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Sistani Call Likely to Boost Shia Turnout

Top Shia cleric urges citizens to vote but refuses to endorse parties.
An appeal from Iraq’s top Shia cleric calling on all Iraqis to vote is expected to prompt his followers to head to the March 7 polls in large numbers.

The highly revered Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Hussaini al-Sistani, who has been tight-lipped over the election, broke his silence last week.

Although his appeal did not endorse a specific party, Sistani said citizens’ failure to vote would "give others a chance to realise their illegitimate goals". The statement did not clarify further.

Sistani's call to vote comes amid rising election-related violence, including attacks on candidates, police and election workers. Many here are fearful that bombings and attacks could escalate on voting day.

“In earlier elections, Shia headed to the polls in spite of the threats and bombs but now they are unhappy with the government - no jobs, no security, no services – and they don't want to go to the polls,” said Hazem al-Neimy, a political science professor in Baghdad.

"But Sistani's statement will push them to go. They will drop their disappointment and participate. This will mean a much higher turnout and more Shia seats in the next government."

Sistani, 79, heads Iraq's Marjaiya, a powerful council of senior Shia religious scholars based in the holy city of Najaf. Since the United States-led invasion of 2003, it has been a vocal supporter of democracy and an influential political voice. Whenever Sistani speaks, it is in the name of the Marjaiya.

International officials and election watchdogs have welcomed Sistani's statement as a timely boost for the March vote.

"Clerics have a greater effect on people than political parties and campaign platforms, especially [Grand Ayatollah] Sistani. His fatwas and statements showed their impact clearly in past elections, so his new order is sure to show its positive impact on the turnout this year,” said Qasim al-Abbodi, spokesman of the Independent High Electoral Commission.

In the 2005 parliamentary vote, Sistani and the Marjaiya threw their considerable support behind the United Iraqi Alliance, UIA, a coalition run by the late Abdul Aziz Hakim. UIA went on to win 128 out of 275 seats.

Since that time, however, the Shia coalition has split and the Marjaiya has distanced itself from partisan politics, urging Shia voters to cast ballots for the party that best suits their interests.

Sheikh Neama al-Abadi, a professor at the University of Sheikh Tossi, a religious school in Najaf supervised by the Hawza, the body that trains and ordains ayatollahs, explained that the Marjaiya changed its stance of political endorsements to main its credibility on the Iraqi street.

In 2005, he explained, “the Marjaiya was concerned that the Shia would not get enough power and the voice they deserved in the Iraqi government. The UIA was the only option, so the Marjaiya supported it.

“At the time it was necessary to have a big Shia voting bloc, but now there is no such concern; Shia power is now established and effective.

"Also, in the past, the Marjaiya was blamed for the poor performance of the list it supported. The Marjaiya now feels that taking a neutral stance will preserve its influence over Iraq's Shia."

The Marjaiya has moved quickly to distance itself from parties seeking to exploit the group's moral authority.

For example, the Iraqi National Alliance, a prominent Shia-led coalition, has been reprimanded for emphasising the word "best" on their campaign posters - a direct reference to Sistani advising Iraqis to vote for the party they consider the best.

"The Marjaiya has told everyone to avoid using the Marjaiya's name in their own interests. Signed statements are the only things that represent Sistani's position," said a member of Sistani's office who declined to be named because he was not authorised to speak for the Marjaiya.

The call to vote was embraced on the streets of Najaf, where Sistani's edicts are taken as law.

"We will all go to vote….obeying the Marjaiya is a religious duty," said Rasool Mahdi, 30, a grocer in Najaf's bazaar.

"It is my duty to obey the Marjaiya just as it is their duty to release the right fatwa."

Forty-four-year-old government employee Hussein Ali said, “I will go to polls and vote because Marjaiya asked us to do so. But the Marjaiya did not tell us to vote for anyone, so we should take a look [at the candidates] and consider who deserves our support."

Reported by an IWPR-trained reporter in Najaf whose name is not revealed because of security concerns. IWPR Iraq senior local editor Abeer Mohammed contributed to this report from Baghdad.

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