Sunday, February 10, 2008

After al-Sistani

The diminishing public presence of Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the “godfather and guarantor to the Shiite-led leadership”, has lead to serious questions about his health and the implications of finding a successor. “Al-Sistani, who moved to Iraq more than 50 years ago after studying in Iran, is one of four grand ayatollahs in Najaf, but clearly retains the most prestige and standing among his peers. Yet it's precisely this rare blend of political and religious gravitas that makes him a potential liability. He is a virtually impossible act to follow, leaving open the possibility of a confusing and potentially messy fallout after his death.”

Any change in al-Sistani's role or reach could have far-reaching consequences for both Iraq and the United States, which consider the Iranian-born cleric as perhaps the most powerful figure in Iraq and a vital stabilizing force in the oil-rich Shiite heartlands of southern Iraq. The most worrisome scenario is that - as al-Sistani's vast clout possibly wanes - the majority Shiites could further splinter into factions that could rattle Iraq's Shiite-led government and boost militias openly hostile to Washington. Such an upheaval also would strike a direct blow to U.S. goals in the coming year: shoring up the government and its security forces while trying to consolidate military gains against Sunni insurgents led by al-Qaida in Iraq.

Al-Sistani - whose exact age is not known, but who is believed to be 79 or 80 - has not been seen in public since a brief appearance in August 2004, shortly after returning from medical treatment in London for an unspecified heart condition. But even behind the scenes, his mix of religious authority and political sway make him more powerful than any elected leader in Iraq, including the president and his prime minister. Recently, however, al-Sistani has noticeably lightened his schedule, according to a range of officials interviewed by The Associated Press.

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