NAJAF, Iraq -- If there's one place in Iraq outside the parliament itself that will set the tone for the country's politics, it's Najaf, a dusty city of about 900,000 that was neglected under Saddam Hussein's Sunni Muslim dictatorship and now bustles with religious tourists visiting the shrine of Imam Ali, a son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad; a new airport; and construction sites everywhere.
Najaf is to Shiites what Vatican City is to Roman Catholics, but some of Shiite Islam's highest spiritual figures operate here out of public view, issuing occasional utterances on issues they consider central to Iraqi society.
The credibility of Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani and his colleagues has grown in the past two years, both for what he said and for the timing of his utterances -- in particular his repeated admonitions to firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr to lay down his arms. Sadr, who's been studying theology in Iran, ignored the advice until Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki cracked down on his Mahdi Army militia, but he now appears to be toeing the line of the Marjaiya, Iraq's supreme Shiite religious authorities, who consist of four high-ranking grand ayatollahs.
What do the Marjaiya seek for Iraq? The grand ayatollahs don't grant interviews, but their spokesman, Sheikh Ali Basheer al Najafi, whose father, Basheer al Najafi, is one of the four, paints a pragmatic picture. "We want to give the space of freedom to everyone, but without violating the freedom of others," he told McClatchy. "We would like through this freedom to show that Islam can encompass all the sects in society."
Referring to a government minister whom the parliament ousted for corruption, he said the Ministry of Trade "should be run by a competent man." The minister's religious belief, Najafi said, "is his own business."
A decision to demand that parliament approve direct representation was made a year ago, Najafi said. "It's possible to announce more (positions) in the near future, but I cannot say anything because we are still studying them," he told McClatchy.
Another Iraqi who's close to the Marjaiya said their foremost goal was to preserve the unity of Iraq, and that replacing the system of party lists of candidates with direct votes for representatives would serve this aim.
"People should choose the competent and the best, who can serve them within a national vision, far away from sectarianism and nationalism ... regardless of (religious) identity," said Sayd Riyadh al Saida, a professor of civil law at Kufa University and formerly a representative of the Marjaiya.
What they seek, Saida said, isn't for Iraq to become an Islamic state -- in which clerics determine law, as in Iran and Saudi Arabia -- or a secular state such as Turkey, where religion is "isolated" from the government. Their goal is a "Muslim state" that draws its laws from Shariah -- Islamic law -- as well as from civil law, criminal law and the legal traditions of other religions.
The Marjaiya base their vision on their study of Islamic history, but they also draw on their representatives at mosques around the country, as well as "competent advisers," including "regular people, politicians and intellectuals," Najafi said.
How the Marjaiya reach decisions is shielded from the public, but Sistani's son, Mohammad Redha, who's still a student at a howza, or seminary, is reputed to be the main recipient of messages from Marjaiya representatives at mosques throughout the country, which he compiles into reports for the four grand ayatollahs.
From their ties to Iranian clerics and their studies, and in some cases from their own backgrounds -- Sistani was born in Iran -- the Marjaiya know a great deal about developments in Iran, but it's one subject their spokesman won't discuss.
It's clear that they worry about Iranian influence in Iraq, as well as about the influence of Sunni Saudi Arabia, which reportedly spent heavily in Lebanon last spring to prevent a victory by the Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah militant group.
Muhamad Naeem al Kinani, the director of Iraqiein, a Baghdad-based nongovernmental group that monitors the integrity of elections, noted that Iran opposed direct votes and preferred closed lists. "It is looking to serve its interests by having loyal legislators," he said.
The reason is grounded in theology, he said: Shiite Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, thinks that the clergy should be directly responsible for affairs of state, and his followers believe that his authority transcends borders.
"Sistani is the complete opposite," Kinani said. "He believes that the people themselves should be free to choose who represents them. ... He doesn't impose orders or decisions upon the government. He intervenes only when there is an issue that touches on the interests of society itself."
(McClatchy special correspondents Laith Hammoudi and Sahar Issa in Baghdad and Qasim Zein in Najaf contributed to this article.)
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Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say at Inside Iraq