Iraq's Top Shiite Cleric Urges Participation in Upcoming Vote

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

BAGHDAD, Jan. 19 -- Iraq's most powerful Shiite Muslim cleric urged Iraqis to vote in provincial elections this month, the first since 2005, even if they were disenchanted with the performance of the politicians they elected last time, his office said Monday.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, whose words carry the force of law among devout Shiites, reiterated his neutrality in the vote, which will redraw lines of power in a country slowly recovering from six years of war. Coming in the middle of a pitched campaign, the statement seemed aimed at deflating the attempt by parties -- sometimes subtle, sometimes not -- to claim his mantle, support that was crucial in empowering a religious Shiite coalition in 2005.

"His eminence urges all residents, men and women, to participate in the coming elections, and stresses not to boycott it despite not being totally satisfied with the previous electoral experience," a statement from Sistani's office said.

It added that Sistani "stands at an equal distance from all candidates."

The use of religious symbols or sites is banned in the campaign for the Jan. 31 vote, but everyone from the Communist Party to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a powerful Shiite party, has resorted to Shiite imagery. One Supreme Council banner in Baghdad declared that a person should vote for its list of candidates because he is the "son of the marjaiya," a reference to the authority of Sistani and his most senior colleagues.

"People understand who's closer to the marjaiya and they can distinguish between parties on that basis," said Abdul Hussein Abtan, a Supreme Council candidate and deputy governor of Najaf, a sacred city in Shiite Islam and the home of Sistani.

The contest is especially fierce in southern Iraq, pitting the Supreme Council, a once-clandestine group established in Iran in 1982, against the Dawa party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Supreme Council controls four of nine southern provinces, but Dawa hopes to capitalize on Maliki's popularity as a man trying to instill order in the country.

Sistani's officials say the ayatollah's support in the 2005 elections was necessary. At that time, the state's institutions were being created, in particular the constitution. This time, they argue, the politics are more mundane, the equivalent of choosing a board of directors. His help was needed to form the company, they say, not to name managers.

"If anyone says he's supporting the marjaiya, that's his business. But someone who says the marjaiya supports me, this is a different matter. One is acceptable, one is not. One reflects reality, one doesn't," said Ghaith Shubbar, a 35-year-old cleric who directs a cultural foundation in Najaf that is funded by Sistani's office.

In conversations, there seems to be widespread discontent with both parliament, often paralyzed by feuds, and provincial councils, which are accused of everything from incompetence to corruption at a time when Iraq is still short of electricity, clean water and other basic services. Parliament this week again failed to choose a new speaker to replace Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a brusque Sunni politician who resigned last month. Parliament was adjourned until Feb. 3, and members will try again in a secret vote the next day.

Sistani's statement appeared aimed, in part, at overcoming voter frustration.

But new polling by the National Media Center, a government organization, seemed to suggest that the malaise was not so pronounced. Although not providing a margin of error, the group said its polling of 4,570 Iraqis found that 73 percent would vote in the ballot, which will be held in 14 of the country's 18 provinces. There will be no elections in Iraq's three Kurdish provinces and in Tamim province, which includes the contested city of Kirkuk.

Nearly a third of those questioned said improving local services was their priority, and four in 10 hoped that secular, not religious, candidates would win. More than half said the work of the current provincial councils was acceptable or better -- a sharp contrast to the criticism, pronounced often loudly albeit anecdotally, of their inability to improve conditions.

The election comes at a contentious time in Iraqi politics. Maliki has sought to strengthen the power of the central government at the expense of the provinces and reach out to increasingly powerful tribes through councils set up across the country. Both the Supreme Council and the two most powerful Kurdish parties have opposed the moves.

In a meeting in Irbil, Massoud Barzani, who heads Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region, declared that anyone in Kurdish provinces who joined the councils would be deemed traitors and that Arabs who took part were responsible for starting strife.

Special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf, Dlovan Brwari in Mosul and Zaid Sabah and Qais Mizher in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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