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Iraqi Sheik Struggles for Votes, And Against Religious Tradition

"We're not looking for a Sunni or Shiite," said Ali Hussein Jaafar, 33, a day laborer. "We're looking for someone who is going to run the country." His hope: "I want him to arrest all the criminals in the country and get rid of them."

But like the sheik's, Allawi's writ runs only so far before running up against Sistani, who is known in Arabic as the marja.


Kifah Mahmoud in his grocery with pictures of Shiite figures Ali Sistani, Ruhollah Khomeini and Mohammed Sadr. (Anthony Shadid -- The Washington Post)

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"I salute Ayad Allawi," said Abdel-Wahhab Abdullah, 37, a farmer. "But I obey the marja."

Shiite Islam is distinguished by the authority wielded by its most established clerics, such as Sistani. The reclusive, white-bearded ayatollah is the first among equals in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, and his edicts carry the force of law among the devout. He has yet to formally endorse the United Iraqi Alliance, but his portrait adorns its posters, and in written statements, he has "blessed" its candidates. His involvement has taken some by surprise -- Sistani, in his seventies, is known as a member of the quietist school, which seeks to keep politics out of religion -- and has angered opponents of the list, such as the sheik, who understands well the power Sistani's opinions carry in the countryside.

"We follow our marja," Abdullah said, near a patch of tomato plants. "We will choose the list he recommends."

Down the street was Khairallah Abboud, 41, a farmer and father of four. Hospitality is unquestioned here, and to a guest, he brought nuts, cookies and soft drinks. A picture of Imam Ali adorned his wall, draped in pink plastic flowers. Like Abdullah, Abboud spoke of Sistani in hushed, almost mystical tones. A word from Sistani, he insisted, "is like a constitution for us."

"Even Ayad Allawi takes advice from the marja. Even Ayad Allawi needs his support. The Americans, too," he said. "If Saddam had taken the advice of the marja, we wouldn't have ended up with all these crises."

For Abboud, obeying Sistani was no less important than taking part in the election: Both would empower the community.

"Under the previous regime, we were deprived. This list is going to support the oppressed," he said. "People will grasp their freedom. They will feel their humanity again, and they will feel Iraqi. For a long time, we have suffered by force."

Symbols of Suffering

That narrative of suffering runs deep in Yusufan, both ancient and modern. In the village, it is a story of symbols.

While posters in Basra promise to end the smuggling of oil, build a democratic state, end corruption and bribes, or ensure justice, equality and dignity, the few posters in Yusufan, outside the village's sole mosque, tell another story.

One pictures mass graves in southern Iraq and victims of chemical weapons in the northern town of Halabja. "So that we don't repeat the tragedy," it reads, "vote for the list of the United Iraqi Alliance." Another urges support for the list because "it has gained the acceptance" of Sistani. Another symbol, one that's older: A poster to get out the vote quotes Sistani as arguing that a woman's participation in the election is like the role that the prophet Muhammad's granddaughter, Zeinab, played in the battle of Karbala.

"Frankly speaking, we have suffered," said Kifah Mahmoud, a 45, a grocer. "We were destroyed in 1991."

Hardly a conversation about history in Yusufan passes without a mention of the 1991 rebellion. Convinced of U.S. support, the rebels seized cities and towns all the way to the approaches of Baghdad. That support never came, though, an unforgivable betrayal to many here. Hussein soon exacted his revenge, with his troops leveling historic swaths of Shiite towns, bombarding shrines in Najaf and Karbala and executing thousands on the spot. Perhaps as many as 100,000 were massacred in reprisal killings.


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