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Friday, February 24, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Clerics' authority growing in war-torn Iraq

Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Rarely since the U.S.-led invasion have Iraq's politicians appeared so insignificant and its religious clergy loomed so large as in the 48 hours since Wednesday's bombing of the Shiite Golden Mosque in Samarra.

Few Iraqis paid attention to Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and other leaders of political parties who called for calm. But many winced or smiled as the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the paramount Shiite leader here, issued an unusually bellicose statement suggesting it was time for "the faithful" to protect religious sites — an apparent endorsement of militias.

Others listened to every word uttered and watched every gesture made by Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric, as he rushed from Lebanon back to Iraq after the explosion.

Politicians outflanked

Even Sunni political leaders, who on Thursday announced they were pulling out of government talks to protest the government's failure to safeguard their mosques and offices, were outflanked by Sunni clerics.

Thursday, the Muslim Scholars Association, an umbrella group for Sunni clergy, issued a condemnation of their Shiite counterparts "for calling for demonstrations knowing that these demonstrations can be infiltrated and they can not control the streets." The statement provocatively noted that "the resistance controlled Samarra for two years, and nothing happened to the shrines."

The dominance of the political scene by clerics on both sides of the Shiite-Sunni divide marks a dramatic reversal of 85 years of secular rule in Iraq.

"The clerics are the kingmakers, the peacemakers and the war makers," said Ismael Zayer, editor in chief of Sabah Jadeed, a moderate daily newspaper. "People are marching by order of clerics and stopping by order of clerics."

Iraq's political leaders and U.S.-led forces can shut down the country for a time and reduce the violence by flooding the streets with checkpoints and soldiers. But few doubt who really holds the cards.

"If the religious leaders decided to go all the way to a civil war they could, in no time," said Hassan Bazzaz, a political scientist at Baghdad University. "And if they really wanted to stop it, they could. The religious leaders are the ones who have the real power."

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The reality of clerical power here discomforts U.S. officials, who for nearly three years have tried to promote secular leaders or moderate Islamic political groups. U.S. officials have little sway with clerical figures on either side of the Sunni-Shiite divide.

Indeed, the clerical leaders are notable for their lack of direct contact with Americans. Al-Sistani, for example, has refused to meet with any American officials since the invasion of Iraq. Forces loyal to al-Sadr fought U.S. Marines in Najaf in the summer of 2004. And the Muslim Scholars Association has been vehemently anti-American and tied closely to the insurgency.

By contrast, secular politicians perceived here as being close to the Americans have steadily lost power. The most notable example is former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who fared poorly in December's election although his attempt to build a coalition across Iraq's sectarian divide was supported by U.S. officials.

"We keep recirculating the same stale politicians over and over again," said Wayne White, a former State department intelligence specialist now at Washington's Middle East Institute. "A lot of Iraqis resent the occupation and associate a lot of the politicians who have been in circulation since 2003 with the United States."

Even Iraq's religious political leaders, some of them scions of famous clerical families, have been so badly damaged by recent political infighting that they have been sidelined in favor of the clerics themselves.

The rise of the clerics comes after decades in which secular politicians have failed to deliver decent government, culminating in the disastrous reign of Saddam Hussein.

While most of Iraq's current political leaders spent the Saddam years in exile, the clerics mostly stayed in Iraq. They've been able to take positions that give them enormous moral authority among Iraqis, as opposed to politicians who have had to make compromises with each other and with the Americans.

Taking a hard line

Al-Sistani, the Iranian-born leader of Iraq's Shiite clerical hierarchy, has barely budged from his house in Najaf for decades and has been outspoken in his insistence that the country's Shiite majority has the right to a direct say on the country's political future.

Since the bombing, he has captured the discontent of Iraq's Shiites with his suggestion that people should consider taking their own action to make up for the government's security mistakes. That stance directly contradicts the evolving policy of the recently elected government.

Al-Sadr has captured the imagination of the country's poorest and most angry Shiites with sermons that lambaste the "occupiers" and "crusaders" for Iraq's crises. His speeches denounce the same U.S.-led military forces that back and protect the country's political class.

And Sunni clerics from the beginning of the occupation have taken a hard line against the U.S. military. They express the sense of victimization felt by many in the country's once-dominant Sunni Arab minority.

Meanwhile, all the politicians have been able to do since the explosion was issue pro forma condemnations of the bombing while ordering a curfew in an attempt to lock down the country. And the more the political leaders appear unable to stem the violence, the more their prestige and authority wanes.

"We don't have a real government, and we don't have a real authority to apply law," said Bazzaz. "In the power vacuum, people retreat to their religions."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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