Iraq's Shadow Ruler

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

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Says Sheik Haitham Nasrawi, a representative of al-Sadr's father: "When he sits behind closed doors, he is seen as a man who makes no mistakes." But during Saddam's reign of terror, Sistani's seclusion turned into house arrest imposed by the regime. He endured it as a "religious duty to defend the Shi'ites' sacred center," says Tawfiq al-Yassery, a secular Shi'ite politician with close ties to the ayatullah. After Saddam fell, Sistani faced new threats from al-Sadr's militia, and now armed guards tightly control access to his house. He is still most comfortable operating behind closed doors; he hasn't conducted Friday prayers for years and even discourages the dissemination of posters bearing his image. He has refused to meet with U.S. officials and says he will not talk to any Westerners as long as their armies occupy Iraq. The Americans complain that Sistani's reclusiveness has muddied lines of communication, as officials struggle to interpret his views secondhand.

For all his seclusion, Sistani is worldly wise about Iraq's current realities. "He has his hands on the pulse of the nation," says Hussein Shahristani, a former nuclear scientist who returned from exile to advise Sistani. "It's at his fingertips." Sistani sees a steady stream of aides and agents based around the country as well as Iraqi leaders eager to court and consult him. Sheik Jameel al-Qurayshi, who represents Sistani in Baghdad's restive Sadr City district, visits the ayatullah at least once a week to discuss the fine points of Islamic practice and get political advice for handling his neighborhood. Sistani's declarations are succinct and to the point. "He makes no decision until he is totally clear he has come to the right conclusion," says Shahristani. "He says exactly what he means, and he sticks to it"—something the Bush Administration learned the hard way. "I'm very glad Washington conceded on early elections, or we'd have been in trouble," says a Western diplomat in Baghdad. Sistani "has a few gut core beliefs, and he doesn't change them."

But Sistani tends to express principles that leave the details open to interpretation. He communicates them before and after sunset prayers, when he addresses his followers' 1,001 questions on proper religious observance, social behavior and personal conduct. He engages in a busy written dialogue with his followers by letter and via the Internet. Not long ago, Rifat al-Amin, a university student in Baghdad, wrote the ayatullah to ask whether protests by his followers should take place in narrow streets where they would block traffic. The marja replied that demonstrations should take place in wide squares instead. Al-Amin also asked if Sistani accepted "what was going on" in Iraq. He received back a simple no.

What Kind Of Democrat?

Sistani's personal history would be interesting but unimportant if the U.S. had not invaded Iraq. The fall of Saddam left the country in chaos, with a power vacuum at the top. The Shi'ite masses naturally looked to Sistani for direction, says Shahristani, and the ayatullah felt compelled by religious duty to step in. "He believes at a crisis time like this, the marja must guide the people," says al-Qurayshi.

So the cleric who had shied away from politics all his life began to issue fatwas of profound political importance.

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