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Iraqi Cleric Shows Political Clout 

Mon Jan 26, 2:48 AM ET 

By GEORGE GEDDA, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON - Many Americans tend to be wary about aging Shiite Muslim clerics who dabble in politics. They recall how Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini transformed Iran into a rabidly anti-American state and changed the region's political map as well.

Now, 25 years later, Iraq 's leading Shiite cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, is showing the same Khomeini-like ability to mobilize followers by the thousands into the streets, often with a strong anti-U.S. undercurrent.

But Bush administration officials and outside experts reject the notion that Sistani has his eye on converting Iraq into an Iranian-style, Islamic state.

One official noted that Khomeini embraced a Shiite doctrine that holds the religious and the political must be intertwined, while Sistani believes the two can be separated.

James Dobbins, a former State Department official now with the Rand research group, agreed and said there are other reasons why the Iran model doesn't apply to Iraq.

"Iran had revolution. In Iraq you didn't," Dobbins said. "Also, the existence of the Iranian model is a factor militating against a repetition in Iraq. Iraq realizes Iranian model hasn't worked."

David Mack, a vice president at the Middle East Institute who served two stints as a U.S. diplomat in Iraq, is not surprised that a cleric has emerged as Iraq's most powerful political figure.

Under Saddam Hussein , he said, "civil society in Iraq was squashed. There were no political parties except for the Baathists. The only political action was underground, including the mosque ... Iraqis transferred their political loyalty to religious leaders."

Dobbins put it another way: "Religious leaders are the only leaders in Iraq who have not been assassinated. The Iraqis naturally are rallying to the people they know."

An administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it came as no surprise that Sistani and a handful of religious colleagues have filled the leadership void in Iraq. He noted that the United States was in no position to cultivate them because this country was frozen out of Iraq for 13 years before the war last spring.

That means virtually all U.S. political contacts with Iraqis were limited to exiles, such as Ahmed Chalabi, a Pentagon  favorite who is now a member of the U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council.

Sistani first showed his clout last fall by demanding that the new Iraqi constitution be drafted by elected representatives. He sensed that the original U.S.-backed formula lacked a mechanism for grass-roots involvement.

Sistani won that battle and now is insisting that an interim Iraqi government, due to take office by July 1, be chosen by direct election rather than by a U.S.-proposed caucus system. As an administration official put it, Sistani seems to think that a caucus arrangement would be a "smoky backroom process" that Washington can manipulate.

The administration knows it cannot bend too far in Sistani's direction lest Iraq's Kurds and Sunnis lose faith in the transition process. Nevertheless, they have indicated they are willing to make some concessions.

U.S. officials see the United Nations  as their best hope for a compromise solution. Secretary of State Colin Powell , in Tblisi, Georgia, said Saturday he has been in touch with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan  almost every day recently and also met with Annan's special adviser, Lakhdar Brahimi, on Thursday.

Powell said he expects Annan to make a decision in coming days on a possible U.N. role in trying to mediate an agreement on a July 1 transition to Iraqi sovereignty that all factions in Iraq hopefully can accept.


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