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Najaf pilgrimage unmissable for Iraqi politicians

Written by: Staff
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BAGHDAD, March 5 (Reuters) The road to the shrine city of Najaf is well-worn, not just by millions of Shi'ite Muslim pilgrims but, since the fall of Saddam Hussein, for Iraq's new leaders, all seeking the ear of perhaps the most influential man in the country.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's visitors from Baghdad, among them today an envoy from Iraq's president, have grown more numerous and frequent since unprecedented Shi'ite anger nearly pitched Iraq into sectarian civil war two weeks ago.

For many, the reclusive cleric was all that stood between the nation and chaos -- not for the first time. Yet the blood that was shed despite his appeals, as well as his age and health issues, prompted questions over how long he can stem the tide.

''One must admire and recognise Ayatollah Sistani's moderating influence,'' said Barham Salih, a Kurdish minister and the envoy of President Jalal Talabani who met Sistani today.

''His restraining role has been crucial in preventing Iraq from sliding into the abyss of civil war,'' he told Reuters.

Though he eschews the overt political engagement of fellow ayatollahs in Iran, Sistani has been at the heart of Iraqi politics since 2003 when US forces overthrew Saddam and, effectively, handed power to the oppressed Shi'ite majority.

Minority Sunnis and Kurds looked to Sistani to press his community into sharing power. They now want him to persuade Shi'ite political leaders to ditch Prime Minister Ibrahim al- Jaafari as a condition of their joining a unity government.

Salih said after Sunday's talks that the Kurds hoped Sistani would continue to promote policies ''that serve all Iraqis''.

SHI'ITES DIVIDED For their part, Shi'ite politicians have worn a trail to Sistani's door in Najaf in an effort to settle their own internal differences, most recently over the issue of Jaafari's nomination to keep his job by the ruling Shi'ite Alliance bloc.

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