Ayatollah Sistani fears Iran is worsening sectarian divisions in Iraq

The New York Times reports: Last year, Ayatollah Sistani issued a widely heeded call for young men to take up arms against the Islamic State. But that fatwa resulted in a constellation of new militias, and the growth of existing ones that are controlled by Iran rather than the Iraqi state. The influence of Iran and its militias in Iraq has grown as they have become essential to the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Ayatollah Sistani has become increasingly concerned that those militias are a threat to the unity of Iraq, experts say, in part because many of the militia leaders and their affiliated politicians have challenged efforts by the government to reconcile with Iraq’s minority Sunnis, a priority for the clerical leader.

Jawad al-Khoei, the secretary general of his family’s Khoei Institute, a religious institute and charity in Najaf, said of Ayatollah Sistani: “This time it is very serious. He is an old man now and maybe he considers that this will be the last thing he does in his life.”

Analysts say that despite his concerns, Ayatollah Sistani is not opposed to an Iranian role in Iraq.

“He believes Iran’s presence is necessary in Iraq, but it needs to take wiser policies,” said Mehdi Khalaji, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has studied at the seminary in Qom and has written extensively about Ayatollah Sistani.

Mr. Khalaji said that when it comes to Iran, Ayatollah Sistani is primarily worried about tensions between Sunnis and Shiites and Iran’s role in worsening sectarian divisions in Iraq.

But even as he moves to diminish Iranian influence in Iraq, he is mimicking the ways of the Iranian system.

One diplomat in Baghdad, referring to the Shiite holy cities from where instructions to politicians are given at Friday sermons, noted that in much the same way as Iranian political leaders look to Qom for guidance, “Every Friday we look to Karbala and Najaf.”

Here in Najaf, where Ayatollah Sistani, three other senior ayatollahs and countless clerics collectively represent the Shiite religious establishment, known as the marjaiya, there is a sense of regret for lending crucial support for Iraq’s Shiite political class in the years after the 2003 invasion.

The marjaiya’s support over the years lent crucial legitimacy to the Shiite religious parties that came to dominate politics and that are now the source of great anger for the masses that began protesting against Iraq’s government in August. [Continue reading…]

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