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Bobby Ghosh

Iraq Is Facing a Familiar Problem

Amid spiraling unrest, the country once again lacks credible political leadership.

A hard place.

A hard place.

Photographer: Sabah Arar/AFP

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has been here before. Fifteen years ago, after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq had toppled the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, the country’s senior-most cleric helped guide his people toward a system of representative government. Now, having himself helped to topple the latest iteration of that government, Sistani knows his flock is again looking to him for political guidance.

He does not relish the responsibility. Sistani, 89, represents the so-called “quietist” school of Shiite Islam, which takes the view that senior clerics must not dabble in politics. For much of his adult life, he has argued against the notion of “vilayat-e-faqih,” or rule by the Islamic jurist, promoted by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and practiced in Iran since the 1979 revolution.

But the dire political circumstances in Baghdad may require Sistani to take on a more active role than he’d like.