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Al-Sistani again shows he's most powerful political figure in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—By ending the country's most dangerous political standoff after just one brief round of negotiations, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani proved again this week that he's the most powerful political figure in Iraq.

In a single day after returning from medical treatment in London, al-Sistani halted three weeks of fighting in Najaf, an achievement that had eluded the Iraqi government, the U.S. military and its Iraqi allies, and Muqtada al-Sadr, the rebel Shiite Muslim cleric who had taken refuge at Najaf's Imam Ali shrine.

It wasn't the first time that al-Sistani, a revered leader of Iraq's 11 million Shiites, had stifled violence. In April, he also negotiated an end to fighting in Najaf.

Last October, his intervention put an end to talks by al-Sadr to draft his own constitution. And al-Sistani repeatedly thwarted U.S. plans for a transitional government in Iraq while pushing for direct elections at an early date.

Al-Sistani's trump card is his ability call tens—even hundreds—of thousands of his supporters to the streets. Many of them say they'd pick up arms and fight for him, although he has never asked for that.

Shiites make up about 60 percent of Iraq's population, and al-Sistani has patiently pushed for direct elections with the knowledge that the country's long-oppressed Shiites almost certainly would control a majority of any government.

He has shown an uncanny sense of timing. In the days leading up to Thursday's negotiations, some Iraqis were tearing up photos of al-Sistani in the streets of Najaf, out of anger that he hadn't saved the city. But on the day that al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia left the shrine, Iraqis called al-Sistani's timing perfect, saying he had intervened while al-Sadr was surrounded by U.S. and Iraqi forces and would have to respond to his peace plan, said Fakbri Karim, an independent politician and the editor of the newspaper al Madeh.

While al-Sistani was strengthened by the crisis, the impact on al-Sadr and the U.S.-backed interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, is less certain.

Some academic experts said the agreement for al-Sadr's forces to vacate the shrine still left room for him and his extremist forces because it didn't shut them down. Others said al-Sadr was humiliated.

Al-Sadr mobilized a radical group of Shiites—often poor and young—who oppose the American presence in Iraq, and he was admired by his followers for forming an army that confronted the United States.

Al-Sadr and al-Sistani don't oppose each other, said Juan Cole, a professor of Middle East studies at the University of Michigan who specializes in Shiite Islam. Their shared objective, Cole said, "is the end of the American occupation."

In fact, al-Sadr's extremism might be useful to al-Sistani because it puts pressure on the United States and the interim Iraqi government.

But Karim said al-Sadr lost because the agreement was what the government wanted, not what the cleric wanted. "Those who wanted to transfer the holy shrine into a place they can hold weapons lost. Those who want to reconstruct the country and for sovereignty to prevail won," Karim said.

There was similar debate over how al-Sistani's involvement affected Allawi's leadership. The standoff with al-Sadr forced Allawi to choose between ceding control of a national treasure to a rebel leader or storming the sacred site at the risk of widespread condemnation. While Allawi and several Iraqi political leaders made statements trying to end the standoff, the situation only escalated.

Allawi's decision Thursday to turn to al-Sistani helped him, said Nabil Mohammed Salim, a political science professor at Baghdad University, because the secular leader recognized the importance of religious leadership.

"In some circumstances, it is very difficult to solve something by force, so you have to use wisdom," Salim said.

Others disagreed, saying it showed the impotence of a secular government in Iraq.

"They came off as thugs and lackeys of neo-imperialists," Cole said.

At Um al Qura Mosque in Baghdad, Abu Mohammed, 45, said the need to call on al-Sistani to stop the crisis proved that the American-backed government couldn't govern.

"The government failed to do its duties in solving this problem, and this proves again that Iraq is a pure Islamic country where the main role is for religious leadership, either Sunni or Shite," Mohammed said.

Two state ministers declined to talk about the effect that al-Sistani's involvement had had on their government. Allawi's spokesman, George Sada, couldn't be reached.

Where al-Sistani wants to push the government isn't clear. He's a highly conservative religious leader, although a relative political moderate. While he backs strong Islamic influence on the government, he opposes Iranian-style rule by clerics.

He's a reclusive man, reaching his populace with occasional statements through spokesmen, not with a grandiose public presence.

"He only speaks when there is necessity," said Sayed Kashmiri, an al-Sistani spokesman. "The religious leader is not influenced by government or any other forces. When he has a religious duty, he comes up with an initiative."

Although widely respected as a religious leader, al-Sistani stayed far from politics when Saddam Hussein was in power. As a leader of the marginalized Shiites, he spent most of the 1990s under house arrest until Saddam was overthrown in April 2003. Al-Sistani—as well as al-Sadr—emerged as a national leader after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam's regime.

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040826 SISTANI PROFILE

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