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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

SLUG: 5-54625 Iraq/Shiite Clerics
DATE:>
NOTE NUMBER:

DATE=12/8/2003

TYPE=BACKGROUND REPORT

TITLE=IRAQ / SHIITE CLERICS

NUMBER=5-54625

BYLINE=ALISHA RYU

DATELINE=BAGHDAD

CONTENT=

INTRO: After decades of repression under Saddam Hussein, several prominent Shiite Muslim clerics in Iraq have begun turning their considerable religious authority into formidable political clout. V-O-A Correspondent Alisha Ryu in Baghdad reports, the clerics' rising influence among Iraq's majority Shiites is complicating U-S-led efforts to create a democratic state with a clear separation between religious and government affairs.

TEXT:

/// SOUND OF PEOPLE AND MUSIC PLAYING - EST & FADE ///

The most obvious displays of newfound freedom in Iraq can be found here, in the mostly Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Kadimiyah in central Baghdad.

Shiite symbols and icons, from green flags to portraits of Shiite martyrs, adorn the walls and windows of many buildings, shops and offices. Residents, chatting over afternoon tea, speak freely about the suffering they endured under ousted leader Saddam Hussein.

Saddam was the last in a long line of Iraqi Sunni Muslim leaders who brutally repressed the Shiites. Shiites make up 60 percent of Iraq's 24-million people.

The toppling of Saddam in April by U-S-led forces has suddenly given Shiite Muslims not only freedom, but an unprecedented opportunity to play a critical role in shaping the country's future.

But Kadimiyah shopkeeper Mizher Abid Hanfoosh says years of betrayal and spying have taught Iraqi Shiites not to trust politicians. That is why, he says, almost everyone is now trusting religious leaders to give them a political voice.

/// HANFOOSH ACT IN ARABIC - EST & FADE ///

Mr. Hanfoosh says he believes the clerics have every right to speak on behalf of the people, because they care about all Iraqis and are genuinely concerned about the country's welfare.

Some clerics, like Moqtada al-Sadr, are firebrands who have used their vehement anti-coalition stance to attract support from disgruntled Shiites.

But by far, the most powerful cleric in the country is Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a moderate who has both helped and opposed the U-S-led coalition authority here.

While he has never publicly denounced the coalition, he has used his considerable religious authority to force Washington to scrap its original plan for an appointed committee to draft a constitution and plan national elections. He insisted that the constitution be written by elected delegates.

A new plan to create a transitional government to draft the constitution was unveiled on November 15th. But that plan has also run into trouble over the ayatollah's demand that transitional government members be elected and not chosen in regional meetings.

A political science professor at Baghdad University, Abdul Jabbar Ali, says Ayatollah Ali Sistani and other clerics know that the Shiites would benefit from a national ballot.

/// ALI ACT ///

Democracy, from a simple definition, is the rule of the majority. Therefore, they again and again say that we need elections, because they think from an election, they (will) win.

/// END ACT ///

In Iraq's multi-ethnic society, most people reject the idea that the clerics could consolidate enough power to create an Iranian-style clergy-ruled state here.

But some coalition officials privately acknowledge that the clerics' intervention in the political process is complicating U-S-led efforts to guide Iraqis toward creating a democratic system with a clear separation between religious and government affairs.

The clerics' rising influence is also raising deep concern among Iraq's Sunni and Kurdish communities, which face the prospect of living under Shiite domination for the first time in the country's history.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has the support of many Shiite politicians, including the current holder of the Governing Council's rotating presidency, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim.

At a recent news conference, Mr. Hakim defended the ayatollah against charges that he is meddling in politics.

/// HAKIM ACT IN ARABIC - EST & FADE ///

Mr. Hakim says Ayatollah Ali Sistani does not represent a political movement nor is he a political figure. But he says that, as a religious figure, the Ayatollah has the right to defend the destiny of the nation and the rights of the people.

Mr. Hakim warns that ignoring the ayatollah's views, or the views of any other religious authority, could have grave consequences for the country. (SIGNED)

NEB/AR/AWP/TW/KBK



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