As the date approaches for the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq to a fully Iraqi government, debate has been intense about just what that new Iraqi government should be. One of the key players in that debate is reclusive Iraqi Shi'ite Muslim leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has enormous influence over most of Iraq's Shi'ites, who make up about 60 percent of the population.
Ayatollah Sistani demonstrated his power over political affairs in Iraq in recent weeks, when he publicly opposed the U.S. plan to hand power to a new Iraqi government to be chosen through regional meetings. The Ayatollah wants full national elections in time for the scheduled handover at the end of June.
When chief U.S. administrator Paul Bremer said that for logistical reasons elections could not be held until next year, Ayatollah Sistani urged his followers to protest, and tens of thousands of them took to the streets.
The next day, after meeting with President Bush at the White House, Mr. Bremer said changes to the U.S. plan could be considered. He repeated that view in Baghdad just last week, while also emphasizing the U.S. intention to return sovereignty to Iraqis at the end of June.
There are 133 days before sovereignty returns to an Iraqi government on June 30," Mr. Bremer said. "Changes in the mechanism for forming an interim government are possible, but the date holds. And hold it should."
The power to influence world leaders is held by few people, and most of them are politicians.
But from his base at a mosque and study center in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, in central Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani provides religious guidance to millions of people around the world, and some political guidance as well.
"Outside of Iran, he is, and has been for a decade, the preeminent religious authority," said Professor Juan Cole, a specialist on Iraq's Shi'ites at the University of Michigan. "On the one hand, he has been a stabilizing force. He has more or less authorized the status quo. On the other, he has put pressure on the coalition to adopt certain policies they would not have on their own." Ayatollah Sistani's ability to do that is based on the Shi'ite practice in which individuals select a senior religious leader whose rulings they will follow. This voluntary commitment is extremely strong, and has led to concern that Ayatollah Sistani could launch a popular uprising if his demands are not met. But Professor Cole says that is not likely anytime soon.
"What he said is that if the United States continues delaying tactics for too long that he is prepared to launch such a movement," he said. "I do not believe that Sistani will do so in the near term."
Ayatollah Sistani is rarely seen in public.
But Professor Cole and other experts say he is neither as extreme nor as reclusive as some people think. They point out that although he has not met with U.S. officials, he has met with delegations from the United Nations. And they note that he has accepted the U.S.-led administration of Iraq, as long as it ends soon and is replaced with a government he views as legitimate.
In the past week, Ayatollah Sistani has even changed his view on elections. He had insisted on having full national elections by June. But when the U.N. team concluded that would not be possible, he called for a Security Council resolution guaranteeing that elections will be held soon.
The U.N. team was led by special representative Lakhdar Brahimi. "I think that all Iraqis would like sovereignty to return earlier, rather that later, and that Ayatollah Sistani shares this view with everybody else." he said. "Ayatollah Sistani, I think, agrees with me and I think this was probably his view all along, that preparing correctly elections is important and I think we have agreed that we must be certain that these elections are. He and I also agree that it is the government that comes out of the ballot box that is going to take the important decisions for the future of Iraq."
Ayatollah Sistani is in his early 70s. He was born in neighboring Iran and came to Iraq as a young man to study in Najaf. He is considered to be politically progressive compared to the Ayatolahs of Iran. He says religious leaders should not be politicians and should not be involved in day-to-day political affairs.
"Sistani's intellectual tradition tells him to believe that clerics should not interfere in day to day government," Professor Cole at the University of Michigan explained. "He has never suggested that the Shiite clerics should be prime minister or serve in the legislature that is going to be elected, and I do not believe that his position is at all similar to that of the clerics in Iran who do want to rule."
But experts say Ayatollah Sistani's attention to the issue of elections is aimed at ensuring that after centuries of being kept out of power in Iraq, Shi'ites, the country's majority, finally take what they see as their rightful place in the leadership.
The historic betrayals and atrocities against Shi'ites, dating from the Ottoman Empire and through the time of Saddam Hussein, are always present in Ayatollah Sistani's rhetoric. The Ayatollah was often held under house arrest by Saddam's regime for lengthy periods.
But Professor Cole predicts Ayatollah Sistani would welcome the emergence of a pluralistic government in Iraq, with a strong Sunni Muslim presence, as long as that government is democratically elected.
Some younger Shi'ite clerics have urged a more aggressive approach by their spiritual leader, now that Saddam Hussein is gone. Ayatollah Sistani has remained low-key, only taking a strong public stand on elections, and even in that indicating some room for compromise. But in an interview published last week in Germany, the Ayatollah said he will call for an uprising if he feels it is necessary.
The Ayatollah's views are reflected by his followers throughout Iraq - among them, Imam Abbas Rhida Khadoum, a Shi'ite cleric at a mosque in central Baghdad.
"True elections are our only hope," he said. "And for the first time Iraqis will witness a free direct election following the liberation from the former regime. We are assuring that we should get this hope and if they deprive us of this as the despotic Saddam Hussein did before, when there was no multiplicity of parties, when one party controlled everything, then we will move to action. We will have to do something."
But disagreements among Shi'ites could have been behind reports of an attempted assassination of the Ayatollah in early February. The reports were first confirmed and then strongly denied by Shi'ite members of the Interim Governing Council who are close to him. Assassinations of the Grand Ayatollah in Najaf are not unusual in Shi'ite history, but if it happens now, and if Sunnis are blamed, it could spark significant unrest.
Appearing so rarely in public, Ayatollah Sistani uses a surprisingly modern way of communicating with his followers among the world's estimated 150 million Shi'ites. Several Internet websites in several languages regularly publish his writings and interpretations of the Koran.
Those websites are likely to remain busy in the coming months as Iraq's Shi'ites continue to seek political guidance from their spiritual leader, and wait for elections that will likely give the Ayatollah even more power than he has now.