Disaffected Iraqis Spurn Dominant Shiite Clerics

Pilgrims pray at night in front of the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites. Nearby there is an open sewer.
Pilgrims pray at night in front of the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites. Nearby there is an open sewer. "The marjaiya sold us the promise that Iraq is going to be a prosperous country," one man said, referring to top Shiite clerics. "But that has not happened." (By Sudarsan Raghavan -- The Washington Post)
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 21, 2007

NAJAF, Iraq -- Two years after helping to bring to power a government led by Shiite religious parties, Iraq's paramount Shiite clerics find their influence diminished as their followers criticize them for backing a political alliance that has failed to pass crucial legislation, improve basic services or boost the economy.

"Now the street is blaming what's happening on the top clerics and the government," said Ali al-Najafi, the son of Bashir al-Najafi, one of four leading clerics collectively called the marjaiya. Speaking for his father, the white-turbaned Najafi said he wished that the government, all but paralyzed by factionalism and rival visions, was more in touch with ordinary Iraqis.

"We were hoping that it would have been better," he said.

The marjaiya, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, still wield enormous power in Iraq. But if a critical mass of Iraqis stops listening to them, it could hinder efforts toward political reconciliation and strain the fragile unity of the Shiite parties that head the government. The loss of clerical influence could also hurt the political fortunes of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, one of Iraq's most powerful Shiite politicians and America's main Shiite ally, who has closely aligned himself with Sistani.

The marjaiya now compete in the streets with political parties that maintain armed militias and in the seminaries with younger, ambitious clerics. In recent months, the top clerics' aides have become frequent targets of assassination, victims of the fight for power and resources.

In recent interviews in this spiritual capital, the subtle backlash against the marjaiya exposed the depth of popular frustration over the lack of long-term progress, even as violence in Iraq has declined under a 10-month-old U.S.-led security offensive.

"The momentum of the marjaiya has been reduced," said Abu Gafer al-Zarjawi, head of the Najaf branch of the Iraqi Communist Party, which is part of a secular political coalition. In Najaf, the party's membership has doubled since the legislative elections of December 2005, although it is still a minor player in national politics.

Limits of Power

Muhammad Abu Saif and Sabbah Abu Ali voted for the country's ruling Shiite alliance at the urging of the marjaiya, whose words carry the weight of religious law. Today, the cost of fuel has tripled. Electricity and clean water supplies are erratic. Outside their jewelry store, near the gold-domed Imam Ali shrine, one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites, an open sewer courses past piles of trash.

"We were tricked," Abu Saif said.

"The marjaiya sold us the promise that Iraq is going to be a prosperous country, but that has not happened," said Abu Ali, slim and cleanshaven.

"We got out of the basement, but we have fallen into a very dark well," said Abu Saif, a burly man with short-cropped hair.

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the marjaiya emerged as the greatest power in Iraq amid a flowering of religious freedom. Long repressed under Saddam Hussein, the clerics fashioned themselves as the guardians not just of the Shiites but also of Iraq's Islamic identity. They helped restore the luster of Najaf and Karbala, the holiest cities in the Shiite world. Today, Najaf is a center of Shiite political and economic power, rivaling in influence the capital, Baghdad, especially in southern Iraq.

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