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Originally published Thursday, June 17, 2010 at 12:07 AM

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Top cleric seen tipping Iraq's political balance

Iraqis hoping for a secular, nonsectarian government are worried about signs that the country's most revered Shiite cleric has stepped into the postelection fray with moves that appear aligned with Iran's own ambitions in Iraq.

Associated Press Writers

NAJAF, Iraq —

Iraqis hoping for a secular, nonsectarian government are worried about signs that the country's most revered Shiite cleric has stepped into the postelection fray with moves that appear aligned with Iran's own ambitions in Iraq.

The March 7 election gave a narrow victory to a bloc led by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite with Sunni backing. But Allawi's chances of heading the next government were dampened when two major Shiite blocs, one of them overtly religious, struck an alliance after the votes were in.

Now Allawi faces a fresh challenge in the shape of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the 83-year-old sage who was revered by Sunnis and Shiites alike as a uniter standing above politics, but who is now seen by many as the man who shut out Allawi and brokered the alliance that put the Shiites on top.

The apparent shift brings into sharper focus the conflicting visions of Iraq's future as the U.S. prepares to withdraw its forces from the country next year - whether it will drift into the orbit of Iran, or take the middle ground by improving relations with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-led Arab states.

Shiites are the majority in both Iraq and Iran, and the new alliance has positioned religious Shiite parties to maintain their hold on power for four more years and deepen the intertwining of politics and religion in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

The formalization of the merger was announced just hours after Ammar al-Hakim, one of its leaders, met with al-Sistani in Najaf, the Shiite holy city and base of the so-called marjaiyah, or religious Shiite leadership.

Sunnis backed Allawi's Iraqiya bloc because they wanted a secular, Iraq-focused party to shield them against some Iranian-style form of Shiite clerical rule. They are taking the new Shiite alliance as a slap in the face, and fear Al-Sistani has gone from uniter of Iraq to uniter of its Shiites.

"We don't view the recent moves of the marjaiyah to have been made in the national interest," complained Mohammed Tamim, an Iraqiya lawmaker. "They were made for the benefit of just one particular sect."

The Shiites, for their part, see Iraqiya as a vehicle for sympathizers of Saddam's Baathist regime to regain their ascendancy or at least win more power than their minority status entitles them to.

Both Allawi and al-Sistani carry personal baggage that isn't lost on Iraqis.

Al-Sistani was born in Iran and holds Iranian citizenship. Allawi is a former member of the Baath Party and was handpicked by the Americans in 2004 to serve as Iraq's first post-Saddam prime minister.

Iraq's next two prime ministers - Ibrahim al-Jaafari and the current Nouri al-Maliki - belong to the religious Shiite Dawa Party which is in the new alliance.

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With al-Maliki leading the alliance and seeking another term as prime minister, and Allawi claiming the title on the strength of his election showing, al-Sistani's role may be critical.

The ayatollah won his stature by skillfully shepherding the nation through the upheavals that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, defending the country's nascent democracy, and insisting that the new constitution be drafted by directly elected lawmakers. He resolutely stayed out of partisan politics, and his aides say nothing has changed in that regard.

But two Shiite insiders with direct links to the marjaiyah cite evidence that the cleric has, at least in part, gone partisan.

Speaking anonymously because the subject is sensitive, they say it was al-Sistani who pushed for the merger that secured control of the 325-seat legislature; that he agreed, albeit reluctantly, to be the arbiter of any differences that might arise between the two factions; and that he gave the clear impression he wouldn't support any secular candidate for prime minister, thus ruling out Allawi, the Sunnis' favorite.

Allawi visited al-Sistani in Najaf on May 23 to enlist his support, and according to the insiders and a source who was present, the meeting was fraught with tension.

They said Al-Sistani rebuked Allawi for touring Sunni-ruled Arab nations to win their endorsement, and urged him to "withdraw" his warning of civil war if his bloc was denied power.

Al-Sistani's style is subtle, and it is hard to judge to what extent, if any, he wishes to serve Iranian interests. But he may also have had personal reasons for stepping into the political tangle: a fear that if he stayed aloof, other rising Shiite clerics would move into the vacuum at a time when Shiites increasingly seek to unite in readiness for the U.S. withdrawal by the end of next year.

They said al-Sistani's declining health has forced him to greatly reduce his teaching schedule for seminary students and he is losing ground to the Afghan-born Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Ishaq al-Fayadh, who is fast establishing himself as Najaf's leading scholar.

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