he refuses to meet directly with American envoys.

He forced changes to key political blueprints for Iraq, such as insisting that Iraq's first parliament be directly elected, rather than assembled through a caucus system proposed by Washington. He prevailed again when he demanded that only elected legislators draft the country's constitution - effectively sidelining Sunnis who boycotted elections.

Al-Sistani also is viewed as an important buffer against clerics with known anti-U.S. sentiments, such as al-Sadr, and has encouraged Shiites to support the U.S.-allied government. In 2004, al-Sistani helped negotiate an end to fierce battles in Najaf between the U.S. military and al-Sadr's Mahdi militia.

Al-Sistani has one more key appeal for Washington: his ideological break with Iran's ruling clergy, which he sees as monopolizing the political voice at the expense of secular politicians. The United States has accused Iran of using Shiite militias in Iraq as proxy fighters.

In return for his support, Shiite politicians consult him before announcing new policies and seek his counsel on major issues. The practice gives al-Sistani the unique role of godfather and guarantor to the Shiite-led leadership.

Al-Sistani, who moved to Iraq more than 50 years ago after studying in Iran, is one of four grand ayatollahs in Najaf, but clearly retains the most prestige and standing among his peers.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 9, 2008 4:42 PM

For helping to prevent a civil war in Iraq he deserves the Nobel peace Prize.

Posted by: Pete at February 9, 2008 10:45 PM

Ha! The Nordic nincompoops probably don't even know who Al-Sistani is.

But if he is dying, gotta take Mookie out before he tries to grab the ring. Surely there are plenty of gracious Shi'a heirs to Sistani. The last thing Iraq needs is a Khomeini wannabe trying to assume the role of Supremo, like the political mess next door.

Posted by: ratbert at February 10, 2008 12:12 AM