Iraq's al-Sistani calls on followers to turn out

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Iraq's al-Sistani calls on followers to turn out in large numbers for
Thursday's vote

BAGHDAD, Iraq - (AP) The country's top Shiite cleric has urged
followers to participate in Thursday's elections, saying that they should
give their votes to those who can safeguard their principles and interests.
In a fatwa, or edict, made available Sunday to The Associated Press,
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani also called on followers to avoid divisions.
But he stopped short of an unequivocal endorsement of the Shiite coalition.
Al-Sistani urged Shiites to vote for candidates "who can be trusted
to protect their principles and safeguard their interests" in the next
"Toward this objective, splitting the vote and risking its waste
must be avoided," he said.
Al-Sistani, who wields tremendous influence among the majority
Shiite community, publicly endorsed an alliance made up of religious Shiite
parties in an election last January.
His support was key to the United Iraqi Alliance winning the largest
bloc of seats in the current parliament.
The lack of a strong, clear endorsement this time reflects his
disappointment with the performance of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's
coalition government and his wish not to be seen as directly involved in
politics, associates have said.
The Shiite alliance is led by the Supreme Council of the Islamic
Revolution in Iraq and includes al-Jaafari's Dawa Party and followers of
maverick cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
It won about 140 seats in the January vote, but may not be able to
win so many this time, especially if Sunni Arabs turn out in large numbers.
Most Sunnis boycotted the January vote.
This time Sunni candidates are expected to pose a serious challenge
to Shiite parties in mixed areas like Baghdad and the provinces of Ninevah,
Diyala and Tamim, which includes the oil center of Kirkuk.