A leading Iraqi Shiite religious cleric, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, has returned to the holy shrines in Najaf after 23 years in exile in Iran. Iraq's Shiite Muslim community represents more than 60 percent of a population of more than 25 million. During the years Saddam Hussein was in power, the Shiites were tightly controlled by the government, but since his ouster Iraq's Shiite community has made it clear it wants its voice heard and its rights protected.
Iraq's Shiite Muslims chant their support for Islam and for Islamic unity in Iraq during Friday prayers at a holy Shiite shrine in Baghdad.
The religious cleric leading the prayers calls for protection of religious rights. Sheikh Ra-ed al Qadim al-Saadi also denounced Saddam Hussein for closing religious schools and restricting Shiite Muslim prayers.
"I made a similar speech during Saddam Hussein's rule, he said, and I was put in jail," he said. "I later escaped to Syria where I stayed for five years."
The mere fact that Sheihk Ra-ed could preach at all on Friday is another example of Iraq's newfound freedom.
Under Saddam Hussein's rule, Shiite Muslim leaders were not allowed to conduct traditional Friday midday prayers. Worshippers were not allowed to pray in the courtyard and street outside the mosque. They could not put up pictures of their leaders or the green flag of Islam.
Today the streets of Baghdad are filled with green Islamic banners and pictures of revered Shiite religious leaders, including Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim, who returned this week to Iraq from 23 years in exile.
In the early 1980s, before waging war against Iran, Saddam Hussein executed thousands of Shiite Iraqis who joined a religious party with ties to the Shiite leaders in Iran.
Sayeed Hussein el Sadr, the leading Shiite cleric in Baghdad's Kadhimiya area, which is home to a holy Shiite shrine insists whatever government is set up now in Iraq must protect the rights of the Shiite community.
Under Saddam Hussein, he said, we could not have good positions in the government or universities. We could not have good economic positions either. So, he added, we want a fair and democratic government that will protect our rights.
But U.S. officials worry that Iraq's Shiite leaders want an Islamic theocracy, like the one in Iran, its predominantly Shiite neighbor.
In Najaf, Sheikh Abbas al Robei dismissed U.S. fears that Iraq will end up like Iran, which is run by religious clerics.
"We do not want an Islamic republic like Iran," he said. "We want a different kind of regime, with religious men taking care of religious duties."
Iraq's Shiites are Arab, not Persian as in Iran, and have a strong sense of nationalism.
Sheikh Abbas says the religious scholars of the Hawza will offer guidelines after studying the political situation.
Located in Najaf in southern Iraq, the Hawza is the center of Shiite authority and religious learning. It issues religious edicts and instructions for Shiite communities around the world.
Hawza has enormous influence over a very disciplined following across Iraq.
Many Iraqis, including some Shiite Muslims, are concerned that Hawza scholars are planting the seeds for an Islamic government, using religious sermons as the conduit for their message.
Law professor Mishkat Momen is not surprised that Shiites want to have a role in deciding what government rules Iraq. For three decades, she said, the ruling Sunni Muslim minority, backed by Saddam Hussein, persecuted the Shiites. Mrs. Momen herself is the daughter of a mixed Sunni-Shiite marriage.
"I do not think many of them really want an Islamic state, although they demand it," she said. "They do not know what they want. They have this in mind either imperialism or Islamic state. What is better? Islamic state is something they know and trust. They know it and they trust it."
Some religious leaders already are testing the political waters. Adel Abdul Mahdi is spokesman for the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a leading Shiite group headed by Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim.
"What we estimate [is that now] is not the time for an Islamic state," he said. "People are tired. People just came from 35 years of oppression. They are coming from under the water, they need a breath. We have to give them time to think everything over."
The Supreme Council has a delegate on the advisory team set up to help work on the framework for a transitional government.
"We do not need that decisions are taken in Washington," he emphasized. "[These decisions] should be taken in Baghdad by Iraqis, and we will take into consideration our interests - national, regional and international."
Mr. Mahdi does not rule out the possibility that Iraqis could choose an Islamic government. He cites Turkey as an example, where an Islamic party was voted into power after years of strict secular rule.
For now, Shiite leaders are tasting the freedom to exercise a political voice that was silenced for more than three decades.