NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - The holy Shi’ite city of Najaf has come to wield immense influence on Iraqi politics and whoever can harness that power could dominate upcoming local elections and set the tone for Iraq’s nascent democracy.
Najaf is home to Iraq’s Marjaiya, or senior Shi’ite clergy, headed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. They insist they are independent of party politics, and some politicians have pledged not to use their images in elections expected in early 2009.
But the lure of claiming backing from the Marjaiya is strong in Shi’ite-majority Iraq, and the distance of the clergy from the levers of political power is far from clear.
“It is very difficult to separate religion and politics. There is a link, with regards to Muslims, that cannot be broken,” Najaf provincial governor Assad Abu-Gelal told Reuters during a recent interview in the southern city.
“Every party hopes the Marjaiya will support it, because the Marjaiya has great influence.”
The governor is a member of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), a Shi’ite political group that dominates most of the provincial councils of Iraq’s oil-rich south.
The council is also a key member of the ruling Shi’ite Alliance and supporter of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Down an unassuming narrow lane between a perfume shop and a cloth store in central Najaf, top politicians and government leaders visit Sistani’s humble home, their convoys of gleaming vehicles and bodyguards blocking the road outside.
“The true power that is controlling Najaf is the Marjaiya. ISCI is a political group. Its power is that it is the closest political entity to the Marjaiya,” said Abdul Hussain Abtan, an ISCI member and deputy governor of Najaf.
Sistani’s edicts have been credited with stemming violence in Iraq, ensuring elections have been held and encouraging a high voter turnout. Winning respect from Washington, the cleric’s pronouncements have been crucial in times of crisis.
“Any political decision ... founding or putting together a government or implementing the constitution and amendments, even the issues of the provinces, passes through Najaf,” Abtan said.
The Marjaiya denies they are close to any group, and say they support anyone who works in the interest of Iraq.
After visiting Sistani, dignitaries give little insight to the aging cleric’s thinking beyond the most general platitudes.
Sistani stayed mainly out of politics during Saddam Hussein’s time but emerged as one of the country’s most powerful men after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Such is his stature, the white-beared Sistani summoned reporters to his home last month for a rare meeting to dispel rumors that he had fallen seriously ill.
“The Marjaiya is not close to politicians ... The truth is Iraqi politicians respect the opinion of the Marjaiya, but the Marjaiya do not impose a particular political agenda,” said an official close to Sistani’s office who declined to be named.
However, in 2005 national polls, analysts and many voters said Sistani backed the Shi’ite Alliance, at least implicitly.
And while there may be no explicit backing for particular groups, Sistani’s dim view of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army militia is well known. The militia has fought pitched battles with ISCI supporters.
Sadr has since largely frozen the Mehdi Army, and plans to limit participation in local polls to joining groups of independent candidates, which could limit his political clout.
The youthful Sadr might instead be pinning hopes for power on becoming a senior cleric himself. A spokesman recently said Sadr, widely believed to be studying in Iran, could soon become a Mujtahid, a cleric able to issue religious edicts.
The qualification is a step toward entering the Marjaiya.
“Iraq generally respects the clergy ... Politicians know this. For that reason they try to affect people through their closeness to the Marjaiya in Najaf,” the official close to Sistani’s office said.
Iraq’s parliament passed a provincial elections law on Wednesday, paving the way for polls expected in early 2009. Provincial success could give momentum at the national level.
Whether the clergy throws its weight behind a particular group, and how politicians will try to associate themselves with the Marjayia during elections, remains to be seen.
In July, Iraq’s cabinet said it wanted to ban parties from using pictures of figures who were not running for office at election campaign rallies, a move political sources said was aimed at ending the use of pictures of clerics.
In 2005 parliamentary polls, Sistani’s image was used on the campaign banners of the Shi’ite Alliance. Pictures of Sadr were also displayed at rallies.
Analysts say the local polls are likely to be far more strongly contested than in 2005, when many Iraqis boycotted the elections and the power of provincial councils was unclear.
The role the Marjaiya and other religious leaders play could give a better idea of the shape of Iraqi democracy to come.
“I cannot deny that there will be religious exploitation (by) some of the religious parties and this is the great threat to democracy,” said government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, head of a group trying to prise Iraqi politics from sectarian interests.
“Iraq should try to minimize the influence of religion on politics. Till then I think we have a problem defining what type of democracy we have.”
Editing by Dean Yates and Samia Nakhoul