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Call of History Draws Iraqi Cleric to the Political Fore

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 1, 2004; Page A01

NAJAF, Iraq -- In a meeting steeped in symbolism, 68 tribal elders gathered last month on a worn Persian carpet in a crowded reception hall, sharing tea and cigarettes, and listened to a tall, ascetic cleric summon them to action in a country being transformed.

In ceremonial Arabic accented by his native Persian, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani declared that power should be in their hands, not in the hands of those from abroad, two participants recalled. With a keen sense of Iraq's history, he called the tribesmen "descendants of the 1920 revolution," the Shiite Muslim revolt against the British occupation after World War I. Elections, he insisted forcefully in the 45-minute meeting, were the only way to ensure that their voice would be heard.

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"We want the authority for you," Sistani said, according to Nijm Abid Sayyah, a 50-year-old participant from the southern city of Rumaythah. "We serve you and all Iraqis, people of honorable history and great glory."

More than words, Sistani's speech on Jan. 10, to tribesmen from the city where the 1920 revolt began, signaled the emergence of a new Iraq and a new ayatollah. Gone was the reserve that ensured his survival under former president Saddam Hussein, who executed and expelled hundreds of his colleagues. In its place was a new assertiveness. For perhaps the first time in a life that has spanned Iraq's modern history, Sistani, 73, sent a message that was more political than religious.

Rarely seen in public, and in isolation for the past six years, the Iranian-born cleric has derailed one U.S. plan for Iraq's political transition and is striving to undo another through a demand for direct elections. He has caused anxiety among U.S. officials who are wary of the theocracy in neighboring Iran and envision Iraq as a secular, democratic outpost in the Arab world. His statements -- often handwritten, seldom spoken -- have already secured the Shiite clergy a crucial if not dominant role in determining Iraq's future.

From his biography and in interviews with fellow clerics, his staff and Iraqis who have met him, a complex picture emerges of a man whose exercise of power is as much a consequence of time and place as of his personality.

A deeply traditional cleric, Sistani has been steeped in the culture of religious schools since he was 10 years old, educated by some of their most illustrious scholars and dedicated to the preservation of the schools' authority. He cultivated such an austere image that he did not buy a refrigerator until a decade ago. Yet he oversees institutions and a budget in the tens of millions of dollars, and in the subterranean contests for power and prestige in Najaf, he has proved himself a skilled infighter.

While his detractors see his newfound activism as cause for alarm -- the onset of clerical influence and the ascent of the Shiite majority in a divided country -- his followers describe his moves as defensive. Sistani fears the loss of what he describes as Iraq's Islamic identity, and he trusts that Iraqis, a Muslim, Arab people, will not disavow it if given a voice through elections. He thinks historically, they say, acknowledging mistakes by the clergy in the 1920 revolt, and chafing at the secular nature of modern Turkey.

Sistani has explicitly refrained from pronouncements on what shape Iraq's constitution and law should take. He is described as a flexible thinker who believes that religion should adapt to time and place. Yet his edicts reveal a profoundly traditionalist view of society. In declarations on the most minute elements of personal behavior, he has said that men and women should not mix socially, that music for entertainment is prohibited and that women should veil their hair.

Through no choice of his own, his interlocutors say, Sistani has now been forced to define his legacy. "Any grand ayatollah would have done exactly the same," said Mowaffak Rubaie, a member of the Governing Council who visits Sistani often. "He keeps on saying that in 50 years from now, if I don't act, people will remember me by saying why didn't he do this, why didn't he say anything? They will say the country lost its identity, and you did nothing to stop it."

A Brilliant Student

Sistani was born in Mashhad, a city in northwest Iran that is home to the country's most sacred Shiite shrine. He was named after his paternal grandfather, a renowned scholar who studied in Najaf's 1,000-year-old seminary. At the time, Iraq's shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala were as Persian as they were Arab. The family's ancestral home was the province of Sistan, in southwest Iran, where for centuries the men in the family served as religious leaders.

According to his official biography, Sistani began learning the Koran at age 5, then entered studies of Islamic law and philosophy at age 10 in Mashhad. By age 19, he was on his way to Qom, a seat of scholarship in western Iran. Less than three years later, at 21, he traveled to Najaf, where he lived for the next half-century.

He raised his family in Najaf. His wife is Iranian, but his two sons speak Arabic like native Iraqis. The elder son, Mohammed Rida, serves as his confidant. His other son, Mohammed Jawad, also belongs to the clergy but plays little role in his father's office, choosing instead what residents describe as a quiet life of study.

Sistani's early years in Najaf were a time of momentous shifts in Shiite politics and religion. Najaf, for centuries the preeminent center of Shiite scholarship, was losing influence to Qom, and after the revolt against the British in 1920, a succession of Iraqi regimes -- monarchs, generals and strongmen -- were determined to break the clergy's power. While the clergy did not reach its nadir until Hussein's rule, it was already in decline when Sistani arrived. That loss of prestige, and a desire to reclaim its influence, has created a powerful current in Najaf today.

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