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NAJAF, Iraq – Since Sunni militants of the Islamic State group overran large parts of Iraq, the country's most prominent Shiite cleric has fundamentally altered his spiritual role and has plunged straight into politics, weighing in on government policy and the fight against the extremists.
The shift by the Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani underlines the key role played by religion in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and takes the troubled country down a potentially dangerous path, given its deep sectarian and ethnic tensions. His role falls well short of Iranian-style theocracy, in which the top cleric has the final word on everything, but Iraq's government clearly feels it must listen to him.
Al-Sistani saw it as a necessity to step in with his moral authority given the failures of politicians and the collapse of the military when the Islamic State group overran much of the north and west last summer, an aide said.
"It is his legitimate right, but he did not seek to exercise it. It was forced upon him," the aide in the holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. "People wait from one Friday to the next to hear what Sayed al-Sistani has to say."
But Alireza Nader, senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, said that even if it is seen as necessary, "heavy intervention by the clergy means that Iraq's government is not going to be secular any time soon, although not theocratic either. But perhaps something in between."
In June, al-Sistani pushed for the removal of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, seen even by many of his fellow Shiites as to blame for the meltdown. Al-Maliki stepped down in August, replaced by Haidar al-Abadi, another Shiite politician who promised a more inclusive administration.
The 87-year-old cleric also swiftly called on all able-bodied Iraqi men to join a jihad, or holy struggle, against the Islamic State group, and hundreds of thousands — overwhelmingly Shiites — responded.
In the months since, the grand ayatollah has weighed in on matters in unprecedented detail, often through sermons delivered by his representative, Sheikh Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie, in the holy city of Karbala south of Baghdad.
A Jan. 9 sermon by al-Karbalaie, for example, showcased the lengths al-Sistani is willing to go in wielding his influence. The sermon called on officials to quickly use natural gas resources to compensate for revenues lost because of falling crude prices and to cut back on vacations to boost productivity.
In recent weeks, al-Karbalaie's Friday sermons, drafted by al-Sistani's office in Najaf a day in advance, have urged the government to stop procrastinating and quickly approve the 2015 national budget, warned against complacency after a string of victories against the militants, and called for an end to the theft of state-owned lands and for the purging of corruption.
Al-Sistani holds the title of "al-marjaa al-akbar," or the "greatest object of emulation," and is venerated as a voice of reason in Iraq and among the more than 200 million Shiites worldwide.
He works in austere reclusion, almost never seen in public, from his modest home in Najaf's old quarter, a maze of alleys lined by old homes, religious seminaries that attract students from across the world and stores that sell religious books and prayer rugs, jewelry, clothes, fruits and spices.
He does not subscribe to the religious principle on which the Islamic republic in Iran is based, "welayet al-faqeeh," or rule by the most learned cleric.
Still, he has waded into politics several times since the fall of Saddam nearly 12 years ago, using his standing to keep stability throughout Iraq's shaky and often bloody shift to democratic rule, through religious edicts or closed meetings with key political players at his home. He has had a major political impact at times, but has never spoken out as persistently or in such detail as he does now.
Al-Sistani is the most senior of four grand ayatollahs in Najaf, and is accorded a deeper reverence than the other three.
Last year, one of the three — Pakistani-born Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi — issued a thinly-veiled denunciation of al-Maliki, calling on voters not to elect him. Al-Maliki's aides called it a violation of neutrality, and al-Najafi's aides complained that authorities detained several of his non-Iraqi students for visa violations in retaliation.
But there was no such reaction when al-Sistani in June called for a "change" of prime ministers in an edict that sealed the fate of al-Maliki.
"There should be no separation between religion and politics," said Hassan Salem, a lawmaker from the "Faithful" bloc, the political arm of Asaib al-Haq, an Iranian-backed militia. "We are in a dire need of even more intervention by the Marjaiyah," he added, using the Arabic word for the collective Shiite spiritual leadership.
Al-Sistani's interventions resonate with Iraq's Shiite majority and even many Sunnis because of the government's perceived inefficiency and corruption. His call for jihad, the first of its kind by a top Shiite cleric in Iraq since 1920, is credited with denying the Islamic State the opportunity to overrun Baghdad and Samarra, home to a major Shiite shrine.
But the flood of Shiite volunteers has also given the fight a sharp sectarian slant, and there have been numerous reports of abuses perpetrated by the militias against Sunni civilians. Al-Sistani has had to issue a string of statements condemning the militias' excesses and prohibiting the theft of property in Sunni areas.
The recent creation of a state agency in charge of the volunteers — the Popular Mobilization Authority — has given Iranian-backed militias a degree of official recognition as well as financial and other support from the state.
Two Najaf insiders who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic said al-Sistani's political intervention has caused some divisions in Najaf's religious establishment.
They said dozens of clerics who volunteered to fight the Islamic State — some appearing in military parades wearing turbans and military fatigues — gave the impression of direct clerical involvement in the battle, something that did not help ease sectarian tensions.
Meddling, said one of the insiders, makes the Marjaiyah vulnerable to the ravages of politics.
"The marjaa who allows himself to meddle in politics must alone shoulder the consequences of his actions, not the entire Marjaiyah," he said.