Iraqi activists are looking for support from highly revered Shia religious leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani after followers of a populist Shia leader, who had once backed anti-government protests, attacked sit-ins this week.
“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 al-Sistani’s final word that forced outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to quit amid popular unrest in November.
With a single edict in 2014, the country’s top Shia leader also mobilised tens of thousands of men to fight ISIL (ISIS) as part of Shia paramilitary groups.
But as protesters watch demonstrations dwindle after followers of Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr turned on them, there is a sector of young Iraqi society that is beginning to debate the importance of what al-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 – al-Sistani and the Shia clergy’s seat of power.
“When there was an edict to fight extremists, it was obeyed. But there’s been no clear edict here, nothing that actually binds those in power to act.”
Al-Sistani rarely comments on politics. But he has addressed Iraq’s popular uprising, which broke out among the country’s majority Shia masses in Baghdad and the south in October, in almost every Friday sermon since.
The 89-year-old leader steered clear of politics under former President Saddam Hussein. After Saddam was toppled in the 2003 US invasion, al-Sistani emerged as one of the most powerful figures in Iraq.
His words carry weight for millions of Shia, both the protesters and the Shia-dominated and Iran-aligned political establishment they oppose.
Iranian-born al-Sistani distances himself from Tehran and disagrees with the Islamic Republic’s model of state rule by a supreme leader.
He has urged early elections, political reform and condemned the killing of nearly 500 peaceful protesters by security forces and militias many of whom are backed by Iran.
Anti-government protesters now want him [al-Sistani] to put al-Sadr, whose religious pedigree comes from a Najaf family, in his place.
Al-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 Karbala camp on Thursday wounding at least 10.
“Muqtada’s followers used to protect us against militia. Now they’ve stolen our revolution,” Abdul Zahra said.
Dhiaa al-Asadi, a top aide to al-Sadr, said the Shia leader had not meant for followers to attack protesters. Al-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 al-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 Karbala, from where al-Sistani’s Friday sermon is delivered, but in small numbers.
Protesters say al-Sistani should issue a harsh statement on Friday, condemning Allawi whom they reject, and al-Sadr for making a deal with Iran-aligned parties.
But they know he is often cautious and are prepared to go on without his blessing.
“[Al-]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 Karbala.
“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 Shia will follow al-Sistani’s guidance to the letter.
Mohammed al-Kaabi, a 54-year-old activist sitting with Sadri in a Karbala cafe, said he would wait to see what al-Sistani said.
“If Sistani this Friday says everyone should just go home, they’ll do it,” he said.