BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s biggest Shi’ite party on Saturday pledged its allegiance to the country’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in a move that would distance it from Shi’ite Iran where it was formed.
The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) said it had introduced significant policy changes and changed its name to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) — dropping the word “Revolution”.
Party officials told Reuters on Friday that the changes were aimed at giving the party more of an Iraqi flavour and to reflect the changing situation in the country since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
They said the party had been close to Sistani for some time, but a two-day conference on Baghdad that ended on Friday had formalised relations with the influential cleric.
“We cherish the great role played by the religious establishment headed by Grand Ayatollah Sayed Ali al-Sistani ... in preserving the unity of Iraq and the blood of Iraqis and in helping them building a political system based on the constitution and law,” said Rida Jawad al-Takki, a senior group member, who read out the party’s decisions to reporters.
The party pledged to follow the guidance of the Shi’ite establishment, he said.
Sistani, a reclusive figure who lives in the Iraqi holy Shi’ite city of Najaf, is the spiritual leader of Iraq’s majority Shi’ites. He rarely makes public statements but his utterances are closely monitored by his followers.
Officials said the party, which was formed in Iran in the 1980s to oppose Saddam, had previously taken its guidance from the religious establishment of Welayat al Faqih, led by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Iran.
Islamic experts say the authority of the Faqih, who “surpasses all others in knowledge” of Islamic law and justice, is not limited to his home country, but extends to all Shi’ites who pledge obedience and believe in the Faqih.
The Faqih has the final word on matters related to Islam from political, social and religious issues.
SIIC’s leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, is a powerful cleric who has good relations with the United States.
A key player in post-Saddam Iraqi politics, SIIC holds around a quarter of the seats in parliament occupied by the ruling Shi’ite Alliance of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Iraq and Iran fought a bitter war for eight years in the 1980s. Relations have improved since the fall of Saddam, although Iraqi leaders have to walk a delicate line between the United States and Iran, which are at loggerheads over Tehran’s nuclear programme and the violence in Iraq.