The demo cratic demands of Iraq's most revered and reclusive cleric are plunging American plans for Iraq's future into crisis.
In an unprecedented post-Saddam Hussein show of force, tens of thousands of Iraq's Shiite majority marched peacefully in Baghdad Monday and in Basra last Thursday. The demonstrators marched in support of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's demand that direct elections be held well in advance of the US timetable, which has them scheduled for 2005.
The stakes couldn't be higher for Paul Bremer, head of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).
Mr. Bremer held urgent meetings Monday at the United Nations in New York in a bid to enlist UN help to convince the restless Shiites that a direct vote now is not possible. But the UN, still reeling from a deadly bombing of its compound last August, may be hesitant to reenter a volatile Iraq. A Baghdad suicide car bombing killed at least 20 people on Sunday.
As an alternative to a direct vote, the US has proposed a complicated series of re- gional caucuses meant to choose a transitional assembly by the end of May, and an interim sovereign government by the end of June.
Senior clerics allied to Ayatollah Sistani - and many ordinary Iraqis - are suspicious, and say they expect no more than "maneuverings" from the meeting between the US and UN.
"Everyone wants to see light at the end of the tunnel. If there is no change, people could begin operations against the Americans, even if there is no fatwa," or religious decree, says Mohamad, a young believer who follows the white-bearded ayatollah. "If Sistani wants to face the Americans, he can use one word: jihad."
While Sistani, who has great sway over Iraq's estimated 15 million Shiites, has effectively taken hostage US plans for Iraq's future, top religious officials say violent protest is a last resort.
"Ayatollah Sistani never used this word 'jihad,' but the situation in the future could change - it all depends on the moment," says Sheikh Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai, the most senior cleric in the holy city of Karbala, and Sistani's representative there.
If the US "insists" on its plans, then there will be a "contradiction between the will of Iraqis and Americans," says Mr. Karbalai. "Instability will continue....this illegitimacy will make Iraqis suffer, and even lose security. But if we use elections, than nobody in Iraq can raise his voice against it."
CPA officials say they are determined to bring democracy to Iraq, and argue that after a generation of rule by Saddam Hussein, the voter rolls and electoral infrastructure needed to conduct a meaningful direct election simply don't exist.
Despite contrary reports from visitors, they also suggest privately that Sistani - who has not left his modest, rented house in a warren of Najaf streets 100 yards from a key shrine for several years - is "isolated" and "cut off from day to day news."
"We are bringing them democracy and the Shiites will, in fact, dominate," says one senior CPA official. "They are calling for one man, one vote, and that is what they will have."
"This is just maneuvering," says Karbalai. "Sistani will reject any new changes meant only to win time. We think they want to bring a democracy for Iraq that they like; not the one Iraqis want."
Just as many Iraqi Shiites are convinced that the US does not want true democracy - which would probably yield a Shiite led government - many non-Shiites here worry that Sistani's democratic call is a cover for establishing Islamic rule, not unlike that in neighboring Iran.
Like his influential teachers before him, Sistani is known in Shiism as a "quietist" who disavows politics in favor of giving religious opinions, with a mind saturated with Islamic jurisprudence.
But observers say that the septuagenarian Sistani now feels compelled to speak, to guarantee Shiite rights in the new Iraq. Popular impatience is palpable, and suspicions run deep that US promises of democracy are hot air.
"We are trying to keep people calm until now, but we need some steps from the Coalition," says Ayatollah al-Sheikh Faisal al-Assadi, a former student of Sistani now in the holy city of Najaf, who lost members of his family to the former regime.
"Now is a critical situation, and all the people are waiting for the word of the high marja [Sistani], about what they should do," says the white-turbaned Assadi. Though it is the "last and worst thing for us.... If [Sistani] decides, I think it is easy for the people to expel American and British forces within three days."
Wielding such power and devotion is not uncommon for a cleric who "meticulously built himself" as a religious authority in a sect of Islam where the faithful chose to follow certain clerics, says Amatzia Baram, a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace in Washington.
"For the Shiites, a religious authority has a huge potential to become a political authority," says Mr. Baram. "[Sistani's] decision not to call upon the people to resist the occupation is a big decision."
The large protests send a clear message to the US, from the man who "can't remain nonpolitical," Baram says, because "the place of religion in the new Iraq - and the whole role of the Shiites - is up to him."
"A general election now would be very irresponsible, and [Sistani] hasn't got that message," adds Baram. "He is saying: 'I want your one man, one vote democracy of today, America 2004. And you want to take me back to the late 18th-century Jeffersonian democracy of the elites. What's this?' "
So what kind of man has emerged from the shadows to make American leaders tremble as they scramble to defuse the current crisis? The kind of man who lives so simply, one former student says, that a decade ago he sent his servant back to the market with perfect oranges, to exchange them for inferior ones.
"This is not for me," Sistani told the servant, a relative of Assadi, who tells the story while clicking through a string of small, shiny black prayer beads. "It's enough to bring the same ones the poor people eat."
"You see him as a simple man, with simple and old clothes, and he sits as we are sitting [on the floor]. This is his life," says Assadi, who met him for a couple hours a day for three years, as his student in the early 1990s. "If you are sitting with him, you feel like you're with an angel, not a man. We see him as a messenger of the 12th Imam in this life. If you don't respect [him] and his orders, you don't respect the prophet Muhammad, or God."
Known mostly in the West as a voice more than a presence - and one that only began turning political when he ruled during the US invasion of Iraq that American forces should be neither helped nor hindered - those who have known Sistani over the years paint a picture of a very spiritual man, uninterested in worldly possessions or posts.
Indeed, Sistani today lives as he has for years, in a modest rented place down a narrow broken alley stitched overhead with a tangle of phone lines.
Monday, the faithful plied Sistani aides with scraps of paper asking the cleric for Islamic advice or help. Among those who received replies, one man got a letter of support for medical help for his war-wounded children.
Born in Iran's holy city of Mashad, Sistani does not have an Iraqi passport. He never meets face to face with US or other CPA officials, and even some visiting Iraqi members of the US-appointed Governing Council have had to communicate with handwritten messages.
"What is making Sistani talk politics are the promises of democracy by the US," which helped convince the cleric not to oppose the US invasion, says Assadi. "The circumstances at that time were right to allow US forces to come and save us from Saddam. And now, the time is right for elections, not appointments."
Sistani's views are bringing together Shiite factions that normally battle each other for influence.
"What Sistani is saying is followed by all the Shiites, and many Sunnis support it," says Sheikh Mahmoud al-Soudani, an imam at a mosque near Baghdad, who supports the junior antioccupation cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, who once called for American forces to leave Iraq.
"If Sistani called for a jihad, people will follow him. The Americans know that," says Mr. Soudani. "This is democracy. It's elections. [But] America doesn't want Iraq's interests, it wants its own interests."
The US wants to delay the vote to give "outsiders" it supports time to establish a base, Soudani contends. "If there is a vote now, they will not win. Sistani will be punished by God if he doesn't say these words."
Critics of Shiite dominance in Iraq often charge that Iraq's Shiite leaders want to duplicate Iran's system of Velayat-e-faqih, which codifies Islamic rule - not democracy - as unassailable and divine.
"Sistani understands that in Iraq, we have Assyrians, Christians, Turkmen, Kurds, Sunni, and Shiites, so it is not easy to apply Velayat-e-faqih here," says Mohamed, the young Sistani follower. "It would mean for Iraqis another dictatorship, this time of the Shiites. After 35 years of Saddam, Iraqis won't tolerate it."
Instead, Sistani seems to be moving to ensure that Shiite rights are not crushed as they were under the Hussein regime. Sistani had a flavor of that after the collapse of a 1991 Shiite uprising, which led to the death of his chief pacifist teacher.
Sistani was arrested, too, and bundled off to Baghdad with other ayatollahs, without their shoes or turbans, and blindfolded.
"One authority asked them: 'Who is the most important among you?'" says Assadi, the former student. "Sistani stood up and said: 'I am the one. What do you want?'"