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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 May, 2003, 14:52 GMT 15:52 UK
Iraq's clerics divided on role
By Sadeq Saba
BBC regional analyst

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, hundreds of Iraqi Shia clerics have been returning home from neighbouring Iran.

Shia worshippers march with flags through Najaf
Shia worshippers have celebrated their post-regime freedoms

Most of them fled their country to escape the Iraqi regime's policy of suppressing its Shia population.

The return of these clerics to their communities in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala could to some extent influence the kind of government Iraqi Shia are seeking in their country.

The United States has accused Iran of sending agents into Iraq to promote an Iranian-style theocracy, but most Iraqi Shia clerics are advocating a separation of religion and state.

Political 'interference'

Like other Shia followers around the world, Iraqi Shia clerics returning home from Iran are divided on the crucial question of how far Islam should enter politics.

A Shia woman prays in the holy city of Najaf
Many Shia scholars believe religion should be separate to politics

Some of them who have been closer to the conservative faction in the Iranian leadership support an Iranian-style theocracy led by clerics.

But sources close to the Iraqi community in the Iranian holy city of Qom say that the majority of Iraqi clerics in the city object to the interference of clerics in politics.

Living in Iran has given them a chance to see at first hand the shortcomings of political Islam.

There is now a general belief among many Shia scholars that the challenge faced by Islam in Iran to solve political and economic problems has undermined the faith.

Iranian challenge

Iraqi clerics are also returning to Shia centres in their country like Najaf where the dominant thinking has been to keep religion separate from the state.

Iraq's most prominent Shia cleric, Ayatollah Sistani, believes that religious leaders should not enter politics.

A boy looks up as men pray around him

Despite American warnings that Iran is promoting a religious state in Iraq, this kind of moderate Islam could harm the ruling clergy in Iran.

The centre of Shia Islam shifted from Najaf to Qom after the ayatollahs seized power in Iran and Saddam Hussein began to suppress Iraqi Shia leaders.

Iranian hardliners are now concerned that the return of Iraqi clerics to their country and the revival of the holy city of Najaf may pose a threat to their rule in Iran.



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