Sunday, February 26, 2006

Most Under-rated Iraqi?

There's an influential figure in Iraq who gets very little media attention. He is not part of the government yet he easily could have been. When others are fanning the flames of sectarian divisions he consistently calls for restraint, cooperation, compromise and dialogue between Sunnis and Shias.

He is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and, although he is Iranian by birth, he is the senior and most respected Shia cleric in Iraq. Quite simply he is one of that remarkable and all-too-rare breed that we call a "statesman".

On the eve of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, he issued a fatwa (religious decree) calling on Iraqis not to resist the occupation forces. Shortly after the American occupation began, Sistani issued fatwas calling on Shia clergy not to get involved in politics. He worked with firebrand Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to agree on a common slate of Shia candidates in the Jan. 30, 2005 elections.

He is a nearly unabashed supporter of democracy in Iraq. He supported the formation of a constitutional convention, and later demanded a direct vote for the purpose of forming a transitional government (perhaps seeing this as a sure path to Shiite dominance over Iraq's government, since most observers say that Shiites make up about 60% of Iraq's population). Subsequently, Sistani has criticized American plans for an Iraqi government as not being democratic enough (!).

In the aftermath of the February 22nd bombing of the Al-Askariyah Shrine in As Samarra, he called for seven days of mourning and restraint against attacks on Sunni mosques.

In my opinion, he is a truly remarkable man and one can only hope that there are many more like him waiting in the wings of the Shia community in Iraq.

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