Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who died Saturday at age 86, was an austere and uncompromising Shiite Moslem religious leader who overthrew the shah of Iran, humiliated the United States, waged a bloody war with Iraq and transformed his nation from a modernizing regional power into a puritanical religious state. He was a prodigious if pedantic scholar, a shrewd and ruthless politician, and a relentless, xenophobic zealot in the cause of Islam as he understood it. He spent many years in obscure exile in provincial Iraq, but in the decade after he swept to power, his brooding visage became familiar to the world as he reshaped the Middle Eastern power structure and challenged the worldwide hegemony of Western culture. By profession he was a writer and teacher, but his decades of analyzing the Koran and expounding on Shiite traditions led him to a narrow view of the world. To Khomeini, the merit of every human activity was judged according to how it conformed to his version of Moslem law. This cultural tunnel vision served him well as he conspired to overthrow Iran's worldly monarchy, but it left him ill-prepared to govern in a sophisticated world. At his death, Iran was a melancholy and politically turbulent land, wracked by war and economic collapse, and he never came close to achieving his object of worldwide Islamic revolution. On the contrary, his extremism and his use of violence alienated millions of Moslems throughout the world who might otherwise have been attracted to Khomeini's campaign for cultural purity. The purpose of Khomeini's revolution was to rescue Iran from what he perceived to be a corrupt and heretical regime that was in the economic and cultural grip of the "Great Satan," the United States. Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi had used the country's vast oil wealth to improve the living conditions of Iran's 33 million people. But the Iranian who saw electricity, schools and roads come to his village also saw an influx of tens of thousands of Western workers and advisers, socially straining a nation struggling with its ancient identity and values. Iranians saw the shah welcome these Westerners and the changes they helped bring about, changes that seemed to many to promote materialism and cosmopolitan ideas at the expense of indigenous culture. The man denouncing the shah, foreigners and change was Khomeini. Return of Mullahs What Khomeini promised, and came to deliver, was the destruction of westernization as it conflicted with his fundamentalist Shiite Moslem teachings; an end to the conspicuous consumption and financial corruption of those around the shah, and a return to the political primacy of the mullahs, the senior Shiite scholars and jurists who now dominate the country. Khomeini also had attacked the shah's dealings with the West, especially the United States, and had opposed the shah's ties with Israel. The Iran that Khomeini made over in his image of Islam is a country where women must cloak themselves in the traditional chador, a country free of alcoholic beverages, its airwaves cleansed of Western films, television and music. It is also a society purged of almost all non-Moslem elements in its population, as Jews and Bahais were driven into exile. Despite the assassination of several close aides and the defection of others, Khomeini crushed opposition from both left and right. His rise to power and initial popularity can be partly explained by the fact that he became the symbol of all who opposed the regime of the shah. If the shah seemed impregnable, the ayatollah commanded the loyalty of the only institution never suppresed or co-opted by the regime -- the religious hierarchy, at the head of which are the few senior leaders who are accorded the title ayatollah, or "sign of God." The shah commanded what was thought to be one of the most powerful and modern military machines in the Middle East and was respected, even admired, in foreign capitals, especially Washington. As late as 1978, a year before his ouster, he said, "Nobody can overthrow me. I have the support of 700,000 troops, all of the workers and most of the people. I have the power." Khomeini's call to arms was a harsh, even feudal one, but essentially uncomplicated. He once wrote: "If there is a fear of domination of Islamic countries by foreigners because of the political relationship between the Islamic governments and foreign governments, even if it is political and economic denomination, it is incumbent upon all Moslems to oppose these relations and force the Islamic governments into breaking these kinds of relations." His vision of a pure Islamic state was as old as the religion itself, but he used the most modern tools of political agitation. From exile, first in Iraq, then in France, the direct-dial telephone kept him in close touch with his followers, tape-recorded messages were smuggled to mosques throughout Iran, and he gave frequent newspaper and television interviews. Pictures of his stern, dark-browed visage, crowned with a black turban signifying direct lineal descent from the prophet, became the banner of the struggle to overthrow a monarchy that traced its ancestry back 2,500 years. Cheered by millions when he returned to Iran in February 1979 after 15 years in exile, he took power from a monarch who simply abandoned the struggle. From then until his death, no one seriously challenged Khomeini inside Iran. In March 1979, a plebiscite approved the transformation of Iran from a hereditary monarchy to an Islamic republic. A new constitution created the position of national religious leader, the vilayat-e-faqih. Article 107 gave Khomeini this office for life. As such, he was supreme commander of the armed forces and Revolutionary Guards and he appointed a majority of the National Defense Council. He also had the power to declare war and dismiss the president. In theory, this official was to be "pious, dedicated and sincere," providing moral guidance but aloof from the everyday decision-making process. But in fact Khomeini, though he never held the title of president or prime minister, made all important decisions. His refusal to interfere when radicals seized Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran amounted to official authorization for the hostage-taking. And it was only on Khomeini's insistence that the war with Iraq dragged on for eight devastating years, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of Iranian lives. Iran has seldom been far from the world's consciousness since the founding of the new state. The victory of the Islamic Republic unleashed vengeful conflicts within Iran and internationally. Revolutionary tribunals summarily tried and ordered executed more than 600 of the shah's former officials and army officers, as well as adulterers, homosexuals and persons who were found guilty of religious crimes. By 1982, it was estimated that more than 4,500 people had been executed and about 30,000 were imprisoned. Iran was in this country's headlines every day after the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by radical "students" who objected to the fact that the dying shah had been given refuge in the United States. Embassy workers and other Americans were held hostage for 444 days. It was not until Jan. 20, 1981, the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated to succeed Jimmy Carter as president, that the last 52 Americans were released. The hostages were not released until after an abortive raid on Tehran to liberate them by American arms and months of diplomatic wrangling. The crisis undoubtably contributed to the defeat of President Jimmy Carter after a single term in office. But the biggest impact on the lives of most Iranians probably resulted not from diplomatic tiffs with the West, or even the severe economic dislocations brought on by the revolution, or the triumph of a new socio-political order, but by the war with Iraq. On Sept. 22, 1980, President Saddam Hussein sent the Iraqi army into Iran. Superficially, it seemed an obvious attempt to take territorial advantage of the new Iranian regime and an army that was thought to be disaffected after purges of its officer corps. Hussein obviously hoped to seize the Shatt-al-Arab waterway, the 120-mile confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that forms part of the Iraqi-Iranian border and is Iraq's only outlet to the sea, and perhaps to take over Iran's Khuzistan region. Khuzistan has vast stores of oil and its people are mostly Sunni Moslems, often restive under Shiite rule and presumably sympathetic to the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein. The Sunni Moslems of Arab Iraq and the Shiites of non-Arab Iran have struggled for primacy in the region for 12 centuries. The latest war not only lasted eight long years but also became one of the most bloody and expensive since World War II. It has been estimated that the two sides' casualties included about a million dead, more than 1.5 million refugees, and even more wounded. It also is believed that the war cost the two states more than $400 billion. Khomeini insisted throughout the war that it would continue until Saddam Hussein was overthrown, but in 1988 Iran's exhaustion forced him to accept a cease-fire he called "more deadly to me than poison." War was hardly a new experience for Iran or a concept foreign to Khomeini. Since time immemorial, the Iranian monarchy had been forged in war, against Moghul India, Ottoman Turkey, czarist Russia, imperial Britain, and hordes of Arabs, Afghans, Mongols and Uzbeks. Internally, Iran's great internal conflict was between the crown and the mullahs. Shiite Moslems believe that spiritual authority resides in descendants of Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, Ali. Ayatollahs such as Khomeini are heirs to a tradition in which religious leaders are free to challenge temporal authority. By the early 20th century, the religious elders controlled education, law and charities, and had huge wealth. The mujtahid, or religious leader, added to his independence by his method of gaining power. He was not chosen by the government nor by formal election from the other senior religious figures. He achieved his authority by a combination of learning and popular following. Son of an Ayatollah It was in this historical setting that Ruhollah ("soul of God") Mussavi Khomeini was born on Sept. 23, 1902, in the small town of Khomein, 180 miles south of Tehran. He was the youngest of six children of Ayatollah Sayed Mustafa Mussavi and Hajar Saghafi. His father, his maternal grandfather and a brother were all ayatollahs. Following a tradition in which ayatollahs adopt the names of their home towns, he took the name Khomeini about 1930. As a student of Islamic law, he earned the title ayatollah in the late 1950s. When Khomeini was an infant, his father was murdered, some say by government agents. His father was not to be the last close relative the future leader would lose to violence. His eldest son died under mysterious circumstances during Khomeini's exile, and a grandson was killed by Savak, the shah's hated security service. Khomeini was raised by his iron-willed mother, imbued with the zeal to fight those he considered enemies of the prophet. At age 19, he went to Arak to study under the noted Ayatollah Abdul Karim Haeri, one of the era's leading Islamic theologians. In 1922, he and Haeri moved to the city of Qom, where the old ayatollah founded the Madresseh Faizieh, a leading center of religious learning, which was to be the Ayatollah Khomeini's real home. Khomeini became an authority on Islamic law, but he also delved into Islamic mysticism, and his fascination with Western philosophy led him to claim that Plato's "Republic" was part of his model for an Islamic republic. He wrote lyric poetry and more than 20 books on Islamic theology. During those early years, he was said to have taught about 1,200 future members of the religious hierarchy. Riza Shah Pahlavi, the last shah's father, systematically persecuted the religious leaders and attacked religious culture while trying to Westernize his state along the lines set by Kemal Ataturk in Turkey. His son carried on this tradition, and when Mohammed Riza Shah visited Qom in 1953, Ayatollah Khomeini signaled his opposition. Alone, in a group of about 50 religious elders, he refused to rise upon the shah's entrance. By 1962, Khomeini was recognized as head of the Shiite community's opposition to the shah. That year, he led a successful general strike in opposition to the shah's ruling that court witnesses no longer need swear by the Koran. A year later, the shah launched his "White Revolution," a domestic reform program that called for state confiscation of religious lands. Women's rights, extended by the White Revolution, were directly counter to Islamic teaching, according to the ayatollah, as were various programs involving education and the law. In the spring of 1963, government forces broke into the Madresseh Faizieh and killed more than a dozen young scholars. Khomeini organized not only the religious leaders but also students at Tehran University, where rioting caused the shah to proclaim martial law. Khomeini also organized opposition to a status-of-forces agreement that insulated American military personnel from Iranian law -- an appeal to anti-American sentiment that became a hallmark of Khomeini's politics. Months in jail and nearly a year under house arrest were the ayatollah's reward. In late 1964, he was sent into exile. He first lived in Turkey, but was expelled from that country after demonstrations of support by Iranian students there. In 1965, he moved to Iraq and settled in Najaf, a town revered by Shiites because it is the site of the tomb of Imam Ali. At Najaf, the ayatollah operated a theological school and began tape-recording sermons and messages that were smuggled to Iran and played at mosques throughout the country. By the 1970s, he no longer accepted the possibility of a limited monarchy as defined in the Iranian constitution of 1906. In his 1970 book, "Islamic Government," he rejected both the constitution and the monarchy as un-Islamic and foreign. He said the shah usurped the legitimate authority of the state's supreme religious leader. Through much of the 1960s and 1970s, the now-aged ayatollah seemed a figure from another age, one whose time had passed generations before. Yet as internal opposition to the shah mounted, as corruption and terror spread, the authority and popularity of the one ayatollah who had never bowed to the shah continued to rise. The ayatollah appealed to the average Iranian as the legitimate voice of Iran. He appealed to the new middle classes as a non-communist alternative to the increasingly repressive and inept Pahlavi regime, and to the religious leaders as one who would reinstate their traditional wealth and authority. In 1977, after the death of his eldest son, Mustafa, who may have been killed by Savak, Khomeini called upon the Iranian army to "liberate their country" from the shah. The shah tried to strike back at Khomeini in 1978 through the press. A government-controlled newspaper published a piece that attacked Khomeini's character, questioned his devotion to Islam, raised the possibility of his actually working for the communists, and said that he was probably part Indian. (A grandfather had worked in India for a time.) That attack backfired. Riots broke out in Qom and Tabriz, then spread across the nation. The shah responded by prevailing upon the Iraqis to expel Khomeini. This too played into Khomeini's hands. The ayatollah moved his operations to a village about 25 miles from Paris. His new location enabled him to keep in touch with his supporters by long-distance telephone, and also gave him access to the Western news media, projecting him into a prominence he could never have achieved in Iraq. His support in Iran came from more than 150,000 mullahs, wealthy merchants and student leaders. His calls for strikes and civil demonstrations were always obeyed. On Dec. 29, 1978, the shah, his power crippled by strikes and popular dissent, appointed Shahpur Bakhtiar, a leader of the Union of National Front Forces, as prime minister. The economy was at a standstill because of an oil workers' strike called by the ayatollah. On Jan. 16, 1979, the shah left Iran, never to return. A Triumphal Return Two weeks later, on Feb. 1, 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran in triumph. Bakhtiar resigned as prime minister and was replaced by Mehdi Bazargan, a respected liberal who was head of the religiously oriented National Liberation Movement of Iran. Bazargan was the first in a series of officials to exercise some nominal government authority in Iran only to be shunted aside when they came into conflict with Khomeini. When Khomeini was exiled, he believed the political role of clerics was to provide moral guidance to secular forces who would manage the technical aspects of the state. Statements he made in Paris left the "modernists" in his movement the impression that they would have primary importance in any new government once the shah left. When the time came, the modernists were put in stewardship roles and traditionalists made the major decisions. The modernists were later mostly purged. Throughout the 1980s, news from and about Iran was almost unrelievedly grim. The war with Iraq -- a war in which Iranian teenagers marched as soldiers to the front carrying their own coffins -- dominated all else, but domestic life was grim as well. The euphoria of the revolution quickly evaporated in an atmosphere of economic hardship, social austerity, political repression and occasional violence. But Khomeini never wavered. Living modestly in a one-story dwelling near the center of Qom, he continued to call for religious and cultural purity -- he profesed never to have heard of Bach or Verdi but he banned their music anyway just because it was foreign -- and for the destruction of his enemies. Increasingly frail since the end of the war with Iraq, he had been little heard from until earlier this year when he shocked the world with a public call for the assassination of British author Salman Rushdie, whose novel, "The Satanic Verses," Khomeini regarded as blasphemous. He is survived by his wife, Batoul, and four children. One of his sons, Ahmed, was among Khomeini's closest personal and political advisers -- the link, in effect, between the ayatollah and the politicians who struggled to run the government while they jockeyed for position in the post-Khomeini era.