Despite his strong influence on Iraqi politics, Sistani, now 84, gets involved only in exceptional circumstances on strategic issues – such as the need to hold a general election during the early stages of the Iraq occupation and the need for an elected assembly to draft Iraq’s first permanent constitution.
More recently, he has called for Iraqis to mobilize and join the armed forces in their fight against the jihadists of Islamic State and he has moved to block former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki from clinging to power for a third term.
Sistani’s influence in Iraq is the result of a decades-long process that saw him rise up the ranks of the religious hierarchy in Najaf, which alongside Qum in Iran constitute two of the most important centres of Shia scholarship.
Can the quiet ayatollah of peace save Iraq from collapse?
After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani emerged as one of the most powerful men in Iraq. Sistani was already known to Shia Muslims worldwide as the somewhat reticent leader of the religious establishment in Najaf. The fall of the Ba’ath regime thrust him on to the national and international stage.