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Reclusive Cleric Sistani Playing Role to End Impasse in Iraq

Aug. 18 (Bloomberg) -- Iraq’s top Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, may be exerting his influence with squabbling politicians to speed up the formation of a new government as the U.S. withdraws troops, a U.S. diplomat said.

“We know he is following this issue on a daily basis,” departing U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill said at a briefing in Washington yesterday. “I suspect any role he can play he is playing. I suspect he is playing it in the best way he can to ensure that there is a positive outcome here.”

Iraqis are facing uncertainty stemming from a five-month deadlock over the formation of a new government and a renewal in violence as the U.S. completes the pullout of its combat forces from Iraq this month. Sistani, revered by the Shiite community in Iraq, has said in the past all political groups should be included in the government in order to give Iraq stability.

Rarely seen in public, Sistani could be using his influence to end protracted talks that broke down Aug. 16 between the two top vote-getters in the March 7 parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and former premier Ayad Allawi.

Sistani believes “that when the government is finally formed, you will see Sunnis, Shia and Kurds in that government together,” said Hill, who spent the past 16 months in Baghdad.

A power vacuum has fueled the surge in violence. At least 39 people were killed in a suicide bombing yesterday outside an army recruiting station in central Baghdad, the Iraqi military said, in one of the city’s deadliest attacks in weeks. The Associated Press put the death toll at 61.

“The longer the things go without a government being formed properly, the more of a driver there is for militant groups,” Terry Pattar, coordinator of the Iraq Focus Group at IHS Consulting in London, said in a telephone interview.

In a separate incident, eight people were killed and 44 injured yesterday in the explosion of a bomb attached to a fuel truck in a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad, the Associated Press reported, citing Iraq police.

Oil Development

Iraq’s plan for rebuilding its economy rests on developing oil reserves with help from international investors. Iraq was the Middle East’s third-largest producer of crude in July, according to Bloomberg estimates.

President Barack Obama wrote a secret letter to Sistani asking the cleric to mediate between bickering politicians, Foreign Policy magazine reported on Aug. 6. The White House has declined to comment on the report.

If talks “come to a dead end, then the religious authority is ready to provide assistance and advice to reach a solution,” Sheikh Abud al-Mahdi al-Karbalai, a representative of Sistani, said on July 9.

Sistani Role

Iranian-born Sistani has played a key role in Iraq since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, whose Sunni Muslim-dominated Baath party persecuted Shiites and other groups. Through his representatives, Sistani has called for Iraqis to participate in the country’s elections and to build a democratic state. His office says he has no partisan allegiance.

Sistani “obviously has a whole lot of wisdom about the political process because he knows it very well” and “he knows the players very well,” said Hill, who retires on Aug. 31.

The U.S. had a force of 144,000 in Iraq when Obama took office in January 2009. By the end of this month, there will be about 50,000 remaining to help train Iraq’s security forces, assist with counterterrorism operations and protect U.S. personnel and military facilities.

To contact the reporters on this story: Caroline Alexander in London at calexander1@bloomberg.net; Flavia Krause-Jackson in Washington at fjackson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at phirschberg@bloomberg.net; Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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