BAGHDAD – Popular wisdom in Iraq rules that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, with a simple fatwa, or even a single word, could bring the US occupation to an abrupt end. So why doesn’t he?

In the impossibility to pose this half-trillion-dollar question to the grand ayatollah himself (he does not grant interviews to foreigners, and has never even bothered to receive US occupation authorities), the next-best option is to talk to someone close to the marjas (sources of imitation) in Najaf.

To start with, there is ample controversy over how many marjas there are in Iraq, four or five. Four of them sit in Najaf, the Shi’ite “Vatican”: Sistani, Basheer Hussain Najafi, Mohammed Taqi Mudarassi and Mohammed Iaqubi. There’s also al-Khalse, who sits in Khadimiya, in Baghdad.

Sheikh Mohammed al-Roubaie is a top cleric with the Imam al-Rabani organization, affiliated with the marjaiyya (highest-ranking clerics) , which he defines as “the government of the people.” He insists there is “no separation between religion and politics.” He blames the current “crisis” on the fact that “people are not following the religious leaders. Religious thinking is responsible for solving people’s problems. But not all learned men who put on a turban are truly religious.”

As in every conversation with a Shi’ite cleric, the conflict between the West and Islam is paramount, and every specific question is met with a cryptic, but sometimes enlightening, answer. Roubaie insists, “When the West comes to Islam, those who do the work of God don’t brandish a sword. We must explain to the world that the Prophet Mohammed did not come to the world with a sword. Islam is a peaceful religion.”

Hence the objective of Rabani’s organization is “to promote a better understanding of Islam.” He said, “We follow the Prophet but also Jesus as a person, with his human qualities. We follow Islam in practice, not just by the word.” The conversation was peppered with references to Imam Ali’s book Nahj al-Balagha (there are very good English translations published in Iran). [1]

The Sistani question

Roubaie said Sistani is like the principal in the marjaiyya. His rulings are obeyed “in general, but there are also the followers of individual marjas.” Roubaie candidly admitted, “There are differences among the marjas. Some think it’s better for the Americans to stay, otherwise there will be civil war. Others think they should leave. There is no united opinion.” Personally, he feels “bad” about the divergences.

Roubaie explained why Sistani cannot issue a fatwa to get rid of the occupation: “He doesn’t have such a privilege, he knows that a lot of people would die. The only one who would have such a privilege is Imam Mahdi.” As the Prophet Mohammed and the Imam Mahdi (prophesied redeemer of Islam) “are not situated in real life now and are thinking about more important things,” it’s unlikely Sistani will directly tell President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to pack up and go.

Roubaie believes the tens of thousands of Iraqis who are falling victim to the war and sectarian hatred are dying “for a reason.”

“People have to be more spiritual. Still now there are people among us with Saddam [Hussein] in their minds. And the West thinks the West is perfect, has nothing to learn. People should recover their humanity without ethnic prejudice. And the killing will continue – even if the Americans go. There is no reason to believe there won’t be any other way of killing in the world.”

Roubaie believes Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr may also become a marja, provided “he continues his studies in the hawza,” the Shi’ite academy based in Najaf. Muqtada, 34, of course, is still too young, his crucial “sin” even among Iraqis who sympathize with his positions. But Roubaie observed, “Now he is already as important as his father ever was.” Muqtada is the fourth son of a famous Iraqi Shi’ite cleric, the late grand ayatollah Mohammed Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr.

Roubaie let it escape that “only Sistani and al-Hakim” have a close relationship with the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki – an observation that is a political treatise in itself. It means that what Sistani wants is the consolidation of the political power of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which is led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.

‘More Iranians than Iraqis’

Up to 2004, it was possible to take a taxi in Baghdad, make a stop at Hilla and reach Najaf, 160 kilometers south of Baghdad, with no hassle. In another measure of the current “security” in Iraq, a trip to Najaf for a foreigner is now considered suicide. “Too dangerous.” “You look ajnabi [foreigner].” Worse still: “You look European.” Or “You look Iranian, they will kill you.”

As far as the security situation at the Shi’ite holy sites is concerned, the SCIRI and its Badr Organization are in charge in Najaf and Karbala. The Mehdi Army is in charge in Kufa. Cleric Sayyed Mahmoud al-Saqhri also controls private guards in Karbala. There is no direct US involvement.

People recently coming from Najaf describe the city as surrounded by checkpoints – all of them manned by Iraqi Army and police (overwhelmingly Shi’ites, mostly faithful to Badr). They stop and search all buses. All mobile phones must be left with the guards. All cars must be left at least 2 kilometers from Najaf’s city center, which houses Imam Ali’s shrine. The only cars allowed are carrying coffins. The coffins themselves are uncovered and searched for bombs. “The guards are men, and they touch women’s corpses,” commented a horrified Najafi.

No one gets inside Imam Ali’s shrine carrying coffins anymore, as was customary. A route must be taken leading to a side entrance to the sprawling Dahr-al-Islam cemetery. The market adjacent to the shrine has been rebuilt – after continuous bombings. Commerce now “is normal.” But the city is “too quiet, too silent.” Kufa – the heart of Muqtada’s movement – is regarded as “much busier.”

Inside Imam Ali’s shrine in Najaf there “are more Iranians than Iraqis” – all of them spies in the eyes of the Pentagon. These Iranian pilgrims simply cannot go to Khadimiya in Baghdad or Samarra; the trip is far too dangerous.

Even with so much accumulated, overlapping grief, Roubaie believes “a solution exists for the problems in Iraq – and for everything else. It’s simple. People should follow their true human qualities.” One wonders if this would ever apply to people like Cheney. Anyway, Roubaie remains optimistic for the future – even without a Sistani fatwa: “Religion is scientific. It’s life. It’s the cultivation of life.”

1. The Nahj al-Balagha (Peak of Eloquence) is the most famous collection of sermons and letters attributed to Ali ibn Abi Talib, accepted as the final Rightly Guided Caliph by Sunni Muslims and the first of the Imams by Shi’ite Muslims. It was collected by ash-Sharif ar-Radi or known in Persian as Seyyed Razi in the 10th century. – Wikipedia