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Political Impasse Alarms Shiite Clergy

Ayatollahs, Concerned by Delay in Naming Government, May Support Protests

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page A16

NAJAF, Iraq, April 2 -- The protracted delay in naming a new Iraqi government has alarmed the country's powerful Shiite Muslim clergy, who worry that growing popular frustration may endanger the government's legitimacy, senior clerics and their representatives say. As a last resort, some said they may support mass protests as a way to break the impasse.

For now, the clerics are urging patience, and many said they expect a limited breakthrough as early as this week, perhaps Sunday. But one senior representative, echoing the suspicions of others, suggested the United States was at least partially at fault for the deadlock and warned of more forceful intervention by the most senior clergy, collectively known as the marjaiya, if delays persist.

Ashraf Qazi, a U.N. envoy in Iraq, met last week with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who viewed elections as a way to deliver legitimacy to the government. (Alaa Al-marjani -- AP)

"In the event they cannot form a leadership for the assembly and a government, the marjaiya will not remain with its hands shackled. It will not simply stand and watch. It must do something," said Ali Rubaii, the spokesman for Grand Ayatollah Ishaq Fayadh, one of the four most senior clerics in Najaf who operate under the leadership of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

"If there was a choice for protests, the protests wouldn't be typical. They would be protests in the millions," Rubaii said Saturday from Fayadh's headquarters in this sacred city. "In other countries, thousands of protesters can overthrow a government."

More than a political dispute, the clergy's deliberations over the formation of a government are a window on their evolving role in Iraq's changing social landscape. Enfeebled under Saddam Hussein, they have emerged as perhaps the country's most powerful arbiters, intervening to a greater degree than publicly acknowledged, even while disavowing an overtly political role. In between those poles rests their vision of their future: custodians of popular interests willing to interfere when they deem necessary.

"The marjaiya cannot abandon the people in any stage in which there are problems or obstacles in the political process. The marjaiya will intervene to solve this problem by virtue of its experience," said Ghaith Shubari, 32, a cleric and editor in chief of Holy Najaf, a monthly magazine that serves as a mouthpiece for the clerical leadership.

"The safety valve in Iraq," he said, "is the marjaiya."

In the Jan. 30 election, Sistani, the country's most influential religious leader, backed a largely Shiite coalition that won a slim majority of seats in the 275-member National Assembly. An alliance of ethnic Kurds won the second-most seats. Despite weeks of backroom dealing and, at times, public wrangling, assembly members have failed to fill key posts in what they have envisioned as a national unity government.

The latest snag is the selection of a candidate for the speaker of the assembly. Both groups say they want the post to be filled by a member of Iraq's once powerful Sunni Muslim minority, which largely abstained from the vote and won just 17 seats.

To an unprecedented degree, Sistani staked his reputation in encouraging turnout for the election and, to a lesser extent, in the success of the new assembly. In part, clerics say, he saw the election as a way to deliver legitimacy to the coming government -- so far elusive in a political process steered by the U.S. government. A crucial element of that legitimacy is popular backing, and all the clerics interviewed said they perceived that support to be eroding as the weeks pass without tangible results.

"The street is uncomfortable," said Mohammed Hussein Hakim, the son and spokesman of another senior ayatollah, Mohammed Saeed Hakim. "The people have paid a price for the sake of democracy. It is not possible to leave their sacrifices behind."

Shiite politicians who answer to Sistani have blamed the deadlock on Sunni intransigence over nominating an assembly speaker. Ahmed Safi, a Shiite cleric and parliament member, declared in a Friday sermon in Karbala that the hands of one recent nominee, Mishaan Jabbouri, were "drenched in blood" by virtue of his contacts with Saddam Hussein's family.

Sistani's rivals within the Shiite community, meanwhile, have sought to portray the delay as a setback for him. "Where is the rule of the majority?" taunted Sheik Nasser Saadi in a Friday sermon in nearby Kufa to followers of Moqtada Sadr, a young, militant cleric whose movement has challenged Sistani's leadership.

Part of the deadlock may be a result of Sistani's role. Rubaii said Sistani had made clear to the Shiite coalition in parliament that, in addition to assembly speaker, Sunnis should receive either the post of foreign or defense minister. (The other would go to the Kurds.) The Shiite coalition would retain the Interior Ministry and control over intelligence services, he said.

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