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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. Sunni leaders say Sistani's call to arms inflamed the conflict.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 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. On past form, Sistani probably wants to preserve that distance in the longer-term.
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