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IRAQ: My meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani

August 24, 2008 | 11:11 am

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Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, spiritual guide to millions of Iraq’s Shiite majority, called eight local journalists to visit him Sunday as he sought to dispel rumors published in a Jordanian newspaper that he was seriously ill. Sistani, a reclusive cleric, has been one of the most influential voices in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. He used his moral authority to push the United States to allow elections in Iraq in January 2005 when U.S. officials had originally envisioned a longer timeframe. Sistani helped bring an end to the uprising waged by young radical cleric Muqtada Sadr in Najaf in August 2004. The frail cleric, who seldom leaves his house in Najaf, is a force to be reckoned with, whether by Americans or by politicians in Baghdad, who curry his favor.

Saad Fakhrildeen, The Times' special correspondent in Najaf, writes below about meeting the cleric in Sistani's office, located in an anonymous alleyway in the pilgrimage city.

By Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf

All eight of us were called in the morning to visit the grand ayatollah’s bureau. We were met by his son, Mohammed Ridha, who serves as his father’s top advisor. He welcomed us and said the media needed to dispel the rumors that crop up from time to time about the grand ayatollah, in particular the latest one that he was ill. Mohammed Ridha entered his father’s office first while we waited in a guest area drinking tea. He then left and beckoned for us to go inside. We thought it would be the same as in the past, where we would grip his hand and kiss it and then leave.

Sistani sat on a mattress, dressed in his black robes and matching turban. He shook our hands and we wished him success. He beckoned us to sit with him. We sat on both his left and right. The room had about seven thin mattresses and one large rug. A small plastic bag held coins. The lights went out briefly and then a generator started up and emitted a steady roar. Sitting with him, I was so happy, I wanted to cry.

Sistani smiled and his voice sounded normal. The oldest reporter in our group asked the grand ayatollah about the rumors that he was sick. Sistani told us: “It was circulated recently some news about my health, which was not correct. It caused some anxiety to the believers in Iraq and the world. I advise journalists to deal with the news honestly.”

He let us know how much he valued our profession and told us he was upset over how many reporters had been killed and harassed in Iraq. “I am proud of you and your work, your work is important in transferring the truth to the people,” Sistani said. Listening to him, I felt such words from such a man meant journalists are important.

He then complimented the people of Najaf, his adopted home since he moved here as a young man from his birthplace near Masshad in eastern Iran. “I have lived in Najaf for more than 50 years since before Saddam came, and I lived here during the reign of the monarchy and the regimes that followed it, and I witnessed the courage of Najaf people in particular and the sons of Iraq in general. I wish you success,” he said. We had spent 10 minutes in his office. When he finished speaking, that was a signal it was time for us to leave. We told him: “Excuse us, Sayed.” He motioned as if he wanted to stand up to say goodbye, but we didn’t wish to burden him. Outside his office, others were waiting their turn.

Photo: Grand Ayatollah Sistani, from his official website, www.sistani.org.

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from all over the Middle East, as well as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can subscribe by logging in at the website here, clicking on the box for "LA Times updates," and then clicking on the "World: Mideast" box.

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