Sunday, February 13, 2005

The most powerful man in Iraq is an ayatollah with a website

THE most powerful man in Iraq sits on the floor of a modest room, off a narrow alley in a provincial city south of Baghdad. His gown is dark and threadbare. His face is sandwiched betweeen a long white beard and a black turban. On the rare occasions that he leaves his home, it is to pray at the nearby shrine of Imam Ali, the founder of Shia Islam, in Najaf.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al- Sistani has never met an American official or soldier. He did not vote in Iraq’s elections last month. And yet this religious recluse could wield more influence over Iraq’s destiny than all the foreign troops and Iraqi politicians put together. The Shia List, which he endorsed, looks certain to be the biggest group in Iraq’s new 275-strong assembly when the election results are announced any day now. It will therefore be the dominant voice in the formation of a new government and the drafting of a new constitution. That means the 74-year-old cleric is likely to play a key role in determining whether Iraq becomes an Islamic state or a secular democracy and whether its rival communities peacefully co-exist or sink into sectarian conflict.

Anyone doubting Ayatollah al-Sistani’s influence should consider the key events of the past year. The huge Shia turnout in January’s election was the result of his simple fatwa instructing the faithful that voting was a religious duty. That the elections were held at all was largely due to him. When the US-led coalition proposed a transfer of power without letting the people cast their ballots, a single edict from Ayatollah al-Sistani brought hundreds of thousands of Shia protesters on to the streets until the Americans backed down. more

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