Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani of Najaf has no troops at his disposal and has rarely spoken in public. Few Iraqis have ever seen him, and he refuses to meet with L. Paul Bremer III, the top American administrator in Iraq. In fact, Sistani, who is 73 years old, is said not to have left his home during the past six years.
Nevertheless, amid the turmoil in Iraq, and in the absence of a secular Iraqi political leader with the stature to unite the Iraqi people, the reclusive cleric has reasserted himself as the most revered leader of Iraq's Shiite majority. He has assumed the role of a Shiite "pope," providing counsel to his followers and responding to the political aspirations of his constituency.
For many Americans, who remember the rise to power of the virulently anti-American Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran, al-Sistani's growing power in Iraq is worrisome. But unlike Khomeini, who advocated that clerics play a direct role in politics, al-Sistani represents what is known as the "quietist" school of thought within Shiism and has been reluctant to get involved in worldly affairs.
In the decade before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq last year, al-Sistani sought to shield the religious leadership - and the seminaries in Najaf - from politics. He refused to deal with the Baath regime of Saddam Hussein, but he also kept his distance from the Shiite opposition groups.
One result of his reclusive attitude was that some of the nation's 15 million Shiites sought alternative clerical leaders; most notably, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr (who was gunned down in 1999 and whose son, Muqtada, remains a potent force in Iraqi Shiite politics). These rival clerics have championed activism and grass-roots politics as a way of mobilizing Iraqi Shiites.
Although this rivalry is likely to remain a feature of Iraqi Shiite politics in the coming years, it is al-Sistani who has managed to consolidate power among his people, and he has done so while projecting himself as a force of moderation in Iraq.
Since the beginning of the U.S. occupation, al-Sistani has shown pragmatism in dealing with the American presence in Iraq. In contrast to the calls by Sunni clerics for jihad against the foreign occupiers, al-Sistani permitted his followers to deal with the Coalition Provisional Authority and urged Shiites not to take arms against the Americans.
It is hard to know exactly where Ayatollah al-Sistani wants Iraq to go, but he appears to envision a government founded on Islamic law and precepts in keeping with the tradition of his mentor, Abdul Qasim Khoei, who died in 1992. Al-Sistani accepts, in principle, the political reality of the modern state and advocates that clerics should keep their contacts with the government to a minimum.
But despite his basic belief that clerics should stay out of politics, in the current power vacuum in Iraq, al-Sistani has been drawn in.
In the past few months, al-Sistani has had to respond to shifts in U.S. policies in Iraq as well as to growing pressures from his followers to provide guidance. He called for unity among all Iraqis and for a unified Iraq with Islam as a pillar of the state. He seems to have a pluralistic system of government in mind, which would empower the Shiite majority without necessarily turning Iraq into a state modeled after the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In statements posted on his Web site (www.sistani.org) and related by aides, he has called for a government based on freedom, justice and equality. These terms, as well as the idea of Islamic democracy, have often been invoked by moderate Shiites, who have yet to articulate a clear meaning for these words in the Iraqi context or to demonstrate a commitment to apply these concepts to both men and women.
On several occasions, al-Sistani has bumped up against the desires of the Americans. Last June, he issued an edict forbidding the appointment of drafters to write the constitution, sanctioning their election by Iraqis instead. This move dealt a setback to the American plan to quickly introduce a constitution for Iraq.
More recently, he has insisted on direct elections for a transitional national assembly instead of the caucus system favored by the United States.
What is the Bush administration to do? Well, for one thing, it must take al-Sistani seriously. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the administration made little effort to reach out to the Shiite majority, overlooking the importance of establishing a relationship with Iraqi Shiites based on trust. In part because of Washington's phobia about political Islam, the administration did not acknowledge the desire of Iraqi Shiites to reach an accommodation with the West.
A compromise between the Americans and al-Sistani over the method of transferring political power to Iraqis is necessary to assuage Shiite suspicions that the United States is seeking to betray them again, as it did in 1991 - this time by imposing on them a government led by former exiles who are favored by Washington but have little support in Iraq.
The events of the past few weeks have underscored that direct elections are preferred by a majority of Iraqis as a way to achieve self-determination. Although conditions in Iraq are not ideal for holding free elections now, the growing momentum among Shiites may force the administration to scrap its proposed caucus system.
The forthcoming visit of a United Nations fact-finding team to evaluate the timetable for elections to a transitional national assembly could provide a face-saving solution for al-Sistani and the United States. The U.N. team may conclude that elections are desirable but that they cannot be accomplished by the June 30 deadline fixed by the United States for transferring power to Iraqis.
Although al-Sistani has called for elections within the coming months, he has not set a deadline, and he might be persuaded to accept a date after June 30 if it were proposed by U.N. and Iraqi experts.
For its part, the Bush administration should be prepared to postpone its self-imposed deadline, continue to oversee power until the elections and improve security in the country.
The U. S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, with U.N. help, should ensure the right of Sunnis and Kurds, as well as other minorities, to join the Shiites in electing representatives to a national assembly, which, in turn, would approve a constitution and appoint a transitional government.
Having liberated Iraqis from the Baath regime, the United States now must accept the fact that Shiites will play a leading role in the new Iraq in proportion to their majority status in the country. That's how democracy works.
Though there are many risks in the project of building an Iraq based on a pluralistic government, the ayatollah's demands are reasonable.
Let Iraqis define the meaning of freedom, justice and equality, and give them a chance to articulate the working of an Islamic democracy.
Yitzhak Nakash is chairman of the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies program at Brandeis University. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.