Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husaini Sistani

Why we’d better listen to Iraq’s influential cleric.

Americans watching the 3rd Infantry Division advance into Baghdad last April had little doubt that Iraq would soon be devoid of Saddam Hussein’s regime, but few guessed just how lost it would seem without him. As the official government evaporated, looters finished the job by cleaning out government buildings across the country. While coalition troops looked on, Shiite brigades were among the few organizations that took over, guarding hospitals and policing neighborhoods. Shiite clerics were expected to leap at the chance of ending their long oppression under Saddam and take a major role in building the new Iraq. American planners held particularly high hopes for Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husaini Sistani because he advised his followers not to interfere with coalition troops. However, his pointed refusal to play along with the occupation authority has left the Pentagon’s flimsy reconstruction plans in the lurch.

The reclusive cleric’s aloofness and complexity are typical. Sistani, an Iranian, has survived in Iraq for half a century by remaining quietly independent. A formidable Islamic scholar, he studied in Najaf, one of Shiism’s holiest cities, with one of the sect’s greatest teachers, Ayatollah Abd al-Kassim al-Chui. Among his fellow students was Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, who went on to orchestrate Iran’s conversion into a Shiite theocracy. When Chui died in 1992, Sistani took his place as the head of Najaf’s religious teaching establishment. As Sistani rose through the ranks in Najaf, his religious and financial responsibilities grew. Now millions of Shiites in Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere call him their marja al-taqlid, their prime “object for emulation,” and take his word as law. His followers donate millions of dollars every year, which he disperses in Iraq and Iran for social work, housing for immigrants, and salaries for Islamic students worldwide.

Sistani has earned this respect not only because of his formidable insights as an Islamic theologian but also because of his reputation, even among his enemies, as a man of principle who does not dabble lightly in politics. Saddam’s henchmen executed many of Sistani’s relatives (along with thousands of their fellow Shiites), but he survived, occasionally under house arrest, and refused to endorse or condemn the regime. Notwithstanding his disapproval of Khomeini’s politicized Shiism, Sistani is highly regarded in Iran. While he is in many ways utterly traditional, he also illustrates the cutting edge of Islamic theology—his Web site advises Muslims on traditional and new-fangled issues, from living in non-Muslim countries to interest-bearing investments to the qualified permissibility of anal sex.

After years of silence on political issues, Sistani has galvanized Iraq by stepping into the spotlight. In the last few weeks he showed his strength by calling for non-violent protests across Iraq to demand democratic elections; the demonstrations attracted thousands of Shiites, and even some Sunnis and Christians. When Sistani announced his willingness to wait for a U.N. election team to study the situation, he halted the protests just as efficiently as he’d mobilized them.

The delicacy of the situation for American envoy Paul Bremer is hard to overstate. Iraqis are demanding the suffrage they’ve been promised all along. This will have to happen sooner or later, but the details of when and how could easily aggravate an unstable situation and enrage the country’s two large minority groups, the Sunnis and Kurds. The well-organized Kurds will be relatively easy to deal with, since they know what they want (autonomy) and essentially have it already. Unfortunately, the Sunnis are harder to assess—as the dominant group under Saddam, the sect emphasized politics over religion, and its power structure evaporated with the Baathists when the coalition arrived. Now Iraq’s large Sunni minority is a muddled jumble of secular intellectuals, former military officers, and Sunni Islamists held together only loosely by religion. Without a nationally accepted leader to negotiate for them or Shiite-style organized religion to fall back on, they fear reprisals for their long years as a powerful minority. As one Sunni politician put it, “We have not waited this long to see the country slip into the hands of the Shiites. If it comes to it, we will fight.”

If the United States goes too far to appease Iraq’s minorities (say, by giving them extra representation in a federal system), Sistani won’t approve the American plan, and the Shiites could boycott it or even start a civil war, destroying the fledgling government’s chances of legitimacy. If Bremer fails to negotiate effectively with Sistani, the United Nations and Iraq’s minority groups, Iraq will start falling apart right in the middle of Bush’s re-election campaign.

So far Sistani has played his cards shrewdly by refusing to deal directly with any American officials and by demanding the opinion of U.N. elections experts. Coalition authorities had hoped to hand over power to a reliable caretaker government with a minimum of fuss, and instead they will be forced to publicly negotiate a compromise under the keen attention of the international community. The Shiites realize that Bremer represents their best chance for achieving power without incident. But there is no love lost for the Americans who allegedly used the Shiites as a cannon-fodder fifth column in 1991. “For most Iraqi Shiites, the betrayal of 1991 is a scar that even the overthrow of Saddam Hussein cannot heal,” wrote David Reiff in the New York TimesSunday Magazine.

The details of the election handover, fraught and messy though they be, are merely technical to Sistani—logistics and security are not his problem. Unfortunately, guessing the ayatollah’s endgame is far more difficult than registering Iraq’s citizens or guarding its polling stations. Sistani has proved that he is not interested in an Iranian-style theocracy for Iraq, but his vision for Iraq’s future almost certainly includes a heavy dose of Islamic orthodoxy. The division between church and state he espouses seems unlikely; it’s hard to imagine Sistani fighting for freedom of speech, gender equality, or a truly secular state.

The likely outcome of U.N. involvement in such a complicated three-way (or five-way, if you count the Kurds and Sunnis) negotiation is that Bremer will have to abandon his June 30 deadline. To save face at home, the United States will have to convince Sistani to accept some sort of symbolic transition of power. A compromise looks plausible, but it will depend on Bremer and Sistani (two very strange bedfellows) convincing their contrary constituencies that it’s a good idea. “Sistani just wants to make sure that the first government in Iraq has democratic legitimacy. If he sees the first government doesn’t have that but has a sell-by date, he might be willing to compromise,” suggested Noah Feldman, an expert on Islamic democracy and law professor at NYU.

But the odds of a peaceful handover depend entirely on Sistani. The United States is not about to see all the blood spilled and money spent by occupation forces go toward the creation of a new hardline Islamic republic. Sistani will have to decide whether or not to endorse a slow, imperfect transition state. What if he skunks the deal? It’s nearly unthinkable that he would call for armed revolt, but it could happen without him. “Sistani may lose control of the masses,” warned Amatzia Baram, an expert on Iraqi politics at the U.S. Institute of Peace. If the Shiites stop following his lead, “it’s anybody’s guess what happens.” Alongside Sistani’s moderation one must take into account his aggressive young rival, Muqtada al-Sadr, and countless others who would be glad to push the Shiites toward war.

Sistani is a deeply religious man who is also a survivor. Living in Najaf, a holy city and burial place haunted by Shiite passion for martyrdom, he has emerged as a leader through quiet rationalism. When his fatwa summoned thousands into the streets of Baghdad, Sistani crossed the line from scholar to activist. In many ways, we’re all lucky that he is the voice of Iraq’s Shiites, but by playing politics, he is entering a dangerous arena. A powerful Shiite cleric is calling for a peaceful, internationally moderated democracy in Iraq. Just across the border, Iran’s theocracy is wrestling with the same issues, and from Egypt to Malaysia leaders struggle to integrate Islam and democracy. Behind the rhetoric of regime change George Bush added the promise that America would make that integration happen in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sistani has dared him to do it.