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 clerics 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 cleric, 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, al-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 cleric, 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, clerics familiar with al-Sistani’s thinking say, motivated by his fear the state faces collapse.
Tens of thousands of men have heeded the call, bolstering an army that at times seemed close to implosion. Al-Sistani’s appeal for an inclusive government has further been seen as an implicit rebuke of al-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 Tuesday, meaning al-Maliki could be replaced within days.
“Today, the road map is clear and there is a timetable. It’s as if al-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 al-Sistani’s call to arms inflamed the conflict. And, more broadly, the fatwas revive an old question of what role Najaf’s clerics, 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: “Al-Sistani is the driver now.”
Shiites are required to choose a senior cleric, known as a “marjaa,” to emulate, usually one who has attained the top rank of grand ayatollah after many decades of study at either of the two great seminaries, in Najaf, Iraq, or Qom, Iran.
Al-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. To the millions who follow him, his Islamic legal opinions, or fatwas, are beyond question.
Mohammad Hussein al-Hakim, whose father is another of Najaf’s four top clerics, reaches deep into history to describe the threat Shiites now feel from the hard-line Sunni Islamists spearheading the insurgency.
Two centuries ago, puritanical Sunnis rampaged through the holy city of Karbala, north of Najaf. Without the clerics’ intervention, al-Hakim said, history might have repeated itself.
“Now the capabilities are bigger, the destructive forces are stronger, and the destructive ideas are greater,” he said at the offices of a charity for orphans financed by his father.
He listed abuses and atrocities committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the al-Qaida splinter group spearheading the insurgency: Tombs have been razed, Shiites murdered, mosques sacked. “They will leave no culture or values behind,” al-Hakim said. “Their behavior is monstrous.”
During interviews, clerics also invoked the seventh-century assassination of Imam Ali — a central figure in Shiite history who is buried in Najaf’s golden-domed shrine — and the British occupation of Iraq during World War I to illustrate the depth of their current fears. But most Shiites do not need to look back that far to recall severe persecution.
Former President Saddam Hussein, a Sunni ruling over a country with a Shiite majority, banned pilgrimages to Najaf and Karbala, assassinated Shiite clerics and made sure the holy sites like Najaf languished in neglect and poverty.
Since the U.S. Army toppled Hussein, Shiites have risen to power on the basis of their numbers. For all the corruption, waste and sloth of the post-Hussein state, many see attempts to undermine it as a threat to return Iraq to a dark past.
Thaer al-Khateeb, a 56-year-old fabric seller who works down the street from the Imam Ali shrine, said al-Sistani’s fatwa has saved the nation.
The charge that Sunnis were marginalized was exaggerated, he said, by those who wanted “to turn the wheel back.”
“They don’t let you live — the remnants of the old regime and those whose interests were hurt with the new regime,” al-Khateeb said. “They are saying, ‘We have ruled for 1,400 years and now you are coming to rule us? Impossible.’ “
The most immediate consequence of al-Sistani’s 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 al-Maliki’s premiership.
Al-Sistani’s call Friday for politicians to choose a prime minister by Tuesday 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 al-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, al-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 al-Maliki,” the Shiite lawmaker said.
There is also a chance that even with al-Sistani’s tacit backing, the United States and Iran may not be enough to unseat al-Maliki, a masterful player of Iraq’s political game, said Hayder al-Khoie, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank.
“Al-Maliki can still pull more levers than any other politician in Iraq,” al-Khoie said. “If he wants to be stubborn, I think he can be stubborn.”
Such vagaries are one reason clerics have been reluctant to wade directly into the untidy business of politics in Iraq. On past form, al-Sistani probably wants to preserve that distance in the longer term.
Farhan al-Saadi, a Najaf cleric and professor, recalled a scene from “Don Quixote” when describing the attitude of the top clerics 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, clerics say. Bodies of soldiers killed by insurgents regularly arrive in Najaf, expanding a vast cemetery where tombs are plastered with images of men who died in the sectarian warfare of 2006 and 2007.
During that earlier conflict and the entire period of U.S. occupation al-Sistani called for restraint, while relatively junior but more radical clerics, like Moqtada al-Sadr, rallied Shiites to fight, at times mocking the caution of their elders.
Ali al-Najafi, son of another of Najaf’s grand ayatollahs, said the difference is that ISIL 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 al-Sistani’s fatwa had not reinvigorated the Iraq Army during the anxious days when it seemed the insurrection might sweep to Baghdad, “then we would not be meeting here today,” Najafi said.