Behind the scenes, the place was buzzing. Aides and emissaries shuttled through the heavy wooden doors leading into Sistani's office, trying to determine whether the reclusive cleric, 75--the religious figure most revered by Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim majority will bend in his opposition to the U.S. plan to hand over power by June 30 to a transitional Iraqi government chosen by an as-yet-undefined caucus system. Sistani says he will urge his followers to reject any new government unless it is directly elected. To those who met with him last week, Sistani seemed good-humored but serious, engaging his guests while betraying nothing. "He has in mind a strategy to serve the Iraqi people," says Basher Ali Jalil, a religious student who often visits Sistani's home. "But he will not reveal it right now."
The Bush Administration's drive to turn over sovereignty and reduce the U.S. troop presence in Iraq in time for the climax of the presidential campaign may hang in the balance. The U.S. plan, unveiled in November, calls for regional caucuses to appoint representatives to an interim legislature. Sistani aides say he suspects this method would allow the Americans and to a lesser degree the Governing Council the U.S.-appointed group of transitional Iraqi leaders to engineer the results to their liking. In an effort to mollify Sistani, the U.S. last week persuaded U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to dispatch a team to Iraq to explore the feasibility of holding elections by June 30. Aides to Sistani told TIME that he would be willing to accept a delay in the planned July handover of power if it meant that elections could be held.
Publicly, Washington continues to stick to the June 30 deadline and insists that elections cannot be organized by then, given the absence of voter rolls, or held safely, in light of the continuing insurgency. But in private, Administration and Iraqi officials say the U.S. may ultimately be forced to bow to Sistani's wishes. "Sistani is the only one in this country who can mobilize millions," says a prominent Iraqi leader. "The Americans shouldn't tempt fate by disregarding that."
Still, U.S. officials are worried that an election as early as this summer would give Iraq's Shi'ites, who make up 60% of the population but were repressed by Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime, a tremendous edge. With Saddam's Baathist structures gone, the Sunnis are disorganized and demoralized. Shi'ite religious institutions, by contrast, are strong. Among some in Washington, that raises the specter of a replay of the 1979 Iranian revolution, in which fundamentalist Shi'ite clerics took charge of the government, which proved hostile to the U.S.
Sistani's background, however, suggests he prefers a different course. Born in Iran to a family of clerics, Sistani started memorizing the Koran at age 5, according to his official biography. In the early 1950s, he moved to the Iraqi city of Najaf, the site of one of the holiest shrines in Shi'ism. He later became a student of Grand Ayatullah Abul Khoei, who would turn out to be Iraq's leading cleric. As Saddam ruthlessly suppressed clerical activism, Khoei advocated "quietism," the belief that the clergy should mainly serve spiritual and social needs, and not focus on matters of state. Sistani quickly distinguished himself as a brilliant theologian, adept at applying religious doctrine to the dilemmas of modern life. (His website, sistani.org, offers advice on the propriety of, among other things, interest-bearing loans and masturbation.)
When Khoei died in 1992, Sistani succeeded him as the most prominent member of the hawza, the network of seminaries and mosques that dominates life in the city and generates huge sums in alms and tithes. Two years later, Saddam placed Sistani under house arrest. In response, Sistani established a base in Qum, in western Iran, and forged relationships with the ruling clergy in Tehran. But Sistani, like many other Shi'ite luminaries, disagrees with the Iranian practice of velayat-e faqih, or rule of the clergy. Aides say he has always discouraged clerics from holding political positions.
Sistani's aides say his decision to speak out against the U.S. caucus plan was motivated not by political ambition but by his perception that the Governing Council was not defending the rights of Iraqis and by a desire to protect the interests of Iraqi Shi'ites. In an interview with TIME in Qum, Grand Ayatullah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who has spent 15 years under house arrest for criticizing Iran's ruling mullahs for abuse of office, said that Sistani is acting for the good of Iraq. "If there should be a stable government, it is best that it is a government elected by the people," Montazeri said.