Few are familiar with the names of the old city alleyways here, but everyone knows where the holy men live. So when two elderly tribesmen got off the bus from the northern city of Kirkuk Tuesday, children skipped alongside, easily pointing out where they should go.
This city is used to strangers asking for direction. For centuries, Shiites have traveled to Najaf seeking guidance from the members of the Hawza el Miya, the highest institute of religious Shiite learning in the world. The Shiite answer to Oxford or Cambridge, the Hawza - made up of close to 1,000 members - is in a league of its own. The seminaries of Iran's holy city of Qom - where Shiite scholarship was forced to relocate during Saddam Hussein's repressive regime - do not begin to compare.
Pilgrims come to Najaf to consult about everything from when Ramadan begins to what to do about a complicated property problem with a distant cousin. The fatwas, or holy edicts, passed down from Najaf's Hawza ayatollahs, or senior clerics, are strictly obeyed.
Discussing anything here other than spiritual matters while Mr. Hussein was in power might have cost a Shiite his life. But since the regime's fall - and after centuries of Turkish, British, and Sunni overlordship - the long suppressed Shiite debate over who should lead them, and how, has been ignited. And an increasing number here are advocating that their foremost religious institution do more than just rule on prayer times and divorce difficulties.
"We need to start thinking politically," the visitors from Kirkuk tell Ezz a-din Mohammad Said al-Hakim, a nephew of the Ayatollah Mohammad Bakr al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq who returned to Najaf Monday after 23 years in exile in Iran. It's rumored that the ayatollah has come to challenge the leadership of the Hawza. Sitting cross-legged and barefoot in the young Hakim's stuffy den and dipping fresh bread into runny white cheese, the visitors are here to advocate opening a Hawza office in Kirkuk. "We better snap to it," they say, "the opportunity is ripe."
The aging grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has been the recognized leader of the Hawza since 1999. While numerous Hawza leaders before him were brutally executed, he managed to survive under Hussein's regime by staying out of politics. Today, however, with voices here articulating opinions previously prohibited, and preaching a far more radical and political brand of Islam, Sistani seems out of step.
In the crowded field now jostling for power in the Hawza, two holy men stick out: Ayatollah Hakim and Moqtada al-Sadr, the young firebrand son of the late grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who is trying to use his martyred father's name to promote himself.
Mr. Sadr's followers have, on several recent occasions, surrounded Sistani's house and threatened him. But the Hawza leader refuses to budge. Mohammad Al Khafaki, a senior Sistani assistant sitting in his Najaf office batting flies with a pink heart-shaped swatter, offered a local parable to explain why: "A fly sitting on a palm tree says, 'Be careful, I'm flying off! But the palm tree replies, 'I didn't even notice you were there.' "
Sadr - whom detractors say is not religiously educated enough to mount a challenge to Sistani - delivers his weekly sermon at the same mosque where his father spoke before he was killed three years ago. The young challenger claims Sistani is too moderate, and that Hakim has lost touch with the people during his long years of exile.
Nonetheless, tens of thousands gathered Monday at Ali's shrine in central Najaf, to welcome Hakim back. "In my long experience in the Hawza I have learned that there are two possible paths for us," he told the crowd. "One is the line of jihad [struggle] with the regime. And the other is spiritual one, which we followed so as to ensure the survival of Hawza."
"To build the future we need to express the jihad for reconstruction and jihad for independence," he called, as followers wiped away tears. "We do not accept a foreign governor because we are not orphans. We want our people to manage their own affairs." His turbaned followers chanted in reply: "Yes! Yes! for the Hawza!" Tuesday, at a press conference, Hakim said he is not ruling out the possibility of running for president of Iraq in the future.
Hakim's nephew, discussing the new Hawza office in Kirkuk with his visitors, was, he admitted, anticipating a busy few months ahead. "The question of who will head the Hawza and who will lead this country will boil down to who has the most supporters," he says. "We are now building confidence among the people and preparing."
But around the corner from the shrine, down the alleys, near where the sewage runs raw and the lights flicker, other residents of Najaf say they don't care much for the infighting, or for who comes out on top. "Thousands have been spent on Hakim posters and Sadr banners," complains Mohammad Hassan, an unemployed father of six. "What about clean water or food instead?" The Hawza, he says, were turning out "as bad as Saddam" - focusing on power and helping only those who supported them. "It's all politics now."