Iraq's most powerful leader speaks Arabic with a decidedly Iranian accent and is never seen in public. There have been only six "official" photos of him published, and his most loyal followers have never heard his voice. He rarely leaves his small, dusty Najaf house other than to travel down a dirt path to his religious seminary. He shuns all interviews with the press and refuses to meet with Iraq's American occupiers. Yet with one call last November, Grand Ayatullah Ali Husaini Sistani brought plans for an American transfer of power to a grinding halt. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime last April, Sistani has gone from being a relatively unknown "quietist" in Najaf's Hawza seminary, preaching that Shi'ite clerics must stay out of politics, to becoming a political institution.
His international standing came on the back of a simple demand. He issued a call last July that delegates for a planned constitutional convention be elected. When that idea was scrapped in November in favor of an interim legislative body, he reiterated that that body too must be elected. In the process, he managed to force the Bush Administration into agreeing to give the United Nations a greater role in Iraq's reconstruction and ensured that Iraqi Shi'ites' newfound political power would be cemented in elections. "His message is very simple: Democracy equals elections; elections equal democracy," says Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress.
That seemingly apolitical stand has made Sistani decidedly political, allowing him to fashion himself as the defender of Iraqi rights while exercising influence over the future shape of the country. He was born in Mashhad, Iran, to a prominent family of Islamic scholars; indeed, his story has parallels to that of another Iranian cleric from Najaf who rose to powerAyatullah Ruhollah Khomeini. But Sistani is no Khomeini. He has long preached that the Shi'ite clergy stay out of politics to avoid being sullied by deals and compromise. His vision is of a Shi'ite orthodoxy that exercises influence over Shi'ite livesmuch as the Vatican does over Catholic onesshaping politics from the outside by preaching Islamic values to the masses.
To be sure, those values are conservative and often fundamentalist. His followers espouse the Islamization of Iraqi society and would limit the long-held freedoms of women in Iraq. But Sistani may yet rewrite the book on political Islam in Iraq, Iran and much of the Islamic world.
From the Archive
Dealing with the Cleric: By demanding elections in Iraq, Grand Ayatullah Ali Sistani is gaining popularity and vexing the U.S.
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