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Grand Ayatollah Sistani is once again the trump card in Iraqi politics

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraq's highest-ranking cleric isn't running for office. He hasn't officially endorsed any candidates. He hasn't even left his home in five months.

So why does the solemn, grandfatherly face of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani peer out at Iraqi voters from thousands of campaign posters across the country? Because leading Shiite Muslim politicians—to the frustration of their opponents—know that when promises of security and electricity won't persuade voters, a beloved ayatollah's tacit support is a clincher for the Jan. 30 parliamentary elections.

Once again, the reclusive Sistani is likely to be the deciding factor in Iraqi politics. Sistani repeatedly forced U.S. occupation authorities to revise political plans, and his intervention ended a three-week military standoff in Najaf involving U.S. troops.

His white-bearded photo now appears on posters promoting the United Iraqi Alliance, a powerhouse slate of mostly Shiite candidates, even though Sistani's office says the cleric doesn't endorse the slate, or any other.

Murtadha Kashmiri, a spokesman for Sistani in London, said the cleric generally doesn't like his photo taken or displayed for any reason, but that he understands Iraqis do so out of reverence. Kashmiri said there's no way to police the use of Sistani's image in campaigns and that any ticket could invoke the image of an ayatollah who's "a father to all."

"He can't stop them from doing it. He didn't endorse it, but he can't ban it, either," Kashmiri said.

Last year, when Shiite factions with differing agendas threatened to split the vital Shiite vote, Sistani appointed a six-person committee to close ranks and sprinkle in token Sunni and other minorities for a slate with broad appeal. The result was the United Iraqi Alliance, announced in early December.

Alliance opponents, including interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, are furious at the politicians for trying to garner votes by turning a venerated cleric into a campaign tool. Accusations of cheating, lying and blasphemy have flown in the debate over the use of the ayatollah's image.

Amer Hassan Fayadh, a political science professor at Baghdad University and a secular candidate in the elections, said the United Iraqi Alliance dealt a devastating blow to competitors by adding Sistani's face to campaign materials. The alliance is widely viewed as the front-runner of about 100 slates of candidates on the ballot.

"They're trying to fool voters by using Sistani," Fayadh said. "Using Sistani's image is a cunning move to exploit the ignorance of voters to get more votes, but it's a clear violation of the rules."

The independent Iraqi Electoral Commission said Monday that it was investigating many complaints about the use of "religious symbols," which are banned from the campaign, but it's not clear if Sistani's image constitutes a religious symbol.

At least one complaint came from Allawi's party, the Iraqi National Accord, according to a report last week in Azzaman newspaper. Hussain al Sadr, a moderate Shiite cleric and Allawi's running mate, told the paper that politicians' "attempts to slip under the ayatollah's robe are misleading Iraqis. The religious authorities haven't expressed their support of any list."

Even the rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who ended his August uprising against U.S. forces after Sistani's intervention, weighed in on the debate with a statement from his office: "Sistani is a spiritual high power who should not be exploited for the elections."

The Iranian-born Sistani heads the top Shiite religious authority of Iraq, known as the marjaiya. As the supreme ayatollah, Sistani's word is considered law by many of Iraq's Shiite majority—an estimated 60 percent of about 27 million people. Many Sunni Muslims also consider him a respected scholar who looks out for the interests of all Iraqis. A ticket that comes with Sistani's blessing—even implied—virtually assures millions of votes.

Some candidates said they planned to risk the treacherous route to the southern holy city of Najaf, where Sistani lives hermit-like in a heavily guarded home, to ask the cleric to clarify his relationship with the United Iraqi Alliance. A release from Sistani's office in Najaf hardly clarified the issue when it stated that the marjaiya are "satisfied" with the alliance because it includes Sunnis and other minorities, but that Sistani wouldn't endorse one list over another.

Seeking further clarification isn't likely to help, several candidates said in recent interviews. If Sistani acknowledges support for the ticket, they said, their hopes of a significant secular showing at the polls would be dashed. Even if he doesn't endorse the alliance, political scientists said, his image on campaign materials is so widespread that three weeks isn't nearly enough time to undo public perception; the alliance has been given the nickname "Sistani's list" on Iraqi streets.

"Using Sistani's photo gives the impression that there is a religious obligation to vote for the alliance," said Sanaa Kadhim, a Shiite political science graduate student at Baghdad University. "It's a smart political move that confirms Ayatollah Sistani's stance on elections."

The United Iraqi Alliance is anchored by Abdulaziz al Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the largest political party in the country. With well-known running mates and alleged support from Iran, where Hakim and other top candidates were exiled during Saddam Hussein's regime, the mostly conservative Shiite slate stands to wield great power in the new national assembly.

Hakim's representatives acknowledged that they're responsible for printing the posters with Sistani's face. In recent sermons and Arabic-language newspaper columns, clerics allied with the Supreme Council insisted to voters that Sistani supported their ticket.

Saad Jawad Kandeel of the Supreme Council's political committee—and a candidate on the alliance list—said Sistani and other clerics helped form the list and offered blessings to candidates. He sees nothing wrong with using Sistani's photo and said other tickets are welcome to do the same.

"By putting Sistani's image on the posters we are sending a message to voters that we follow him," Jawad said. "We adopted his picture because we are the followers of Sistani, and he recognizes our candidates, platform and direction. The marjaiya drew the blueprint for our campaign. We're just following it."

However, even some moderate Shiites running on the United Iraqi Alliance slate were angry last week with the apparent efforts to turn their campaign into a sectarian stand. Sheik Abdel Karim Mohammedawi, a well-known opposition figure during Saddam's regime and a candidate with the alliance, said Sistani supports Hakim and other individuals, but shouldn't be used to represent the entire slate.

"Sistani absolutely did not authorize his photos, name or anything else to be used in our campaign materials," said Mohammedawi in a telephone interview from the southern town of Ammara. "Our logo is a candle, not Sistani. This is the work of parties that want to put our list in a sectarian and partisan frame. We should be nationalist and Iraqi first."

Campaign literature with Sistani's face covers Baghdad bus stops, storefronts and concrete barriers like wallpaper. The cleric is as familiar to voters as the other candidates are obscure. Only a fraction of the 7,000 or so registered contenders have made their names public, out of fear of assassination attempts from insurgents bent on derailing elections.

In Iraq, name recognition doesn't get better than Sistani, yet many voters said they're upset at seeing their spiritual leader unwittingly shilling for votes.

Muhammed Jassim, the 70-year-old owner of a hardware store in Baghdad, called the use of Sistani's image unacceptable.

"He's a religious man, an old man," Jassim said. "He's got nothing to do with running for elections, so how could they use his face like this? He should come out and reject this behavior."


(Allam and special correspondent Ahmed reported from Baghdad; Knight Ridder special correspondent Qassim Mohammed contributed to this report.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Sistani

ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040826 Sistani profile