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Najaf, heart of Shiite Islam, may become center of Iraq's political power

NAJAF, Iraq—After years of praying for mercy and receiving little, Najaf's leaders say their day of deliverance is finally near—Jan. 30, to be precise.

The city of Najaf is the spiritual center for Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority. On election day, clerics and residents pray, Najaf's religious importance will turn into political power.

Barring a delay in the vote, conservative Shiites stand to sweep the Jan. 30 parliamentary elections, opening an era of unprecedented influence for Najaf, whose people suffered for decades under the dictatorial rule of Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority.

In what may be the ultimate unintended consequence of America's invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, Iraq's new seat of power would be this sacred southern city on the Euphrates River, 100 miles and a world away from cosmopolitan Baghdad.

Najaf is home to the gold-domed Imam Ali shrine, the tomb of the most revered Shiite saint. The city's black-turbaned clerics guide the lives of millions. Residents whisper that the city's vast graveyard contains a piece of heaven.

Key policies for the nation's future—from security to a new constitution to the withdrawal of American forces—may be decided in the austere homes of Najaf's four highest-ranking ayatollahs, the top spiritual leaders. Only then would the laws make their way to the modern halls of a national assembly to the north.

"There will be monitoring of what the government is doing," said Mohammed Hussein al Hakim, who speaks for his father, Mohammed Sayeed al Hakim, one of the top four ayatollahs. "We don't have it in our heads to be the only source of political influence on the new government, but, yes, the religious authorities know the weight we carry in society. There will be counseling and directing from Najaf."

The extent of Najaf's power will become clear after the election, but major changes could be in store as the government shifts from the secular tyranny of Saddam, a Sunni Muslim, to one led by religious Shiites who may consider an ayatollah's word infallible.

Hassan Latif Kadhim, a history professor at the main university in Kufa, six miles from Najaf, spelled out the potential consequences in an article to be published next month in an Iraqi academic journal. They included rolling back women's rights and making Islamic law the main source for a new constitution.

Already in Najaf, alcohol sales are banned and women never appear in public with uncovered hair. Iraqis would resist these changes in Baghdad and northern Kurdish areas, where upscale restaurants have wine lists and boutique windows display miniskirts and thigh-high boots imported from Turkey.

"The decision-making of the marjaiya will assert itself into all the crucial policies of the next government," Kadhim said in an interview, referring to the Shiite clergy. "They'll be introducing a new political elite that also has religious credentials. They'll be clerics and politicians."

Iraq's Najaf-based Shiite clergy have already blessed candidates, offered campaign advice and staunchly opposed a delay of the vote. Administrators at the city's historic seminaries have suspended classes and ordered students home to help educate voters.

For good measure, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani, the most venerated of all the ayatollahs, issued an edict that made voting a religious duty. Lesser clerics, including at least two of Sistani's representatives, reportedly are on the ballot.

Although he hasn't publicly endorsed any ticket, Sistani's white-whiskered face appears on campaign literature for the United Iraqi Alliance, a collection of Iraq's top Shiite factions, a few token Sunnis and other minorities. The alliance was formed at Sistani's request, and on the street, people assume he backs it.

Still, ascension to power won't be smooth.

The United Nations could delay the elections if it finds that Sunnis, who inhabit the most consistently violent areas of Iraq, won't get a fair shot at the polls. Even if the election proceeds, Sunnis will be unhappy with only a minority status, fueling sectarian tension and the insurgency.

Najaf's Shiite establishment is also debating fiercely the best way to rule Iraq, especially the role of Islamic law in the next constitution. Many Sunni Muslims, moderate Shiites and American diplomats fear the emergence of an Iran-like Islamic republic—in which a supreme religious leader wields ultimate constitutional authority—if hardliners prevail.

Yet Najaf clerics said Iran's theocracy and America's secularism are equally distasteful, and they are convinced that Najaf is the perfect place to create an Iraqi alternative. Najaf, they said, could give rise to a trail-blazing blend of democracy and Islam, perhaps as elected Shiites respond to religious authorities who lack formal constitutional power.

"God willing, we are expecting changes. By establishing a powerful government, we're taking care of Najaf," said Bassem al Hassani, an aide to Ayatollah Mohammed al Yacoubi, another top cleric.

Last week, candidates from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Iran-backed leading force of the Shiite alliance, held a town hall meeting in Najaf.

Dozens of women in the crowd wore billowing black veils, which they raised just long enough to read campaign fliers. Male organizers, eyes lowered and careful not to brush the women's fingers, gave them packaged cakes stamped "Made in Iran."

"We want representatives that listen to the marjaiya because we know they'll sacrifice their personal interests for the good of the people!" bellowed Ammar al Hakim, wearing the black turban that marks him as a descendent of Islam's prophet Muhammad. "Vote for the ones with religious commitment because they'll fear God and do the right thing."

Saddam's Sunni-led regime recognized the power of Najaf's ayatollahs and attacked it by filling mass graves with their followers. His government imprisoned, tortured and killed Shiite dissidents and deserters. His men harassed, exiled or assassinated clerics.

A portrait of a young man, often in military uniform, who died or disappeared under the former regime adorns many Najaf living rooms. From the drivers of donkey carts to the American-appointed officials in the governor's office, practically every Najaf native has a story of a "martyred" loved one.

Saddam's fall offered Najaf residents only a brief reprieve from bloodshed. As Shiites asserted their long-marginalized beliefs, Sunni insurgents targeted them. Najaf leaders now fear that election-related violence could result in yet another missed chance for Shiite self-determination.

A deadly suicide bombing that barely missed Najaf's governor and police chief last month prompted extra pre-election security measures, such as more concrete blast walls and random ID checks throughout the dusty city of about 300,000. Security measures cut off all but pedestrian traffic in the labyrinthine Old City, devastating a multimillion-dollar pilgrimage industry.

"Najaf depends on two things: God and tourism," said Ali Mohsin, 56, tending an empty bookstore in the Old City. "We hope the next government rebuilds all of Iraq, but Najaf is special."

On a recent Friday at the mosque, campaign posters hung next to portraits of Shiite saints, and even the imam was stumping for his party.

The imam promised Najaf would take its rightful place in Iraq. Soon, he said, there would be religious representation and tourist money. Soon, there would be peace in the country's holiest city.

"This city deserves everything from Iraq," Sadr el Din al Kabunchi told the hundreds of worshipers. "Najaf is the pioneer of politics, of civilization. Take care of this city and its people, the pioneers and heroes of change."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Ahmed Mukhtar contributed to this report from Baghdad.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): najaf

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