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Disaffected Iraqis Spurn Dominant Shiite Clerics
Subtle Backlash Reveals Intensity of Frustrations

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.

The clerics eschewed taking a direct role in Iraq's government or establishing a theocracy like Iran's, preferring to provide what they call "advice and direction." But indirectly, the marjaiya, particularly Sistani, played a decisive role.

In 2004, Sistani intervened to stop battles in Najaf between U.S. forces and the Mahdi Army of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which had taken over the Imam Ali shrine. Sistani also successfully lobbied for quick elections, realizing that a popular vote would allow Iraq's majority Shiites to lead a legitimate government. His office later helped put together the United Iraqi Alliance, the leading Shiite religious coalition.

In 2005, the huge voter turnout and the widespread boycott by Sunni Arabs bolstered the clerics' influence, allowing them to shape Iraq's constitution through politicians. Today, politicians routinely travel to Najaf to seek Sistani's support and often invoke his name to push through policies.

But in 2006, with sectarian strife engulfing Iraq, the marjaiya came up against the limits of their power. Sistani's calls for restraint went unheard as the influence of Shiite militias grew.

"The marjaiya could not control the whole situation," said Mohammed Hussein al-Hakim, the son of Mohammed Saeed al-Hakim, one of the four top clerics. "If we had not intervened, it would have been worse."

But as the violence worsened, Sistani fell silent, reportedly out of concern that his authority would be undermined.

Targeted by Killers

Najafi, the son of one of the four top clerics, never leaves his home without bodyguards. Outside his small office, where his father's followers waited to meet him, armed men stood watch near a concrete barricade. This year, two of his father's representatives were killed. At least five Sistani aides have also been assassinated in southern Iraq in recent months.

"This is an attempt to foil the project of a new Iraq," said Najafi, seated next to a large portrait of his father. "They know that the marjaiya and Najaf play a great role in the political situation."

The clerics' perspective is colored by their community's long history of repression by others, which has made them deeply suspicious of outsiders. They view the U.S. occupation with mistrust, fearing that the Americans, wary of Iran's growing influence in the region, will never allow a Shiite-led Iraq to flourish.

A spokesman for Sistani, Ahmed al-Safi, said the marjaiya are embroiled in a struggle against extremists vying to control Iraq. That battle, he said, will end only when U.S troops withdraw, a key goal of the extremists.

Other clerics worry that their nation's mainly Sunni neighbors, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, are trying to torpedo the Shiites' progress. "My concern is that Iraq is becoming . . . a theater for outside powers to achieve their political goals," said Hakim, the son of another top cleric.

Others blame the killings of the clerics' aides on Iraq's internal struggles. Sistani is widely viewed as supporting the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. In government offices and police stations in Najaf and Karbala, photos of Sistani and Hakim hang side-by-side.

There is "a high possibility" that the killings are an attempt to weaken the marjaiya's influence, Najafi said. The perpetrators "want to strike the streets, to misguide the streets."

Self-Styled Ayatollahs

In an enclave of Najaf filled with metalwork shops and run-down houses, a small store sells CDs, pamphlets and pictures celebrating Mahmoud Sarkhi al-Hassani, who claims the highest clerical rank of ayatollah.

But Hassani did not earn the title after decades of scholarship or by working his way up the Shiite religious hierarchy. Born in 1963, the engineering graduate represents a new breed of cleric that has emerged to challenge the traditional establishment.

Hassani "has more knowledge than the rest of the scholars, more than Sistani himself," asserted one of Hassani's aides, Thalib al-Garawi.

Other self-anointed ayatollahs have sprung up. Diya Abdul-Zahra Khadim launched a messianic group near Najaf that allegedly tried to assassinate Sistani and the other top clerics. Khadim was killed in January during a clash with U.S. and Iraqi troops.

"There are many of them," said Brig. Gen. Kareem Mayahi, the police chief in Najaf. "We follow them. We get information. We keep an eye on their fliers, their statements. These groups thrive because of ignorance. They are trying to draw people away from the marjaiya."

Today, Hassani runs his own seminary, with several hundred students. He has an estimated 40,000 followers, as well as an armed militia that has clashed with Iraqi and U.S forces. At the entrance to Karbala, where his movement is most active, his image is plastered on billboards.

The most powerful militia in Iraq today is Sadr's Mahdi Army. The 34-year-old cleric's decision to leave the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki bolstered Sadr's standing, as has his family's history of resisting Hussein's oppression of Shiites.

"The marjaiya has its voice and its presence, and it has influence," said Jassim al-Musawi, a student at one of the seminaries run by Sadr. "But the Iraqi streets want a person who demands for their rights."

"No one," he added, using an honorific for the cleric, "demands more for the Iraqi people than Sayyid Moqtada Sadr."

Damaging a Heritage

Ayad Jamaldin has long rejected any political role for the marjaiya. Today, the 45-year-old cigar-smoking cleric and legislator says his worst fears have come true. For centuries, Shiite clergy were never rulers, but instead railed against the establishment and "totally disapproved of political Islam," he said.

"The great heritage of the marjaiya was greatly damaged within four years," said Jamaldin, a soft-spoken, brown-bearded man who wears a black turban to signify his descent from the prophet Muhammad.

"The marjaiya does not have an army, does not have enormous amounts of money," he said. "Its capital is measured in respect." The clerics, he added, "have risked this respect by backing up this government."

The marjaiya are trying to reverse this impression. In a recent sermon, Safi, the Sistani spokesman, criticized the government for failing to provide services.

"We cannot blame the marjaiya," said Najafi, the top cleric's son. "The government did not keep its commitments."

But people such as Najaf merchant Abu Mustafa are disillusioned. On a recent night near the Imam Ali shrine, as dozens of soldiers lined Prophet Street frisking the faithful and the curious, he was looking to the future.

"If I am not happy, will I believe in you?" asked Abu Mustafa, who gave only his nickname. "If you split politics from religion, it will succeed," he added.

"We need to push Iraq toward this," agreed his friend Muhammad Munim al-Saar.

"Next time, I will not participate in the elections," Abu Mustafa said. "My belief has been reduced. Why would I go? If I do vote, it will be for the secular parties."

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