KERBALA, Iraq – After followers of a populist Iraqi Shi’ite cleric who had once supported anti-government protests attacked sit-ins this week, some activists are looking to one last vestige of the establishment for support: their ayatollah.
“Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is the only powerful figure left who can help us,” said 30-year-old demonstrator Mahdi Abdul Zahra as he watched security forces behind concrete barriers in Baghdad take pot shots with air rifles at protesters.
“On Friday, he must call for a million-strong march against the government. It’s a last chance.”
Abdul Zahra and many others have high hopes: it was Sistani’s final word that forced outgoing premier Adel Abdul Mahdi to quit amid popular unrest in November. With a single edict in 2014, the country’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric also mobilized tens of thousands of men to fight Islamic State as part of Shi’ite paramilitary groups.
But as protesters watch demonstrations dwindle after followers of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr turned on them, there is a sector of young Iraqi society that is beginning to debate the importance of what Sistani says, and whether they gain from him weighing in.
“There have been countless Friday sermons on the issue now, but unfortunately nothing has happened, it’s like no one is listening,” said Ali Abboud, an activist in the holy city of Najaf – Sistani and the Shi’ite clergy’s seat of power.
“When there was a edict to fight extremists, it was obeyed. But there’s been no clear edict here, nothing that actually binds those in power to act.”
Sistani rarely comments on politics. But he has addressed Iraq’s popular uprising, which broke out among the country’s majority Shi’ite masses in Baghdad and the south in October, in almost every Friday sermon since.
The 89-year-old cleric steered clear of politics under Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein who oppressed the Shi’ite majority. But after Saddam was toppled in the 2003 U.S. invasion, Sistani emerged as one of the most powerful figures in Iraq.
His words carry weight for millions of Shi’ites, both the protesters and the Shi’ite-dominated and Iran-aligned political establishment they oppose.
Iranian-born Sistani distances himself from Tehran and disagrees with the Islamic Republic’s model of state rule by a supreme cleric.
He has urged early elections, political reform and condemned the killing of nearly 500 peaceful protesters by security forces and militias that Shi’ite Iran backs.
Anti-government protesters now want him to put Sadr, whose religious pedigree comes from a Najaf family, in his place.
Sadr, who opposes foreign influence and rails against corruption but is a political opportunist, told his followers to abandon anti-government protests and clear sit-ins last week after reaching a deal with Iran-aligned parties to name Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi as new prime minister.
On Wednesday, his followers burned tents in Najaf and stormed a protest camp killing at least eight people. They stormed a Kerbala camp on Thursday wounding at least 10.
“Moqtada’s followers used to protect us against militia. Now they’ve stolen our revolution,” Abdul Zahra said.
Dhiaa al-Asadi, a top aide to Sadr, said the cleric had not meant for followers to attack protesters. Sadr on Twitter urged followers to clear disruptive sit-ins but continue to support peaceful protests.
‘WE WON’T WAIT’
Activists lament how the moves by Sadr – one of the last figures in the political establishment whose supporters once helped them – have weakened their numbers.
On some streets and squares in Baghdad where clashes raged in recent months between security forces and protesters, market stalls go about their business selling households, toys and shiny trainers.
In southern Najaf, tents lie burned at the main sit-in. Students chant slogans against Allawi at a square in the nearby city of Kerbala, from where Sistani’s Friday sermon is delivered, but in small numbers.
Protesters say Sistani should issue a harsh statement on Friday, condemning Allawi whom they reject, and Sadr for making a deal with Iran-aligned parties.
But they know the cleric is often cautious and are prepared to go on without his blessing.
“Sistani is the one leader left who’s both part of the system and has supported our cause – we welcome that,” said Hussein Sadri, an activist in Kerbala.
“But we won’t just wait for him to say things to take our cue. We’ll act. The uprising sprang from a young population who learn about the world online – not from clerics.”
Iraq’s older generation mostly disagree, saying that Shi’ites will follow Sistani’s guidance to the letter.
Mohammed al-Kaabi, a 54-year-old activist sitting with Sadri in a Kerbala cafe, said he would wait to see what Sistani said.
“If Sistani this Friday says everyone should just go home, they’ll do it,” he said.