Iraq’s top cleric orders aides to stay out of election campaigning in bid to stay neutral

By Hamza Hendawi, AP
Saturday, February 27, 2010

Iraq’s top cleric says aides not to join campaigns

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s top Shiite cleric on Saturday ordered his representatives across the country not to campaign for any blocs or candidates contesting the March 7 parliamentary elections, a move designed to assert the Iranian-born cleric’s neutrality.

An official at the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said the cleric, who is highly revered by Iraq’s Shiite majority, also decided not to receive any politicians till after the vote.

The official’s comments coincided with a visit by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to Najaf, the holy Shiite city where al-Sistani is based. However, the official said the Shiite prime minister did not request a meeting with the cleric.

Al-Maliki, who is seeking a second term in office, was campaigning in Najaf on Saturday.

The official said al-Sistani wanted his representatives to ensure a big turnout for the election for a new, 325-seat legislature.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations followed by al-Sistani’s office.

Al-Sistani has quietly guided Iraq’s fledgling democracy since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.

Last week, he urged voters to turn out for the elections but distanced himself from any particular coalition, saying people should give their support to the candidates they thought to be fit to serve the country.

Iraq’s ruling Shiite establishment holds al-Sistani in high regard, partly out of respect as a spiritual leader but also for fear that ignoring his wishes could unleash a backlash from Iraq’s Shiite majority. Thought to be in his early 80s but in relatively good health, al-Sistani rarely leaves his Najaf home or grants media interviews, but receives dozens of visitors daily.

His political pronouncements, mostly brief statements posted on his Web site or distributed to the media, are carefully phrased to appear directed at the entire nation and not just the Shiites.

But al-Sistani has been widely suspected of favoring Iraq’s religious Shiite parties and tirelessly working from behind-the-scenes to strengthen Shiite domination in Iraq after decades of oppression at the hands of minority Sunni Arabs under Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime.

Al-Sistani’s aides deny the allegations, arguing that al-Sistani has the interest of all of Iraq at heart and not just the Shiites.

Iraq’s Shiites are thought to account for at least 60 percent of the country’s estimated 28 million people. Sunni Arabs, Kurds and tiny Christian and other minorities make up the rest.

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