Iraq's assertive holy city Najaf receives Ahmadinejad

(dpa) - When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits Iraq's holy city of Najaf on Monday, he will find an assertive Shiite clergy led by Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who are trying to revive the city's past spiritual leadership and don't share Ahmadinejad's anti-US sentiments.

Ahmadinejad's talks in Baghdad Sunday with Iraqi politicians were full of strong symbolism - so will be his meetings on Monday with Najaf's religious establishment.

Iran is the largest Shiite country and its religious establishment with its seat in Qom provides spiritual leadership for millions of Shiite Muslims across the world.

Qom's standing as the largest centre for Shiite theological scholarship and an important destination for pilgrims was boosted by the dwindling importance of Najaf under the secular regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

But the Najaf that Ahmadinejad will visit is now an assertive city trying to regain its past status.

Since the toppling of Saddam in 2003, the number of pilgrims visiting Najaf's tomb of Imam Ali - the Prophet Muhammad's cousin and first imam for the Shiites - has increased.

"Ahmadinejad's visit to the religious authority (in Najaf) is a tacit recognition that Najaf's scholarship is the main school for the Shiites and its clerics are their spiritual leaders," Sheikh Hussein al-Saffar was quoted as saying by the pan-Arab al-Hayat newspaper.

With the drive to revive Najaf's religious seminaries and schools, the city is regaining its past scholarly status that put it on an equal standing with Qom.

Najaf's rise to prominence is helped by the fact that its senior clerics reject the theory of clerical rule, known as "guardianship of the jurisprudent," of Iran's late Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

This is the doctrine by which Khomeini put an end to centuries of political inaction by Shiite clergy and sparked the Iranian Revolution against the Shah's regime in 1979.

Al-Sistani, though born in Mashhad in Iran, leads the increasingly assertive school of Najaf, which he made his home in 1952.

"Al-Sistani has undeclared disagreements with Iran's government and senior clerics. Despite his Iranian identity, his action is solely Islamic-based rather than being emotional or nationalist- motivated," Islamic researcher Emad Moddidin told al-Hayat.

The 73-year-old recluse does not share the anti-US sentiment of Iranian leaders.

When US troops moved into Najaf on April 8, 2003, al-Sistani reportedly made an oral religious ruling in which he called on Shiites not to stand in the way of the soldiers.

This proclamation was hailed by the then US Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz as "the first pro-American fatwa."

This by no means suggests that al-Sistani supports a long-term US presence in Iraq.

His son, Muhammad Rida, explained his father's views, saying the "Americans are welcome but I don't think that it's a good thing that they stay for long."

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