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  Updated: April 7, 2010

Najaf clerics mirror fears Tehran's influence in post-US Iraq would grow

By: Ismail Zabeeh

HOLY CITY OF NAJAF, Iraq: Associated Press reported that behind the scenes in this holy city, Shiite clerics are quietly intriguing over who will succeed the sect's most revered and politically influential leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in a tussle that circles around money and foreign meddling as much as knowledge and piety.

The report further said that there are already signs neighboring Iran is seeking to increase its influence in Najaf and has long-term hopes of seeing a figure closer to Tehran's clerical leadership eventually ascend to Sistani's position.

According to insiders in Najaf, Tehran is beefing up its presence in the city, which has long maintained a stubborn independence from Iran's Shiite theological centers.

"There are sometimes attempts by hidden hands to meddle in the affairs of the marjaiyah," said Sheik Ali al-Najafi, the son and top aide to Pakistani-born Ayatollah Bashir An-Najafi, one of the city's four top clerics. Marjaiyah is Arabic for the collective Shiite spiritual leadership.

"It is to be expected that foreign nations meddle in Najaf," he said, in an implicit reference to Iran.

An aide to As-Sistani said top clerics from Iran, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have recently opened representative offices in Najaf, with some collecting the "khoms," or "fifth," and enrolling students in seminaries run by their representatives.

"When the Americans leave, the Iranians will play with us as they please," said the al-Sistani aide, mirroring fears in Najaf and elsewhere in Iraq that Tehran's influence in post-U.S. Iraq would grow. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

As-Sistani has kept his distance from Iran's regime and, significantly, does not subscribe to the religious principle on which the Islamic republic is based: "welayet al-faqeeh," or the right of the most learned cleric to hold political power.

More likely, Iran is looking long-term, hoping that by building its influence among Najaf's lower clerics, it can ensure a figure close to its ruling clergy eventually rises to the top.

Since there is no figure with as-Sistani's stature, it is possible a weak or ailing successor moves in as a stopgap. The insiders say it is also possible that no one takes as-Sistani's title, and the three other grand ayatollahs continue to function the same way as they do now, the report concluded.

  "Knowledge is better than wealth because it protects you while you have to guard wealth. it decreases if you keep on spending it but the more you make use of knowledge ,the more it increases . what you get through wealth disappears as soon as wealth disappears but what you achieve through knowledge will remain even after you."MORE ..  


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