WASHINGTON, Aug. 12 (UPI) -- The absence of a senior Shiite cleric at the latest round of meetings between top officials of Iraqi rebel organizations and U.S. administration in Washington has raised some eyebrows among moderate Muslim groups.
"I wasn't invited," Sheikh Mohammed Mohammed Ali explained in an interview with United Press International Monday when asked why he wasn't in Washington. Last week in a press release, senior members of the Iraqi National Congress urged his inclusion in the talks.
Ali is the chairman of the INC's Leadership Council.
Reached by telephone in London, Ali refused to comment on his exclusion but stressed the importance of the "moderate and middle-of-the-road" Shiite majority in any plans for a future settlement in Iraq.
He stressed that the Iraq's Arab Shiites favored a democratic solution giving equal rights to both sexes and all ethnicities, and a secular legal system. "We are not for the introduction of the Shari'ah," Ali insisted, meaning Muslim law.
"Shiites make up about 70 percent of the Iraqi population, and 80 percent my country's Arabs belong to this branch of Islam," said Ali, who is the current chairman of the INC's Leadership Council.
While it should be up to the people to choose between a republic and a constitutional monarchy for the Iraq that will emerge after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Ali suggested that Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein, pretender to the Iraqi throne, enjoyed considerable sympathy among Shiites.
Sharif Ali, the INC's current spokesman and one of the key interlocutors with Washington officials, is a direct descendant of the prophet Mohammed, from whom he is 42 generations removed. "This would give him great legitimacy in the Muslim world," Bassam Tibi, a Syrian-born political scientist, pointed out.
A British-school economist, Sharif Ali is the first cousin of Iraq's King Faisal II, who was slain in a coup d'état in 1958. "My ancestors were the prophet's daughter, Fatima, and his first cousin, the Imam Ali," he once told UPI in an interview.
The Imam Ali is particularly revered by Shiites, which according to Sheikh Mohammed Mohammed Ali further enhances the prince's standing among the Shiites, even though he himself is a Sunni, like the majority of Muslims worldwide, though not in Iraq or neighboring Iran.
"I believe the Iraqi Shiites respect him even more than the Sunnis," the cleric said. At the same time that Iraq's Shiites are more moderate than their Iranian counterparts.
Other leading INC figures confirmed in talks with UPI that opposition groups seemed to be warming to the idea of a restored monarchy. However, some senior officials belief that Prince Raad, another of the prophet's progeny, has a greater claim to the Baghdad throne than Sharif Ali.
Raad lives in Amman, Jordan, and is very close to the court of King Abdullah II. The Jordanian and Iraqi royal families are Hashemites, meaning, related to Mohammed.
Ali, the Shiite leader, reminded this correspondent that his coreligionists were "particularly anxious to see Saddam Hussein's repressive regime come to an end after 34 years."
"He has slaughtered so many of our scholars or driven them into exile. He sent Scud missiles into our most ancient library destroying sacred books that were 1,000 or even 1,200 years old. He has murdered and tortured our people and excluded us from any role in the government.
"Although we are in the majority, we are being persecuted," Ali went on. "As long bas they are allowed to live in peace Shiites don't really don't mind one way or another whether they do this in a constitutional monarchy or a republic.
"But surely, this majority of moderate Muslims has a right to be considered."