All eyes on Najaf

April 23, 2008 at 1:12 PM
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NAJAF, Iraq, April 23 (UPI) -- Najaf is the center of Shiite Islam in Iraq, and with its clerics split between politics and the gun, if it turns violent the rest of the south may follow suit.

With shared spiritual ties, the Shiite parties in Iraq could turn to Tehran for guidance, bringing Iraqi politics to a regional boiling point, The Los Angeles Times said.

As in Basra, Najaf is a center of the Shiite conflict and the place where Moqtada Sadr first emerged on the national scene as a rival to Iraq's conventional religious establishment.

"Sadr is popular politically, the grand ayatollahs religiously. There is a tense standoff between them. They both hold power and popularity, and that is what makes the situation so tense and volatile," said Vali Nasr, a Shiite expert with Tufts University.

Sadr emerged in 2004 by seizing control of the Imam Ali shrine, the third-holiest site in the Shiite faith. Then, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani saved Sadr from the hands of the U.S. military, but four years later the chief clerics are staying at bay, the Times noted.

Sheik Ali Najafi, the son of the Grand Ayatollah Najafi who supports the Iraqi government, warns that as Sadr slowly loses support, his loyalists may turn to Iran for support, a sentiment Sadr's supporters seem to share.

"We are afraid the situation from now till (provincial elections in) October won't be stable for the Sadrists," said Sadr spokesman Salah Obeidi.

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