NAJAF, Iraq—On the day reserved for mourning the death of Islam's prophet, Mahdi Hussein couldn't help smiling.
Hussein, like the millions of Shiite Muslims who descended on the holy city of Najaf on Thursday, was amazed by the mass of pilgrims vigorously expressing their faith after decades of oppression under Saddam Hussein's mostly Sunni Muslim regime.
"Maybe now Shiites will finally be accorded the power their numbers demand," mused the 21-year-old truck driver from Basra. "Inshallah," he continued, using the Arabic word that means "God willing," "we'll always be free like this in an Islamic republic where everyone, including minorities, will have their rights."
Such sentiments echo those of the spiritual leaders in Najaf, a cradle of the Shiite faith. They want Americans to leave and Iraqis to choose their own rulers, preferably pious Shiite ones.
"Why shouldn't we have the right to rule, when we are the majority? Because we are Shiites?" Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi Modarassi asked on the eve of the commemorations of the prophet Muhammad's death in A.D. 632. Modarassi, who heads the militant group Amal, spoke to a receptive crowd of 300 crammed into a former pool hall.
Other Shiites in Najaf think Iraq is unlikely to become an Islamic republic, especially one like Iran, their Shiite neighbor to the east.
"Democracy over religion? Absolutely," said Madik Kamune, a prominent lawyer who carried prayer beads and a stack of political fliers. "I'm a religious man, but I won't vote for an Islamic republic. Now that people have freedom for the first time I don't think they are going to vote for a theocracy."
Shiite clerics have stopped short of calling for an Islamic state, but they insist that Iraq should be governed by Islamic law. They are warning Shiites to be vigilant against outside forces, a not-so-veiled reference to the United States. Their aspirations will be a significant factor as the United States tries to design a government for Iraq. Shiites, a minority sect in the Muslim world, are a majority in Iraq, as they are in neighboring Iran.
Thursday's holy day, with its now-familiar scenes of processions of Iraqi men chanting and slapping their chests, follows by less than two weeks a similar outpouring of religious fervor in Karbala, another Shiite holy city.
Iraqi Shiite spiritual authorities, who are in seclusion and insist they are staying out of politics, nevertheless are closely watching the celebrations to see what rival clerics are saying. Iraq's most prominent Shiite leaders dropped out of view last month after a pro-Western Shiite cleric was hacked to death, allegedly by supporters of a rival Shiite leader.
One Shiite marjah, or spiritual leader, Ayatollah Mohammed Sayeed al Hakim, will release religious instructions in the coming days to guide the faithful on political and economic matters, his son, Mohammed Hossein al Hakim, said Thursday.
"The marjahs' role is spiritual and scientific, and they don't want to grab power," the younger Hakim said. "But they are prepared to guide this government."
Although Hakim, like others, wasn't specific about what type of government his father wants, he said, "We don't want to force the issue, but whoever comes to power has to be about the good of Iraq and not against Islamic laws."
Iraqi minorities will be respected in an Islamic state, said a senior aide to perhaps the most influential marjah, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani. "All Iraqis are brothers," said the aide, who asked not to be identified. "It's in our interest that Iraq not be split apart."
For all the reveling among Shiite pilgrims and jockeying by Shiite clerics, few here think Iraq will become a full-fledged Islamic republic.
For one thing, the Americans and neighboring Arab countries won't allow it because they fear an Islamic Iraq would be unfriendly, said Ali al Najifi, the son of Ayatollah Bashir al Najifi, another marjah.
For another, Shiites in Iraq are wary of control by a single, supreme leader, a concept that Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei instituted in Iran 23 years ago, said Hassan al Hakim, the newly appointed dean of Kufa University in Najaf.
"People were oppressed by Saddam Hussein for too many years," said Hakim, a distant relative of the marjah. "The time just isn't ripe for religious rule."
So far, clerics haven't pressed the issue. Spokesmen for the top spiritual leaders say discussions of Islamic rule are premature. Establishing Iraqi security and independence are much more important, they say.
"We have to be patient," Modarassi cautioned his listeners. "We first have to rebuild our land. And above all, we have to stay unified."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-SHIITES