Sistani has been one of the most influential religious leaders in Iraqi politics since the US invasion of Iraq. While his word is not law - it cannot be ignored.
Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, one of Iraq’s most influential Shia clerics, isn’t involved in day-to-day governance. But when the 77-year-old comments on politics as the highest religious authority in the country, his words cannot be ignored.
“Sistani wields his influence very selectively, and he wields it rather discreetly,” Fanar Haddad, a Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute tells TRT World.
“He voices his opinion when he feels that the matter warrants his involvement.”
Sistani recently voiced his opinion on a political issue, one that he has consistently raised since 2003 when the US invaded Iraq: Washington’s unwarranted influence in the country’s politics.
“Iraq… refuses to be a position for directing harm to neighbouring countries,” Sistani said, in response to the US plan to keep its forces in the country to ‘watch’ Iran. He delivered the statement from his base in Najaf, instead of during the Friday prayers sermon as he usually does, and he backed critics of the US president’s plans, including Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.
“While this is not phrased to be a fatwa, trust me, in Iraq, it will play like one. The only question is, to what extent?” says Abbas Kadhim, Director of the Iraq Initiative at the Washington DC-based think tank Atlantic Council, said in a tweet.
Ibrahim Al Marashi, Associate Professor at the Department of History, California State University, says it would not bode well for any American or Iraqi politician not to heed Sistani’s advice.
“He influenced this interaction in the past and will wield the same power in the future,” Marashi tells TRT World.
“Sistani has always been a barometer of public sentiment in Iraq, and it would not bode well for any American or Iraqi politician to not heed his advice.”
For Haddad, critiquing US presence in Iraq is a message with a lot of political mileage for many Iraqi politicians at a time when some parliamentarians are still wary of taking a line that is too anti-American. That’s why he thinks Sistani’s voice underlined how important the issue is.
It is not yet clear how Sistani’s comments will make an impact on Iraq’s relationship with Iran, a Shia-majority country that wields outsize influence in Iraq, as much, if not more, than the US does.
In the past, while Sistani’s statements or fatwas were evidence of his powerful role as a critic of the ruling class, despite his large base of followers, it hasn’t always worked out in his favour.
“His influence is greater than his predecessors' influence, given the conditions that he has found himself in, the conditions that were thrust upon him in 2003 and onwards,” Haddad says.
“It (his influence) is still there, but this does not mean that he is a puppeteer.”
In 2004, tens of thousands of people chanting anti-American slogans marched in Iraq, when Sistani opposed the caucus system, called for direct elections and, through one of his aides, threatened to issue a fatwa or religious decree.
The fatwas he issued on political matters came to have a sharper influence than his statements.
"Citizens who are able to bear arms and fight terrorists, defend their country and their people and their holy places, should volunteer and join the security forces to achieve this holy purpose,” Sistani said in a fatwa during a Friday sermon on June 13, 2014.
The fatwa was issued shortly after Daesh captured Mosul and declared the city its de-facto capital. Sistani’s call ended up mobilising Hashd al Shaabi, an Iran-backed force that emerged to help the Iraqi army when it needed a push in defeating Daesh.
However, the force didn’t emerge in the way Sistani - who is widely known for rejecting the Iranian model of theocracy - had imagined. After the fight against Daesh alongside the Iraqi army, Hashd al Shaabi grew more significant than he had imagined and started to take on greater influence in Iraq’s internal politics. The group is financially and militarily backed by Iran, which presents a unique set of challenges.
Haddad says Sistani’s latest statement can be seen as a way of pre-empting an escalation by Iran’s allies and assets in Iraq, and to send a signal to Iran reassuring them that Iraq will not be party to anti-Iranian campaigns.
In 2017, Sistani opposed Hashd al Shaabi running in the country’s upcoming elections in a fatwa, after the volunteer force, called upon to defend the country, turned out to be a force accused of sectarian violence against the Sunni Iraqis.
The reason why Sistani is very selective in making statements is the unintended consequences that they can have, and also the fear of not being obeyed, Haddad says.
In 2016, Sistani came out to support the reform agenda of Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi against corruption, of which he has been critical for years, but nothing has happened.
Meanwhile, he kept embracing the protesters who were calling for reform in Baghdad in the southern oil city of Basra in 2015 and continued voicing his support in 2018 when the protests flared up in Basra again and swept through other cities.
Amid challenges in forming a government, Sistani’s people-friendly statements couldn’t give protesters what they demanded: a solution to the mismanagement of public services and corruption.
Haddad thinks the reputation of the political and religious classes has been tarnished by political Islam after 2003.
But Sistani’s followers regard him as above that.
“He has been consistently critical of the political classes for some time, criticising the political classes for their corruption, for their failures and providing the basic requirements of life,” he says. To Haddad, that’s what resonates with Iraqi public.