NAJAF, Iraq - Barefoot on pavement heated like coals, the young man carrying a big red flag under a red-hot sun was limping from the blisters, but a rest, or even shoes, was not an option, never mind that his destination was still a 22-mile walk ahead of him.
"If all my skin leaves my feet, I will still walk," said the man, Sabah Chiad, his brother Sami at his side. Thousands of other pilgrims were ahead of them on the road, and thousands of others were behind. "Nothing can stop me."
"We do this in the name of Islam," said Sami Chiad as, 50 feet from him, about 100 young men chanted slogans honoring their Shiite dead and pounded their chests in rhythm to show they share their pain. "Everything we do is in the name of Islam."
For the past two days, the road to paradise for some Muslims in Iraq has been whatever paths lead from their home to Najaf, the burial site of Ali, son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad. It is one of Shiite Islam's holiest cities, and the promise for pilgrims who walk here is the more their sacrifice while living, the greater their reward when dead.
On those paths are people as resolute as the Chiad brothers, hundreds of thousands of Shiites who will help shape the political future of Iraq, who want nothing less than an Islamist government regardless of the wishes - and the military might - of the United States.
"I will refuse it," Sabah Chiad, 21, said of any government that is not based on his conservative brand of Islam, which follows a strict interpretation of the Quran. "I will fight until we get an Islamic government."
Dealing with such people is among the challenges facing the United States and Britain as they try to shape the politics of Iraq. Ousting the government of President Saddam Hussein may, in the end, prove to have been relatively easy compared with the challenge of installing a form of democracy acceptable to Washington and Shiite Muslims, who account for at least 60 percent of Iraq's population.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has ruled out a theocracy for Iraq, any government resembling the cleric-dominated one that has run Shiite-dominated Iran since 1979.
Rumsfeld has accused Iran of sending operatives to Iraq to further disrupt the country, a charge that Iran has denied.
Publicly, most Shiite clergy in Iraq speak of the benefits of unity, and they do not speak in absolutist terms. They talk about how, after being repressed by Hussein's secular but Sunni-dominated government, Shiites have an opportunity to be Iraq's dominant political force if only they will speak with one voice.
But barely three weeks after Hussein's government collapsed, spiritual leaders in Najaf and Karbala, in Basra, Kut, Baghdad and elsewhere, have been plotting and, in many cases, openly campaigning, for the allegiances of people such as the Chiad brothers, for a Shiite Muslim-dominated government that will enforce Islamic law, precisely like that found in Iran.
Those involved have been waging a two-pronged campaign, trying to establish a Shiite government, as opposed to one based on secular rule, while maneuvering to put their choice of leader in charge.
On the streets of Shiite-dominated cities, on the walls of their most sacred mosques, are signs of rivalries growing among those leaders as they speak of democracy to Western cameras, but with a wink to those such as the brothers making the walk to Najaf.
"Ruling is something that is nice and is desirable. For this reason, conflict [between Shiite factions] has already begun," said Ayatollah Mohamed Taqi Al-Mudarrisi, who returned to Karbala last week after running the radical Iraqi Organization for Islamic Action from Tehran, Iran, for the past two decades. "We should work together as Shia to keep the conflict in the proper channels, which is to move ahead with the Iraqi experiment and to not destroy the country."
But, he added, Shiites should not be precluded from running for any office - and if they won election, they would have every right to run Iraq as an Islamist country.
His group is considered small but influential, having led a bombing campaign against Hussein in the 1980s, and posters of Mudarrisi have appeared in Karbala and Najaf.
"Allowing for religious men is democracy without conditions," he said from a prayer room in a run-down Karbala building heavily guarded by men with AK-47s, a dozen followers hanging on every word.
As the pilgrims arrived in Najaf, as they did in Karbala last week, they found posters hanging on walls across the city as if a small-town election were in its final too-close-to-call days. In Najaf, posters were even hung on the shrine of Ali, a square building covered in turquoise tile and topped with gold-leaf domes that sits near the Euphrates River.
Some posters showed Muqtada Sadr, scion of a prominent clerical family whose father and two brothers were assassinated by Hussein's government in 1999. Others showed Abdul Aziz Hakim, deputy leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and a brother of its Tehran-based leader, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir Hakim. The brothers have demanded that U.S. troops leave Iraq.
On their way to Najaf, many of the pilgrims held portraits of the men; of Mahdi al-Awadi, exiled leader of the Supreme Council to Free Iraq; and of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose home in Najaf, aides said, was attacked by gunmen from a rival faction last month. They said he was not injured.
Al-Sistani, like Sadr, has been in hiding, fearing not only Sunnis, but also rival Shiites.
Clutching one of the many automatic weapons that have flooded Iraq, a man who opened the door an inch at a small apartment in Najaf said this week that Sadr could not speak until the security situation surrounding him improved.
"I cannot tell you when it will be safe," the man said, peeking through the crack in the door. "For now, he is not available."
Several of the Shiite factions, including Sadr's, have militias in Iraq, primarily in its southern cities, and their successes have been apparent in places such as Karbala and Najaf.
Militias show abilities
Last week, when about 1 million pilgrims began their march to Karbala, the militias showed their abilities by organizing routes and providing security. They did so again for the marchers traveling to Najaf over the past two days, and, given the general disorder in Iraq and that the pilgrimage was the first in at least 20 years - Hussein had banned them - their results were remarkable and provided a hint of the organizational capabilities of the spiritual leaders.
Along areas of four-lane road where the foot traffic was heavy, young men arranged rocks and cans to reroute traffic so that cars heading north, for example, could safely share their lanes with traffic that had been heading south.
In Najaf, the men, wearing identification cards that let pilgrims know they were working on behalf of the mosques, set up roadblocks to keep cars from roads now devoted solely to pedestrians.
In the center of Najaf, packed like Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, men with Kalashnikovs stood on corners, just in case.
Many of the pilgrims began their journey in Karbala, picking up where they ended last week, marching under the green and black flags of the Shiite faith and the red flags that mark their revolution. Religious leaders have taken credit in that city for preventing looting and disorder, which followed Hussein's fall in Basra, Baghdad and other cities.
The self-appointed governor there, though, is a lawyer, whose insistence that civilians would run Iraq served as a reminder that the maneuvering to form a government involves more than the Shiite factions.
"I want to clear something up about the religious men. They will not have this job," he said. He, too, was guarded by at least six men with Kalashnikovs. "We want a democratic government to represent all the people of Iraq. We gladly accept the help of the religious men, but they will not be the government."