Sunday, August 22, 2004

Shia strength

He may appear sidelined after a heart operation in London, but Iraq's most senior Shia cleric is still a serious force to be reckoned with,writes Tom Happold

He is in touch with events minute to minute, whatever happens in Iraq," says Syed Mohammed Musawi, president of the World Muslim League, of his spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Certainly events in Najaf, where Moqtada al-Sadr is said to have agreed to hand over control of the Imam Ali mosque to followers of Iraq's most important Shia leader, suggest that Mr Sistani still wields enormous influence despite being 3,200 miles away from Iraq recovering from a heart operation.

Many feared that Iraq would suffer from the lack of his moderating influence when he flew to London for treatment of a blocked artery last month, but Mr Musawi, one of his closest followers, insists that the septuagenarian ayatollah remains Iraq's most important guide.

"Ayatollah Sistani is the father and the wise leader of all the Shia Muslims and Iraqis in general. His word is the word of wisdom, we follow his guidance."

Asked whether he's in touch with Iraq's interim leaders, he replies: "He is not in touch, they are in touch with him. Everyone in Iraq, all the leaders in Iraq, they kept on phoning the hospital he was in."

It was Mr Sistani's mediation that secured the earlier ceasefire between Mr Sadr's Mahdi militia and US forces when the radical cleric led a Shia rebellion across Iraq earlier this year.

He was also a voice for tolerance after the wave of bomb attacks on Christian churches in Baghdad and Mosul earlier this month, describing them as "hideous crimes" that undermined "Iraq's unity, stability and independence".

Despite his interventions, Mr Sistani refuses to meet American and British officials and appears committed to the Shia tradition of "quietist" clerics who do not seek personal political power.

The coded calls for Shia rights in his sermons did, however, frighten Saddam Hussein, who kept him under almost constant house arrest in his modest home in Najaf.

Following Saddam's fall, he used his influence to push for democracy in Iraq, mobilising tens of thousands of his followers onto the streets to demand a speedier handover of power to an elected Iraqi leadership when it seemed the occupying powers were dragging their feet.

His authority over Iraq's Shia community is now, however, challenged by Mr Sadr.

The young cleric lacks the ayatollah's religious standing - much of his popularity stems from his father, a senior cleric murdered by Saddam 15 years ago - but thousands of young Iraqis have been inspired by his determination to resist the US-led occupation.

Mr Musawi refuses to be drawn on Mr Sistani's reported antipathy towards Mr Sadr, saying only that "those who abide to the wisdom of Ayatollah Sistani gain and those who disobey and disagree with his guidance will face the consequences".

Though Mr Sistani is now out of hospital and recuperating at an unnamed location in London, it is unlikely that he will return to Najaf anytime soon.

"He wants to go back as soon as possible but his doctors are not allowing him," says Mr Musawi. "I personally don't want him to go back to Iraq now because if anything goes wrong with his health in Najaf it will be difficult for doctors to reach him."

But having recently returned from Iraq, Mr Musawi is confident that Mr Sistani's quiet guidance can disarm Mr Sadr's militia and restore peace.

"The majority of Iraqis are not happy with the militia. They want peace, they want security, and they want stability. I know that Iraqis are not with the disturbances and the militias."

-First published in the Guardian on Friday August 20, 2004


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