(Sunday 12-7 release)
By Maureen Fan
NAJAF, Iraq—One of the most important men in Iraq these days is virtually invisible and nearly silent. Yet Grand Ayatollah Ali Mohammed al Sistani, 73, almost scuttled U.S. plans to turn over sovereignty to Iraqis by next July without making a single public appearance.
He keeps a low profile in this holiest of shrine cities for Shiite Muslims. He has built up the largest group of religious followers in Iraq, and with that comes access to financial contributions. This has made him easily the most influential cleric in the country, and perhaps the most powerful man in Iraq, able with a few words to counter the presence of a U.S. military occupation.
While Sistani doesn't oppose the U.S. occupation, he has stood up at key moments to speak for the interests of 15 million Shiites, who were brutally repressed by Saddam Hussein and who make up at least 60 percent of Iraq's population.
Last weekend, Sistani made public his objections to the American plan for local leaders to select delegates to a transitional government by July, throwing the future of the plan in doubt.
Sistani insisted on direct elections instead, as he did in a religious edict he issued in June that declared "fundamentally unacceptable" any effort to write a constitution without directly electing its drafters.
Sistani's opinions are likely to influence how Iraq will be governed after the U.S.-led coalition give up control. He has warned that the constitution be consistent with Islamic law. And Sistani's agents have insisted that Iraq's judges be drawn from the Hawza, the religious council of scholars he helps preside over.
At stake is more than a debate about political process. With the coalition insisting it will be out of business by July 1, it's a referendum on who decides what happens in Iraq, and few people will bet against Sistani.
Most of the members of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council want to forge ahead with the American plan, despite Sistani's objections.
Abdul Aziz al Hakim, a Shiite on the Governing Council, expressed confidence that Sistani wouldn't interfere with the council's decisions. But, al Hakim was careful to add, "he has a lot of followers and he is highly respected, so we have to take into account what he says."
Ignoring Sistani could prove a huge mistake.
"In the long term, power lies with Sistani and not with the coalition," said Joost Hiltermann, director of the Amman office for the International Crisis Group, a nonpartisan conflict-resolution group. "When a person like Sistani speaks out in public, as he very rarely does, for a person like him to have to back down would be a tremendous loss of face."
"It's a matter of national pride for Iraqis that the political process not be imposed by outsiders or the U.S. generally," Hiltermann added.
How a man who's almost never seen in public can have so much sway is no mystery in Najaf, where the photographs of other clerics dominate alley walls and street columns but where nearly everyone follows Sistani.
Like other clerics, Sistani spent most of the 1990s under house arrest. As other clerics died or were assassinated, many of their followers turned to Sistani.
"We support him very strongly. He's our spiritual leader. We will sacrifice our souls under his feet," said Adnan Khalil Ibrahim, 42, a retired high school chemistry teacher.
"He's known for his integrity and he is very modest," said Na'aman al Mayahi, 28, a first-year student at Sadr Religious University. "He doesn't want his picture on the street."
Put simply, Shiite Iraqis—oppressed for most of the last century by Iraq's Sunni minority—trust Sistani.
Born in Mashad, Iran, Sistani has lived in Najaf since his early 20s, developing a reputation as a moderate, practicing the "quietist" rather than the activist branch of Islam and advocating a separation of politics and religion.
He was criticized by some for being too passive about the American invasion. Since then, Sistani has refused to meet Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq. He and other clerics have also condemned the occupation and lack of security.
"He speaks on behalf of all Iraqis," said Adil Abdul Eelah, 25, director of Najaf's Islamic Cultural office, which publishes leaflets and holds seminars on Islamic culture. "Whatever Sistani says, it is like an order to us. We must obey."
Sistani isn't likely to call for resistance if unheeded, experts say, but he could remain silent if others were to call for demonstrations or urge Iraqis not to participate in the political process for a new government.
"To rise up will be possible only in one case," said Ali Rubaie, secretary to another of Najaf's grand ayatollahs, Mohammed Ishaq al Fayadh. "That is if Islam is threatened."
In the meantime, Rubaie said, there's room for compromise.
"Well, Sistani didn't say these elections should be in summer," Rubaie said. "He was concerned that no one be suspicious about a new provisional government."
Rubaie said he heard that the students of Sistani recommend electing a local governing council, or small baladi council in each area. These councils could then elect members to serve in a new provisional government in Baghdad. "That kind of election Sistani will agree with," Rubaie said.
A senior coalition official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, would only say that "a lot of details need to be worked out. I think the concerns and comments of Sistani and others can be accommodated within that."
Sistani has remained secluded, largely because of security concerns. Supporters of Moqtadr Sadr, an outspoken young cleric, have been blamed for the fatal stabbing of another cleric—Abdel Majid al Khoei, the son of Sistani's mentor—in Najaf shortly after the war, and for the al Hakim assassination. Sadr denies any connection. Security guards have blocked off the alley where Sistani's office is located in Najaf and this week refused to accept written questions or any other communication.
Sistani's aides in Baghdad are accessible, however, and have voiced his views. They complain about Americans corrupting female Iraqi college students and reject the secular democracy of the West.
"We are an Islamic country," said Ali Waadh, Sistani's deputy in Baghdad. "We are grateful to the Americans. They kicked out Saddam Hussein, but now they should leave because as long as they are here, we will have more explosions. And we have the ability to destroy al-Qaida and the (militant Islamic) Wahabis on our own."
Despite Sistani's seclusion, his followers say they know exactly what their ayatollah means. His words are printed on posters found up and down Rasool Street and whispered by his students and repeated by his agents in mosques, seminaries, barbershops and coffee shops across Iraq.
"We have special relations with people connected closely to Sistani, and in many mosques there are helpers or agents, and through them we know all about his fatwas (religious edicts) and everything he says," said Adnan Khalil Ibrahim, the high school chemistry teacher.
And for now, like Sistani, they wait.
"I will not fight now, not until all peaceful negotiations are exhausted and our leaders call for jihad, then we will fight," said Ali Mihsin, 34, a real estate agent. "Sistani has given the Americans a period of time, I think about a year, to check their intentions whether they are good or not. We are peaceful, but we are the fiercest enemy to a person or country who will touch our religion or our beliefs."
In Najaf, Sistani was a pupil of Grand Ayatollah Abul-Qasim al Khoei, who preached personal piety and was considered one of the greatest Shiite theologians of the last century. Before Khoei died in 1992, he appointed Sistani, then 62, to the prestigious position of leading prayers in the al Khadra mosque in Najaf.
Clerics rise to power through years of religious scholarship and by building networks of followers, who give a portion of their earnings to their local mosques.
When he was only 31, Sistani was awarded a permit by al Khoee, certifying that he had attained the level of ijtihad, or the ability to make legal judgments in matters of religion. That same year he was also awarded a diploma for his skill in the science of "ilmerrijal," or prophetic narration.
Sistani is the prime recipient of donations from the London-based Grand Ayatollah Khoei Foundation, which maintains mosques and educates the community about Islam and reported gross expenditures of $2.5 million for the fiscal year ending in 2002, according to the UK Charity Commission.
While Sistani stayed out of politics, one of his rivals, Mohammed Sadiq al Sadr, reached out to tribal sheikhs, farmers and others—activism that got him assassinated by Saddam in 1999. While some of Sadr's followers now support his son, Moqtadr Sadr, many more support Sistani.
In the past, some have criticized Sistani's Iranian origins, but in the last several years Sistani's dominance and commitment to Iraq have been unquestioned.
Sistani has also been criticized in some quarters for not speaking more often to his followers. His son, Mohammed Reda Ali al Sistani, recently said his father was used to staying out of politics and leaving it to "those who are fully aware of policy. He tries his best to advise people only."
Sistani was instrumental in getting Moqtadr Sadr, a far less-learned cleric than his father, to tone down his anti-American rhetoric. He also intervened when Sadr's followers took over a mosque in Karbala, inflaming tensions and leading to scores of arrests.
(Fan reports for the San Jose Mercury News)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Sistani