How Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani halted a meltdown in Iraq


Following a pronouncement by a religious scholar in Iran drove Iraq to the brink of civil war last week, government officials and Shi’ite insiders believe that the meltdown was halted due to Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani’s stance.

In a country where the power to start and stop wars rests with clerics, the story of Iraq’s bloodiest week in nearly three years shows the limits of traditional politics.

The supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr, who is Iraq’s most popular politician, took to the streets and blamed Tehran for whipping up the violence.

Driving through Baghdad in pickup trucks brandishing machine guns and bazookas, Sadr’s followers tried to storm government buildings.

At least 30 people were killed during a clash between the demonstrators and members of the pro-Iranian militia.

Also see | From Sadrist movement to Coordination Framework: Who are Iraq’s competing Shi’ite groups

Although Sistani has never held formal political office in Iraq, the most influential scholar in Iraq quelled the unrest.

An Iraqi government official told news agency Reuters that “Sistani sent a message to Sadr, that if he will not stop the violence then Sistani would be forced to release a statement calling for a stopping of fighting – this would have made Sadr look weak, and as if he’d caused bloodshed in Iraq.”

Experts believe that Sistani’s intervention may have averted wider bloodshed for now. But it does not solve the problem of maintaining calm in a country where power resides outside the political system in the Shi’ite clergy.

Since the US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Sistani has intervened decisively at crucial moments in Iraq’s history.

After top-ranking Iraqi-born Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri announced he was retiring from public life and shutting down his office due to advanced age, violent protests began across the country.

Sadr’s father, who was a revered cleric that was assassinated by Saddam’s regime in 1999, had anointed Haeri as Sadr’s movement’s spiritual advisor.

Calling on his own followers to seek future guidance on religious matters from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Haeri denounced Sadr for causing rifts among Shi’ites.

(With inputs from agencies)

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