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Al-Sistani to have detailed involvement in Iraq's political process

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The main parties of a cleric-led political ticket set to sweep elections in Iraq are planning to vet their prime minister candidates with the nation's top Shiite Muslim cleric.

And the cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, will oversee the drafting of the constitution if he is unhappy with the direction it is taking, a lead al-Sistani spokesman, Murtadha al Kashmiri, said Sunday.

While the general effect of al-Sistani's words and wishes on the political process has been widely understood—it was his insistence on elections that set the timetable for them in the first place—such a level of detailed involvement had not previously been publicly acknowledged.

Many in Iraq are growing worried that the sectarian rift between Shiites and the minority Sunni Muslim population may widen to the point that it causes massive unrest. And the increasing calls for Islamic-based rule in Iraq stand to disrupt, if not derail, U.S. plans for secular democratic rule.

The Sunni-led insurgency continued Sunday. News reports said that insurgents killed some 22 Iraqi policemen and soldiers during a gunfight south of Baghdad that also left 14 attackers dead. Also, four Egyptian cell phone workers were kidnapped in broad daylight. Tension with the Shiites could help Sunni insurgents gain recruits.

"The political entities have direct communications with Ayatollah Sistani and present their list of (prime minister) nominations," said Abdul Razaq al Kadhami, a spokesman for the Dawa Party, a main player in the political ticket formed under al-Sistani's counsel, the United Iraqi Alliance. The Alliance is far ahead in the unfinished counting of the Jan. 30 election results.

An official with the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, another top party in the Alliance, said that the Alliance ticket would formulate a list of three or four prime minister candidates and deliver it to al-Sistani for his review.

"The Alliance knows the marja'iya (the ruling council of clerics led by al-Sistani) had a prominent role in its success in the election, and its members will not discuss any issue without the knowledge of the marja'iya because they feel gratitude to it," said the Supreme Council official, who requested anonymity because of the political explosiveness of such close coordination with clerics. "Any stance the Alliance takes will be reviewed by the marja'iya for approval."

Al-Sistani may supervise the draft of the constitution because he is the grand marja, or leader, of the Shiites, "so he has to intervene directly to fix and view the gaps if they exist," said al Kashmiri, al-Sistani's spokesman. "They might come to him about some essential issues to get his consent or the rejection."

The acknowledgement of al-Sistani's hands-on role in politics confirms what some have suspected all along: that while the Shiite leadership in Iraq will include others in the process to ease tensions, the bottom line for them politically will be the words of a grand ayatollah living in the small southern town of Najaf.

At a rally in Najaf on Sunday a representative of one of the grand ayatollahs who sits with al-Sistani on the ruling council of clerics told a crowd that members of the new National Assembly "should not separate between the government and Islam because that is rejected by the hawza (the Shiite cleric university in Najaf) and the Iraqi people."

U.S. officials in Baghdad have said they are staying far away from the process to avoid the appearance of interfering with the elections.

Al-Sistani's representatives have said that he has no interest in the political process, but many in the Sunni community suspect the Iranian-born cleric of having the ultimate goal of installing a theocratic government or, at the least, one in which major political decisions are guided by the religious direction of men such as him.

There have been recent signs that Sunni parties that boycotted the elections would participate in the drafting the national constitution.

Ayad al Samurrai, a spokesman for the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the groups that have said they will take part in the constitutional process, was terse when asked about al-Sistani's involvement with the Shiite prime minister candidates.

"I am sure that will have political consequences for public opinion," he said, meaning the Sunni population.

With 3.3 million of the nation's votes announced so far, the United Iraqi Alliance political ticket is leading the field with more than 2.2 million votes. Election officials have stressed that the count includes just 35 percent of the nation's polling centers. Officials with the Alliance say their election-day sampling shows a continued dominance throughout much of the country.

The number of seats each ticket gets on the new 275-member National Assembly is based on the percentage of the vote they receive. The Assembly will be responsible for appointing an interim government and drafting the nation's constitution.

"This list (the Alliance) has taken a sectarian color," said Salman al Jumaili, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "It is linked to the marja'iya, which is represented by al-Sistani."

Shiite Muslim leaders during Friday prayers last week told their flocks that when Alliance candidates get the lion's share of seats on the assembly they should remember that they are there because of the marja'iya.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Omar Jassim and Huda Ahmed contributed from Baghdad. Youssef reports for the Detroit Free Press.)


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

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