Top Iraq Shia cleric to end weekly political messages

08.02.2016

Iraq's top Shia cleric will no longer provide weekly Friday political messages that have had a major impact on politics and security, an apparent sign of frustration with the government.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is revered by millions, has used messages delivered by his representatives at Friday prayers to call Iraqis to arms against the Islamic State group, push for anti-corruption reforms and urge unity in a deeply divided country.

Each Friday, "we would read, in the second sermon, a written text representing the perspectives and opinions of the supreme religious authority on Iraqi affairs," Sistani's representative Ahmed al-Safi said in the Shia shrine city Karbala. But it has been "decided that this will not happen every week at this time," rather only as circumstances require, said Safi, who did not give a reason for the decision.

Hayder al-Khoei, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think-tank, said the end of the regular messages is a sign of Sistani's frustration with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and his government.

"Sistani is clearly still livid with the government over the abysmal failure of its reform programme," Khoei said. "His decision to not continue with a weekly political sermon indicates obvious frustration that his constant and consistent messages pushing for reform are not being listened to," he said.

Sistani has repeatedly called for the Iraqi government to implement measures aimed at fighting the rampant corruption plaguing the countryand warned politicians not to undercut them. But while Sistani's calls gave Abadi the political cover needed to pursue reforms, opposition from across the political spectrum remained a major challenge and little in the way of deep, lasting change has been effected.

Khoei said a cleric from Najaf told him that with this decision, "Sistani is half-closing the door in Abadi's face."

Sistani is a follower of the "quietist" tradition of Shia Islam that eschews involvement in politics, as opposed to the much more active role advocated by clerics such as Iran's revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who directly led the state.

But Sistani has had a major impact at key moments in Iraqi history in the years since the 2003 US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein. His timely return to Najaf in August 2004 from London, where he had been undergoing medical treatment, settled a deadly confrontation between the US military and Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

Sistani also pressured the US to expedite the path to democratic elections and has repeatedly urged people to vote. And both at the height of the Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict in Iraq and in more recent years, Sistani has urged unity among both Iraqi citizens and politicians.

The ageing cleric's most influential pronouncement of recent years was a call for all able-bodied Iraqis to take up arms as part of the security forces to combat IS, which overran large parts of the country in 2014. That call led to the formation of the Hashed al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation units, which played a major role in halting and later pushing back the jihadists' advance. But while these forces are ostensibly under state control, they are dominated by Iran-backed Shia militias that operate with a great deal of autonomy and have been repeatedly accused of human rights abuses.    (AFP)

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