NAJAF, Iraq: Najaf is far from Baghdad’s palaces and the battlefields of northern Iraq. Its mud-brick houses, dirt alleys and concrete office blocks project little in the way of strength or sway.
But it is here, where Iraq’s most influential preachers work from modest buildings in the shadow of a golden-domed shrine, that the country’s future is being shaped.Over his past three Friday sermons, Iraq’s top preacher, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, an ascetic 83-year-old of almost mythological stature to millions of followers in Iraq and beyond, has seized his most active role in politics in a decade.
From his spartan office in the holy city of Najaf, down an alleyway protected by armed guards, Sistani has asserted his dominance over public affairs, demanding politicians choose a new government without delay and potentially hastening the end of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s eight-year tenure.
The preacher, a recluse who favors a behind-the-scenes role, kicked off his newly assertive stance on June 13 with a call for Iraqis to take up arms against a Sunni insurgency – the first fatwa of its kind in a century, preachers familiar with Sistani’s thinking say, motivated by his fear the state faced collapse.
Tens of thousands of men have heeded the call, bolstering an army that at times seemed close to implosion. Sistani’s appeal for an inclusive government has further been seen as an implicit rebuke of Maliki, even by some of the premier’s supporters.
On Friday he called on political blocs to choose a prime minister, president and speaker of parliament by July 1, meaning Maliki could be replaced within days.
“Today, the road map is clear and there is a timetable. It’s as if Sistani has put all the parties in a corner,” a Shiite lawmaker said.
The fatwas also carry risks, both in the near and long term. Sunni leaders say Sistani’s call to arms inflamed the conflict. And, more broadly, the fatwas revive an old question of what role Najaf’s preachers, who traditionally keep their distance from politics, will play in affairs of state.
“He gave a fatwa the Shiites never had for 90 years or more. He will not retreat. He wants to have a role,” said a Western diplomat with strong knowledge of the clerical establishment. “It would be seen as irresponsible for him to pull back after issuing such a fatwa.”
The Shiite lawmaker, who has good relations with the clergy, put it succinctly: “Sistani is the driver now.”
Shiites are required to choose a senior preacher, known as a “marjaa,” to emulate, usually one who has attained the top rank of grand ayatollah after many decades of study at Najaf, Iraq or Qom, Iran. Sistani is chancellor of the 1,000-year-old Najaf seminary, the most senior of its four grand ayatollahs, and the most widely emulated in Iraq.
The most immediate consequence of his involvement may be to speed up the formation of a new government – a process that took about nine months the last time it was attempted in 2010 – potentially hastening the end of Maliki’s premiership.
Sistani’s July 1 ultimatum left no doubt the crisis had compelled him to take his most active stance since the early days of the U.S. occupation, when he successfully pushed in 2004 for early elections and a constitutional referendum.
The move piles pressure on Maliki, who many Iraqi and Western officials blame for alienating Kurds and Sunnis and failing to forestall the insurgency.
In his second sermon after the crisis erupted, Sistani called for an inclusive government, which some figures across the political spectrum saw as a signal the prime minister should go. “The door was closed on Maliki,” the Shiite lawmaker said.
Another official from Maliki’s ruling alliance acknowledged Sistani’s statements implied criticism of the prime minister’s policies, but said the top preacher was not trying to oust him. “Sistani doesn’t want to get involved in who is the next prime minister, but there has to be progress,” he said.
There is also a chance that even the censure of Sistani, the United States and Iran may not be enough to unseat Maliki, a masterful player of Iraq’s political game, said Hayder al-Khoie, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank.
“Maliki can still pull more levers than any other politician in Iraq,” Khoie said. “If he wants to be stubborn, I think he can be stubborn.”
Such vagaries are one reason preachers have been reluctant to wade directly into the untidy business of politics in Iraq. On past form, Sistani probably wants to preserve that distance in the longer-term.
Farhan al-Saadi, a Najaf preacher and professor, recalled a scene from Don Quixote when describing the attitude of the top preachers toward the state: A ruler, the knight in the Cervantes novel tells his squire, should not make too many decrees, and those he does should be well considered.
“If the marjaa as a group or any religious figure intervened in every crisis – about energy, about borders – they would turn into mere politicians,” he said.
Yet the situation now is urgent, preachers say. Bodies of soldiers killed by insurgents regularly arrive in Najaf, expanding its vast cemetery.
During that earlier conflict and the entire period of U.S. occupation Sistani called for restraint, while relatively junior but more radical preachers, such as Moqtada al-Sadr, rallied Shiites to fight and at times mocked the caution of their elders.
Ali al-Najafi, son of another of Najaf’s grand ayatollahs, said the difference is that ISIS now poses an existential threat to Iraq’s Shiites – better armed than previous insurgents and with allies among members of Saddam’s old regime.
If Sistani’s fatwa had not reinvigorated Iraq’s army when it seemed the insurrection might sweep to Baghdad, “then we would not be meeting here today,” Najafi said.
The greatest risk of Sistani’s activism, Sunni critics say, is that it may sharpen the sectarian edge of the conflict.
“Sistani now is ordering them to wear fatigues and fight Sunnis,” Sunni preacher Ahmad al-Kubaisi told Saudi Arabia-owned Al-Arabiya television this week.
Supporters say Sistani’s call to arms was carefully phrased to refer to all Iraqis, not just Shiites, and that ISIS wants to make this an issue of sect. Nevertheless, critics say the fatwa has provided legitimacy to extra-legal Shiite militias.
Hayder Nazar, a professor in Najaf, acknowledged the fatwa had stirred sectarian feelings, but said it was “more positive than negative.” The alternative, he argued, was state collapse. “I consider this fatwa a dividing line between two stages – the stage of the retreat of the armed forces and even of the political authorities, a stage of collapse. And the second stage – which is to preserve what is there.”