After decades of repression under Saddam Hussein, several prominent Shi'ite Muslim clerics in Iraq have begun turning their considerable religious authority into formidable political clout. The clerics' rising influence among Iraq's majority Shi'ites is complicating U.S.-led efforts to create a democratic state with a clear separation between religious and government affairs.
The most obvious displays of newfound freedom in Iraq can be found here, in the mostly Shi'ite Muslim neighborhood of Kadimiyah in central Baghdad.
Shiite symbols and icons, from green flags to portraits of Shi'ite martyrs, adorn the walls and windows of many buildings, shops and offices. Residents, chatting over afternoon tea, speak freely about the suffering they endured under ousted leader Saddam Hussein. Saddam was the last in a long line of Iraqi Sunni Muslim leaders who brutally repressed the Shi'ites. Shi'ites make up 60 percent of Iraq's 24 million people. The toppling of Saddam in April by U.S.-led forces has suddenly given Shi'ite Muslims not only freedom, but an unprecedented opportunity to play a critical role in shaping the country's future.
But Kadimiyah shopkeeper Mizher Abid Hanfoosh says years of betrayal and spying have taught Iraqi Shi'ites not to trust politicians. That is why, he says, almost everyone is now trusting religious leaders to give them a political voice.
Mr. Hanfoosh says he believes the clerics have every right to speak on behalf of the people, because they care about all Iraqis and are genuinely concerned about the country's welfare.
Some clerics, like Moqtada al-Sadr, are firebrands who have used their vehement anti-coalition stance to attract support from disgruntled Shi'ites.
But by far, the most powerful cleric in the country is Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a moderate who has both helped and opposed the U.S.-led coalition authority here.
While he has never publicly denounced the coalition, he has used his considerable religious authority to force Washington to scrap its original plan for an appointed committee to draft a constitution and plan national elections. He insisted that the constitution be written by elected delegates.
A new plan to create a transitional government to draft the constitution was unveiled on November 15. But that plan has also run into trouble over the ayatollah's demand that transitional government members be elected and not chosen in regional meetings.
A political science professor at Baghdad University, Abdul Jabbar Ali, says Ayatollah Ali Sistani and other clerics know that the Shi'ites would benefit from a national ballot.
Democracy, from a simple definition, is the rule of the majority," he said. "Therefore, they again and again say that we need elections, because they think from an election, they [will] win."
In Iraq's multi-ethnic society, most people reject the idea that the clerics could consolidate enough power to create an Iranian-style clergy-ruled state here.
But some coalition officials privately acknowledge that the clerics' intervention in the political process is complicating U.S.-led efforts to guide Iraqis toward creating a democratic system with a clear separation between religious and government affairs.
The clerics' rising influence is also raising deep concern among Iraq's Sunni and Kurdish communities, which face the prospect of living under Shi'ite domination for the first time in the country's history.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has the support of many Shi'ite politicians, including the current holder of the Governing Council's rotating presidency, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim.
At a recent news conference, Mr. Hakim defended the ayatollah against charges that he is meddling in politics. Mr. Hakim says Ayatollah Ali Sistani does not represent a political movement nor is he a political figure. But he says that, as a religious figure, the Ayatollah has the right to defend the destiny of the nation and the rights of the people.
Mr. Hakim warns that ignoring the ayatollah's views, or the views of any other religious authority, could have grave consequences for the country.