Iraq's Shadow Ruler

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YURI KOZYREV FOR TIME

Iraqi workers print posters of the top Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani at the printing house in Baghdad

The very name Sistani is shrouded in mystery. Few Westerners have ever met the most powerful man in Iraq. If they did, they would encounter a thin, bearded figure with little interest in the trappings of office. Grand Ayatullah Ali Husaini Sistani, the revered leader of the nation's 15 million Shi'ites, receives visitors, powerful and meek alike, in a plain, bare room in his modest home down a dusty alley in the holy city of Najaf. He sits on the floor with his back to the wall, dressed always in the same simple robe and turban. (An intimate says he hasn't refreshed his wardrobe in 10 years.) He is modest and respectful, and listens more than he talks. But his charisma is striking. His eyes "look into your psyche," says Mohammed Kamil al-Rudaie, a university professor in Baghdad who has met him often. "He has a kind of esp for understanding people and tailoring his answer to suit the person in front of him."

And when Sistani speaks, Iraqis obey. At 74, the Shi'ite spiritual leader is widely acknowledged as the conscience of the nation, armed with a unique moral authority to arbitrate Iraq's future. Though he was quiet during the long, hard years of Shi'ite repression under Saddam Hussein, Sistani has emerged since the dictator's fall as the country's pivotal political figure. Iraq's Kurds and Sunnis, as well as Shi'ites, pay heed to his views. His reach extends as far as Washington, where he has repeatedly forced the Bush Administration to yield to his demands and issued decrees that have altered U.S. plans for postwar Iraq. The reclusive ayatullah inserts himself into the political fray whenever he feels it is necessary. Just last week he issued a statement encouraging all Iraqis to participate in the election scheduled for January, and he called on the Iraqi government to start registering voters. The powers that be in Iraq ignore him at their peril.

Sistani proved his authority in August, when Najaf had sunk into chaos. As the fighting began, he abruptly quit the city to seek medical treatment abroad. The rumors started: Sistani was dying; Sistani was afraid; Sistani was losing influence to Muqtada al-Sadr, the brash young cleric whose militiamen were battling U.S. troops to a standstill. But on Aug. 26, as the Americans were on the verge of assaulting one of Iraq's most sacred Shi'ite shrines, Sistani showed he was still the Man. Straight from medical treatment for a heart condition in London, he was driven into Najaf at the head of thousands of unarmed loyalists who had answered his call to march on the city. Within hours, he had brought an end to postwar Iraq's bloodiest battle. Even the cocksure al-Sadr bowed his head when he came to sit on a threadbare carpet across from Sistani and acceded to the cleric's commands.

In some Western minds, an elderly white-bearded figure in a black turban who is adored by the masses evokes the dark image of another Shi'ite mullah: Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, who turned Iran into a stern, inimical Islamic theocracy. Sistani is of a different breed.

He has insisted on rapid elections to choose a government reflecting "the will of the people" and forswears any executive role for himself or fellow clerics. But Sistani is equally determined that after 300 years of domination by Iraq's minority Sunnis, the time has come for Shi'ites to take the reins of power. If he has opposed al-Sadr and others who seek control through violence, Sistani has been just as rigorous in refusing to align himself with the U.S. That may give many Americans pause as they contemplate the U.S. investment in the embattled country's future. But Sistani's moral stature and unyielding push for a new democratic order have made him America's best hope for preventing Iraq from spinning into anarchy.

His intervention in Najaf paved the way for the deal cut last week, by which al-Sadr agreed to disarm his militia and enter the political arena. Here's the story of how Sistani became the country's supreme power and what he envisions for Iraq: means of ascent in the Shi'ite universe, the first requisite for leadership is erudition, measured by a lifetime's knowledge of Islamic principles and law. Sistani's learning is universally recognized. According to his official biography, the child born into a pious, scholarly family in rugged northeastern Iran began learning the Koran at age 5. He absorbed the conservative traditions of the Islamic seminaries in Qum, where he arrived as a 19-year-old prodigy. Three years later, he left to study in the Iraqi city of Najaf, the prestigious 1,000-year-old home to some of Shi'ism's most prominent teachers of jurisprudence; he has lived there ever since. Najaf's schools were filled with as many Persians as Arabs. Sistani never lost his thick native accent and remains an Iranian citizen, which has made him a target of Arab rivals like al-Sadr who disparage his ethnicity.

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