BAGHDAD — Iraq's top Shiite cleric urged voters Wednesday to turn out for parliamentary elections set for March 7 but distanced himself from any particular coalition.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani warned that failure to participate in the election would allow others to achieve "illegitimate goals." He did not say who he was referring to or what their goals may be.
The Iranian-born al-Sistani has quietly guided Iraq's young democracy since the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime. The country's ruling Shiite establishment reveres him, partly out of respect for his spiritual leadership but also for fear that ignoring his wishes could spark a backlash from the country's majority Shiites who wait on his every word.
Al-Sistani has made a point in the run-up to earlier post-Saddam elections to call on voters to take part. However, his latest call comes at a time when seething Sunni leaders are threatening to boycott over the ban of more than 400 mostly Sunni candidates for alleged ties to Saddam's outlawed Baath Party.
"His eminence (al-Sistani) believes it's necessary for all citizens to participate — men and women who are concerned with the future of the nation and with building it on the basis of justice and equality in rights and duties among all its sons," al-Sistani's statement said.
"Not to vote, for whatever reason, will give others a chance to realize their illegitimate goals," it added.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton joined al-Sistani Wednesday in calling on Iraqis to turn out for the vote and expressed hope the ballot would not be marred by a boycott.
"I think the upcoming elections in Iraq are very important, and I hope no one boycotts, because we know that the last time there was a boycott, it didn't work out very well," she told U.S.-funded Al Hurra TV in an interview in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, while on a Gulf tour.
Most Sunni Arabs boycotted Iraq's first post-Saddam general election in January 2005, a move that robbed the once-dominant minority of a proportionate say in the running of the country. That, in turn, stoked a Sunni insurgency and paved the way for the Shiite-Sunni bloodbath that peaked in 2006 and 2007.
"They (Iraqis) need to participate in this election," Clinton said. "We are going to do everything we can to make this election as effective as possible, as free and fair and legitimate as possible."
Al-Sistani's comments on Wednesday were in response to followers who sent in questions on the merit of participating in the vote, given what they see as the poor performance of lawmakers and officials who took office after the last parliamentary election in December 2005.
Al-Sistani, who is in his late 70s, lives in the holy Shiite city of Najaf south of Baghdad. He does not grant interviews and rarely ventures out of his modest home on a narrow alley in the city's old quarter. His edicts, or fatwas, are few and far between. But they have helped shepherd the nation through the turbulent years of a full fledged Sunni insurgency that erupted soon after Saddam's ouster and Sunni-Shiite killings in 2006 and 2007.
His implicit support for religious Shiite parties, however, has been used to question the cleric's neutrality.
In the latest statement, al-Sistani said he did not support any particular coalition contesting the election, but stressed that voters should only give their votes to "the best and the most concerned with Iraq's interests at present and in the future."
Al-Sistani in the past has shown sympathy toward religious Shiite groups, particularly the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a party established in Iran in the 1980s with the support of that country's ruling clerical establishment.
The Supreme Council has closely cooperated with the United States, but is known to be the Iraqi party closest to Tehran.
It is leading a mostly Shiite coalition in the March 7 vote that includes supporters of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is believed to have been living in Iran for the past two years. Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Dawa Party are in a rival coalition.
The two are fighting an intense battle for votes in Baghdad and in the Shiite south of Iraq, home to the holiest Shiites shrines and much of the country's oil wealth.