Sistani at Forefront of Iraq Constitution

Cairo, Egypt - As Shiites ascend to power in Iraq and turn toward writing a constitution, the key role expected for their enigmatic spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is once again a subject of mystery and debate.

Top aides say al-Sistani — who remained sequestered at his home in the holy city of Najaf during the Wednesday opening session of the Iraqi parliament — has no desire to push for a constitution that turns Iraq into an Islamic republic.

But they say the 75-year-old al-Sistani will not sign off on a document that condones violations of Islam's basic tenets, including, for example, women's place in public life and the laws governing divorce.

The broader question is whether al-Sistani — the largely unseen hand that has guided the country's Shiite majority since the fall of Saddam Hussein two years ago — will influence Iraqi politics in the future.

Some believe he might eventually seek a place as the country's ultimate source of power, the way Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini once was in Iran (news - web sites).

"Al-Sistani and the clergy have tasted power. He may want to have a veto on the government," said Vali R. Nasr, an expert on political Islam and Shiite doctrine in the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. "He also may want to return to the seminary, but other clerics may not necessarily follow suit."

The outcome of the question could decide Iraq's future and will certainly reverberate in the corridors of power from Tehran, Cairo and Riyadh and all the way to Washington.

Wednesday's opening session in Baghdad signaled the formal political empowerment of the nation's Shiites after decades of oppression.

Over the past two years, the Iranian-born al-Sistani has preached calm when horrific bombings blamed on Sunni Arab militants killed hundreds of Shiites, stoking sectarian tensions and threatening civil war. He challenged U.S. political plans for Iraq, persistently calling for direct elections instead of the caucus system the Americans suggested.

He also has reached out to Sunni Arabs, a powerful minority embittered by its loss of power when Saddam was ousted. On his Web site, he has repeatedly spoken against Shiite attacks on Sunni mosques and the killing by vigilantes of informers who worked for Saddam's security agencies.

"He is totally clued on so many things," said Amir Rida Taqi, a 21-year-old Iraqi student in London, where he met al-Sistani last summer.

A Shiite-dominated ticket that al-Sistani supported fared best in the Jan. 30 election and, in total, Shiites won 182 of the parliament's 275 seats.

Al-Sistani's supporters dismiss as superfluous any attempt to draw analogies between him and Khomeini.

The fundamental difference between the two, they argue, lies in Khomeini's belief that the most learned cleric has the right to rule, or what is known as "wilayet al-faqeeh."

Al-Sistani, at least in theory, rejects that idea. However, mounting evidence suggests that, in practice, that has not been the case.

A senior Shiite political figure who is in regular contact with al-Sistani said his current role conforms with what he sees as the duty of clerics in times of crisis and is prompted in large part by popular demand. If Iraq becomes stable, the Shiite figure suggested, Sistani would bow out of politics and return to his place as a cleric teaching at the seminaries of Najaf.

If that is the case, then al-Sistani, who came to Iraq more than 50 years ago, may be in the political limelight at least for the remainder of 2005.

One of the main tasks of Iraq's National Assembly is to oversee the drafting of a permanent constitution that, if adopted in a nationwide vote, would be the basis for a second election to be held by Dec. 15.

Al-Sistani's stance against making Iraq an Islamic republic but in favor of safeguarding basic Islamic tenets seems — on the face of it — reassuring to those in the Middle East and West who fear Iraq could become an Iranian-style theocracy.

But Dia'a Rashwan, an expert on political Islam at Cairo's Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said al-Sistani and Khomeini, in essence, may be the two sides of the same coin.

"It's difficult to separate religion from politics in a Muslim society," he said. "Al-Sistani is giving the Shiite clergy a say in politics but, unlike Khomeini, he's doing it stealthily."

Any law or constitutional clause that contravenes Islamic teachings is likely to be successfully challenged in a court of law, said Rashwan. That means the Islamization of Iraq remains a strong possibility even with a secular-oriented constitution.

Nasr said al-Sistani, while an opponent of wilayet al-faqeeh, belongs to a school of thought that gives the clergy the right to veto decisions by secular authorities.

"It is a case whereby the protection of the Shiite community ... falls on the shoulders of the clergy," he said.