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Leading Shiite Muslim cleric can't vote, but remains influential

NAJAF, Iraq—Although he shaped almost every facet of Sunday's elections, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al-Sistani has no plans to vote, one of his representatives said Saturday.

The cleric leads this nation's 15 million Shiite Muslims, 60 percent of the population, and he may be the most powerful man in Iraq. But al-Sistani was born in Mashhad, Iran, in August 1930, he's an Iranian citizen, and according to the rules of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, he's not eligible to vote, a representative said.

"I assure you Sayed Sistani won't vote in this election because he doesn't meet all the required conditions as spelled out by the IECI," said Sayed Murtdha al Kashmiri, al-Sistani's representative in London. "He will not vote, but at the same time, Sayed Sistani obliges every Iraqi to vote in the elections."

Iraqis are voting for a 275-member National Assembly whose principle responsibility will be to craft the nation's permanent constitution. The assembly also will name a president and two vice presidents.

His name has been invoked frequently throughout the campaign. Although he's not a candidate, his picture appears on campaign posters for the major Shiite slate, the United Iraqi Alliance. He also blessed that list, positioning it to win the majority of seats. And he issued a fatwa, a religious decree, that declared voting a religious duty.

Many believe that al-Sistani persuaded many Iraqis that the election was an important step toward the nation's future, not an American scheme. He met often with Iraqi and U.S. officials as they crafted the interim constitution that called for an election by Jan. 31.

His involvement has angered U.S.-backed interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's Iraqi List of candidates. Allawi's supporters said al-Sistani's support of the United Iraqi Alliance and his fatwa made the election a religious calling, not a political process.

In Najaf, where the reclusive religious leader lives, many residents hoped he would vote or at least step out of his home and visit a polling center Sunday. They believe that al-Sistani's presence at a polling center would energize the process and ensure that the United Iraqi Alliance would win.

"It is expected that Sayed Sistani will go out to the polling centers because the Grand Ayatollah urged and motivated this election. He supported the Iraqis to move forward," said Abdel Amir Kadhim Jawad, 51, of Najaf. "And whether he is an Iraqi or Iran citizen, his word is first and final."

Kashmiri, however, said that al-Sistani doesn't want his advocacy of the process to be interpreted as political maneuvering.

"I know that Sistani doesn't seek any political position of any kind," he said.

Al-Sistani hasn't left his home since this summer, when he received medical care in London. Leaving his home for any reason would require an extensive security detail, officials in Najaf said.

"I don't expect Sistani will leave his house due to the security circumstances because Sayed Sistani is a target of terrorists and criminals. I prefer he stays at home, so he won't get hurt," said Magid al Salami, 47, of Najaf. "Sistani has a role in our lives and future."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Huda Ahmed contributed to this report from Najaf.)

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

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

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