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Sistani Openly Backs Shia Bloc

Iraq’s most revered religious leader now officially supports the list made up of the country’s two top Shia parties.
By Safaal Mansoor

Iraq's supreme Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has confirmed he is backing the United Iraqi Alliance list in the January 30 elections.

A spokesman revealed the strongest statement yet from Sistani in support of the coalition. His office had previously said it blessed the United Iraqi Alliance, made up of the major Shia parties as well as other groups, but did not specifically say it supported it.

Hayder al-Safi, spokesman for Sistani’s representative in Basra, Ali Abdul-Hakim al-Safi, said on January 28 that Shia leaders are urging people to vote for the United Iraqi Alliance, listed as number 169 on the ballot sheet.

"Anyone that votes for List no. 169, I will be answer for them before God,” said al-Safi, quoting the words of Sistani. “And anyone who will vote for other lists will answer before God."

The Shia make up about 60 per cent of the population, but were marginalised and excluded from government under Saddam Hussein's regime, which favoured Sunni Muslims.

Al-Safi confirmed earlier statements from leaders of the United Iraqi Alliance, who said those nominated to fill top positions in the government would be lay people, not clerics.

"The Iraqi people are made up of several religions and ethnicities, so we don't want to set up an Islamic republic," said al-Safi.

He added that Sistani would be focusing on the drafting of the new constitution, the main task of the National Assembly, in order to ensure that it is acceptable to all Iraqis.

"When Saddam was in power, he was unjust to the Shia and tried to create segregation," said al-Safi. “We don't call for segregation or for partition. We call for unity, just as God is indivisible."

Responding to worries that Shia rule will mean an Islamic republic, campaign posters for the United Iraqi Alliance were recently altered to erase religious overtones, such as women wearing veils. They now show a woman with hair exposed beside a bearded young man.

Al-Safi issued a rebuff to critics who accuse the United Iraqi Alliance of being a puppet of Iran, saying, "Someone who has Iraqi nationality but resides in London, Kuwait or Iran is an Iraqi nonetheless. As for those who accuse us of being Iranians - we have the right to accuse them of being Americans because they resided in the US."

The alliance includes the Islamic Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which at one time were both based in Iran to escape oppression by Saddam.

Safaal Mansoor is an IWPR trainee journalist in Iraq.

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