BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq's senior Shiite Muslim religious figure called yesterday on the country's controversial militias to disarm in one of the most overt forays into politics and policy by the influential clerical leadership in the seminary city of Najaf.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Iranian-born religious leader regarded as the Shiite majority's most powerful moral voice, called for a government of technocrats rather than political loyalists or sectarian interests and said that only government forces should be permitted to carry weapons on the streets.
"Weapons must be in the hands of government security forces that should not be tied to political parties but to the nation," said al-Sistani in a statement released after he met with the country's new designated prime minister. "The first task for the government is fighting insecurity and putting an end to the terrorist acts that threaten innocents with death and kidnapping."
Al-Sistani's views seemed to echo the statements of U.S. leaders concerned with stemming the tit-for-tat violence and chaos attributed to the Sunni Arab-dominated insurgency and Shiite militias so that American-led military forces can begin withdrawing from Iraq.
But al-Sistani's overt political language alarmed many secular and Sunni Arab Iraqis worried about an increased involvement of powerful Shiite clerics in matters of state.
"Now we have to go to Sistani," quipped Salah Mutlaq, a Sunni Arab lawmaker. "What kind of democracy is this?"
"I'm so worried about the fact the marjayiah [senior clergy] is given so much power," said Hatem Mukhils, a secular Sunni Arab political leader. "The Americans should be really aware of what's happening. It's giving a lot of power to Sistani that he shouldn't have."
Al-Sistani's statement followed a visit to his home in Najaf by Prime Minister-designate Nouri al-Maliki, a conservative Shiite political party leader. Al-Maliki came to solicit al-Sistani's views in the midst of trying to form a government, reinforcing a growing relationship between majority Shiite politicians in Baghdad and their religious counterparts in Najaf.
Al-Sistani, the most senior of the four senior Shiite clerics in Najaf, has weighed in on political matters before, notably in demanding in 2003 that elections for a national government be held before an Iraqi constitution was drafted. More recently, he criticized the national government for its inability to protect Shiite holy sites from bombing attacks by insurgents.
But coming at a time of sensitive discussions over the makeup of the Iraqi Cabinet and on the future status of armed political groups, his statement yesterday was among his bluntest addressing contemporary politics. A cleric close to al-Sistani acknowledged that the statement signaled a new role for the Shiite clergy, that of "monitoring" the performance of the next government and weighing in, perhaps more frequently, on broad policy issues.
"The marjayiah intends to interfere in some issues," Sheikh Abu Mohammad Baghdadi, a Najaf cleric, said in an interview. "This monitoring and direct interference is an essential matter that has never before been proposed by the clergy. The marjayiah, through this act, is expressing the voice of the people."
Observers said the statement also showed an attempt by the senior clergy to bolster what some worry is its waning pull on the streets in the face of the growing influence of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who controls as many as 35 of 275 seats in the parliament as well as an armed militia allegedly involved in assassinations of Sunni Arabs.
But al-Maliki likely was making his own political calculations as well, enlisting the clergy's support to stave off pressure from his own Shiite political coalition and minority Kurdish and Sunni blocs to fill key government posts according to sectarian power-sharing formulas. On the other hand, many view such an arrangement as the most expedient way of promoting a sense of national unity and curbing continuing ethnic and sectarian tensions.
Al-Sistani, in his statement, added his voice to those such as U.S. and other foreign officials by calling for a government of "qualified figures, technically and administratively, who have integrity and decent reputations" without regard to "personal, party, sectarian or ethnic interests."
Avoiding a government dominated by sectarian fiefdoms was the main subject of discussions between al-Maliki and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her visit, along with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, to Baghdad on Wednesday and yesterday.
Before leaving for Bulgaria, Rice told reporters that she was convinced al-Maliki and his advisers were committed to appointing ministers based on competence, especially in sensitive posts overseeing the country's security apparatus and oil and finance ministries.
"Obviously, the key now is to get the government up and running, to get ministers who are capable and who also will reflect the value of a national unity government and then to get about the work of dealing with the security situation, dealing with the economic situation," she said, according to reports.
But it was the unusually direct political intervention from al-Sistani that rang loudest here. The cleric is regarded as the voice of Shiite moderation, though he prefers to exercise his influence through subtle backroom whispers.
Borzou Daragahi and Bruce Wallace write for the Los Angeles Times.
Killed in Iraq
As of yesterday at least 2,396 U.S. service members had died since military operations began in March 2003.
Sgt. Metodio A. Bandonill, 29, Honolulu; died Monday in Baghdad of injuries from an explosive detonated near his vehicle; assigned to the 1st Squadron, 75th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Fort Campbell, Ky.
Killed Saturday when an explosive detonated near their vehicle in Baghdad; assigned to the 1st Squadron, 67th Armored Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Hood, Texas:
Army Sgt. Kyle A. Colnot, 23, Arcadia, Calif.
Army Spc. Eric D. King, 29, Vancouver, Wash.
Army Pfc. Jacob H. Allcott, 21, Caldwell, Idaho
Army Pvt. Michael E. Bouthot, 19, Fall River, Mass.
[ Associated Press]