An Iraqi man holds a placard bearing a portrait of Shiite Muslim spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
An Iraqi man holds a placard bearing a portrait of Shiite Muslim spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani © Haidar Mohammed Ali - AFP/File
An Iraqi man holds a placard bearing a portrait of Shiite Muslim spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
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Karim Abou Merhi and W.G. Dunlop
Last updated: August 24, 2015

Top Shiite cleric plays major role in Iraq reform drive

As Iraq attempts to curb rampant corruption and streamline the government, the country's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is playing a crucial role supporting the reform drive.

Sistani, who is revered by millions and has unmatched prestige in Iraq, issued multiple calls for change this month, kickstarting Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's reform efforts and making it politically risky for Shiite politicians to openly oppose them.

But even with Sistani's backing and popular pressure from weeks of protests against corruption and poor services, the fact that parties across the political spectrum benefit from graft is a major obstacle to the nascent reform.

"Sistani's calls for reform give Abadi the political space necessary to begin the process of change," said Hayder al-Khoei, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think-tank.

"Some reform measures may certainly have been possible without the calls from Sistani, but the PM wouldn't have had as much power or freedom to push them without this critical support," said Khoei.

"Many Iraqis ran out of patience and protested against the poor conditions in the country and requested they be improved," Sistani told AFP in a written reply from his office to questions on his decision to intervene.

The Marjaiya, or supreme Shiite religious authority, "found that the time was favourable for a strong push," said Sistani.

- Sistani's calls for change -

"The Marjaiya hoped that the political class that came to power through the ballot box would administer the country correctly and that major problems requiring the intervention of the Marjaiya... would not happen," he said.

"Unfortunately, things happened differently."

Corruption is widespread in Iraq, from low-level officials to those in senior posts, and services are abysmal, especially electricity, with Iraqis receiving only a few hours of government-provided power per day.

Amid a major heatwave that has seen temperatures top 50 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit), thousands of people have turned out for demonstrations in Baghdad and cities in the Shiite south to vent their anger and pressure the authorities to make changes.

Their demands were given a boost when Sistani called on August 7 for Abadi to take "drastic measures" against corruption, saying the "minor steps" he had announced fell short.

Two days later, Abadi announced his reform plan aimed at increasing anti-corruption oversight, cutting government posts and reducing costly privileges enjoyed by top officials, among other measures.

Parliament signed off on the premier's proposals as well as additional reforms, and Abadi has begun issuing orders for changes, including cutting 11 cabinet posts and slashing the number of guards for officials.

Sistani said judicial reforms were needed, and Abadi responded by calling on the judiciary to introduce measures ensuring its independence and allowing it to fight corruption.

The reclusive Sistani only rarely intervenes in politics, instead focusing on religious matters and providing guidance to followers.

- Danger of 'partition' -

He did however help to sink former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki's bid for a third term last year, and his call to arms against the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group drew tens of thousands of volunteers.

"The popular protests were a serious wake-up call to the government, but Sistani gave Abadi the necessary political cover to do something about it," said Khoei.

Ihsan al-Shammari, a political science professor at Baghdad University, said that for Shiite politicians, publicly opposing Sistani would be "political suicide."

But that does not mean they will not oppose reforms behind the scenes.

"Sistani's support is crucial in limiting Abadi's opponents' room for manoeuvre but it does not neutralise the threat," said Fanar Haddad, a research fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore.

"The biggest obstacles to major change will come from the political parties themselves -- including the prime minister's own Dawa Party -- who have benefited the most from the systematic corruption that has plagued the country," Khoei said.

Sistani warned that if "true reform is not realised" in Iraq, the situation in the country will likely worsen and it could be "dragged to... partition and the like, God forbid."

Corruption had already cost Iraq dearly in the conflict with IS, which overran around a third of the country last year, he said.

Without rampant corruption, especially in the security forces, and misuse of power by top officials, the IS "terrorist organisation would not have been able to control a large part of the territory of Iraq," Sistani said.

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