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Obama Sent a Secret Letter to Iraq's Top Shiite Cleric

But can Ayatollah Sistani break Baghdad's political impasse?

President Obama has sent a letter to Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urging him to prevail upon Iraq's squabbling politicians to finally form a new government, an individual briefed by relatives of the reclusive religious leader said Thursday.

The individual, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic, said the information came from members of Sistani's family in the Iranian holy city of Qom, where Sistani maintains a large complex of seminaries, libraries, clinics, and other humanitarian organizations.

Iraqi factions have sought in vain since the March 7 parliamentary elections to agree on a government to replace that of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The impasse is of increasing concern to the United States as it draws down its forces to 50,000 and relinquishes a combat role at the end of this month. There have been a number of violent incidents in Iraq in recent weeks including bombings and shootings that have raised questions about the country's future stability. (Fifteen Iraqis died Thursday; 53 were killed on Wednesday, according to media reports.)

In a speech Aug. 2 before disabled veterans, Obama reiterated that the U.S. mission in Iraq is changing "from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats." In this new phase, the Iraqis are to assume overall responsibility for the country's security, with U.S. intervention in limited circumstances to conduct counter-terrorism operations and to protect Americans. U.S. forces will also continue to train Iraqis and monitor Iraqi air space.

Mike Hammer, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, would not confirm or deny that Obama had sent the letter to Sistani.

"We do not comment on Presidential correspondence," Hammer wrote in an email Thursday.

The letter was delivered to Sistani by a Shiite member of the Iraqi parliament, according to the source briefed by Sistani relatives. He did not identify the individual.

Daniel Serwer, an Iraq expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said that to his knowledge Sistani has never met with a sitting U.S. official -- or at least not acknowledged doing so.

The Sistani-linked source said the letter was sent shortly after Vice President Joseph Biden visited Baghdad over the July 4 weekend and failed to bring about a resolution of the dispute. Biden said at the time that he was "optimistic" that a new government would be formed and that the problems Iraq faced were "not a lot different" than that facing other countries with parliamentary systems.

However, no apparent progress has occurred.

"It was a request for his [Sistani's] intervention in the political situation to use his influence with the Shiite groups and get them to compromise," the source said of the U.S. letter.

Sistani, 80, follows the "quietist" interpretation of Shiite Islam, which eschews a direct role for clerics in government -- in contrast to the system in Iran, where a supreme religious leader has the final say. However, Sistani has intervened during two previous crises since the 2003 U.S. invasion toppled a secular dictator, Saddam Hussein.

The first time was at the end of 2003, when Sistani demanded direct elections for an assembly to write a new constitution. The second time, in 2004, Sistani brokered an end to fighting between U.S. troops and the Mahdi army militia of populist Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr, which had occupied the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

Sistani, who was born in Mashhad, Iran, has lived in Najaf since the 1950s but still speaks Arabic with an Iranian accent. Following the death of his mentor, Grand Ayatollah Abu Qassim al-Khoei, in 1992, Sistani became the pre-eminent religious authority for most devout Iraqi Shiites and indeed for most of the world's 200 million Shiites. His followers far exceed those of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran.

Kenneth Katzman, an Iraq specialist at the Congressional Research Service, said that efforts so far at forming a new government in Iraq have faltered in part because Maliki has alienated all the other major factions yet refuses to allow anyone to replace him.

"Sistani's intervention would be to get Maliki to step down and compromise on a new candidate," Katzman said. In a combative interview broadcast on Iraqi state television Sunday, Maliki showed no inclination of doing so, and reportedly said that negotiations with his putative coalition partners had reached "a dead end."

Katzman said he doubted that Sistani would back Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite whose Iraqiya party won the largest number of seats in parliament but who is opposed by Iran.

More likely replacements for Maliki, Katzman said, are Adel Abdul Mahdi, a prominent member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, an Iran-backed Shiite faction, or Jafar Baqr al-Sadr, the son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Baqr al-Sadr, the founder of the Dawa Party, the first Shiite political party in the Middle East. (The elder Sadr was executed in 1980 for opposition to Saddam's regime. Dawa has since split into factions; Maliki represents one of them.)

Sistani has indicated that he might have to get involved if the stalemate persists.

The cleric's spokesman, Hamed al-Khaffaf, told reporters June 18 that the deadlock might require "the intervention of the authority (Sistani) to solve it."

Serwer, of the U.S, Institute of Peace, called Obama's overture to Sistani "a clever idea."

"Sistani has repeatedly intervened in ways that are supportive of democracy in Iraq. And he is a powerful force."

Akram Saleh /Getty Images

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