THE most powerful man in Iraq sits on the floor of a modest room, off a narrow alley in a provincial city south of Baghdad. His gown is dark and threadbare. His face is sandwiched betweeen a long white beard and a black turban. On the rare occasions that he leaves his home, it is to pray at the nearby shrine of Imam Ali, the founder of Shia Islam, in Najaf.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al- Sistani has never met an American official or soldier. He did not vote in Iraq’s elections last month. And yet this religious recluse could wield more influence over Iraq’s destiny than all the foreign troops and Iraqi politicians put together.
The Shia List, which he endorsed, looks certain to be the biggest group in Iraq’s new 275-strong assembly when the election results are announced any day now. It will therefore be the dominant voice in the formation of a new government and the drafting of a new constitution. That means the 74-year-old cleric is likely to play a key role in determining whether Iraq becomes an Islamic state or a secular democracy and whether its rival communities peacefully co-exist or sink into sectarian conflict.
Anyone doubting Ayatollah al-Sistani’s influence should consider the key events of the past year. The huge Shia turnout in January’s election was the result of his simple fatwa instructing the faithful that voting was a religious duty.
That the elections were held at all was largely due to him. When the US-led coalition proposed a transfer of power without letting the people cast their ballots, a single edict from Ayatollah al-Sistani brought hundreds of thousands of Shia protesters on to the streets until the Americans backed down.
Now that the Shias are set to govern Iraq for the first time in more than 500 years the country and the rest of the world want to know what kind of nation he wants to build.
His supporters insist he is dedicated to creating a tolerant, democratic state that respects the rights of all Iraq’s minorities. His critics fear the birth of a new theocracy similar to that in neighbouring Iran, where he was born.
Senior members of the Shia coalition are desperately trying to reassure Iraq’s Sunni minority that it will not be marginalised, the Kurds that their automony will not be threatened and other religious minorities that they will not become second-class citizens.
Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the leader of the Shia al-Dawa Party and a potential prime minister, pointedly refers to the ayatollah as “Mr”, not “Sayyid” — the title given to a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.
“I think Mr Sistani does not want to go into the details of the political process. He just wanted to be sure that the constitution, for example, was written by elected people,” he told The Times from his office in the Green Zone in Baghdad.
On the issue of Islam’s role in the future Iraqi constitution, he is even more opaque. “Even Americans wrote on the dollar ‘In God we trust’,” he said. “Does that mean that all Americans believe in God? No. It refers to the majority. We are going to explore with a very frank and open mind other constitutions, other countries.”
But many Iraqis have witnessed the rise of the long-oppressed Shia majority with alarm.
In the Shia-dominated south religious militias have waged a campaign of murder and intimidation against alcohol sellers — primarily Christians. They have have shut down cinemas and intimidated musicians and CD sellers.
Many fear that the religious parties within the Shia List will try to impose Sharia law with its draconian Islamic strictures on everything from criminal punishment and family law to inheritance and the rights of women Ayatollah al-Sistani’s views on these matters are unclear. He rarely gives interviews to journalists and most of his public remarks are released through his slick support team — a large, well-funded organisation with branches around the world.
But his website (Sistani.org) is revealing. Women are told that plastic surgery is permitted but that they must cover their bodies in public. Men must have beards. Alcohol, chess and music for entertainment are forbidden. In the Queries of the Day section one petitioner asks: “Can I send e-mails to women?” The question draws a stern reply: “No, it is haraam” (religiously prohibited).
So far Washington has concealed any concern. “I don’t think at this stage that there’s anything like justification for hand-wringing or concern on the part of Americans that somehow they’re going to produce a result we won’t like,” Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, said last week. “The Iraqis have watched the Iranians operate for years and create a religious theocracy that has been a dismal failure, from the standpoint of the rights of individuals.”
Certainly Ayatollah alSistani’s record is encouraging. For nearly two years he has avoided confrontation and acted as a brake on the insurgency that at times threatened to engulf the whole country. He has refused to let his followers retaliate against the atrocities committed on Shias by Sunni insurgents. He has banned them from attacking the US-led coalition that many of his more radical supporters regard as infidel occupiers.
In his public and private behaviour the ayatollah has also sought to distance himself from the mullahs of Iran who openly dominate political life and are rarely shy about speaking out.
He shuns the trappings of wealth and power, living ascetically and working out of an office down a dusty medieval alleyway in Najaf’s Old City. He always wears a black robe, sits on floor cushions and eats frugally.
Once, when sick, he is said to have refused fruit juice, deeming it inappropriate at a time when millions of his fellow Iraqis were living in poverty. When his air conditioner broke down he insisted that a new one bought for him be given to a poor family and the old one repaired. He does not even own the house in which he lives, but does appreciate the benefits of modern technology. He has a high-speed internet link in his office, used by his officials for research.
Adnan Pachachi, a former Iraqi Foreign Minister and Sunni elder statesman, said that he welcomed Shia assurances that the new Iraq would protect all its people, before adding doubtfully: “We will see how they are translated into fact.”
1929: born in Mashhad, Iran
1951: moved to Iraq to study under under Grand Ayatollah Abul-Qassim Khoei
1992: replaced Khoei as Grand Ayatollah when he died
1994: was imprisoned after the Gulf War and his mosque was shut down
On alcohol: “Drinking it is forbidden, but using perfume and medicine mixed with alcohol is permissible”
On talking to one’s fiancée: “If talking is free of provocative words and if there is no fear of falling in sin, there is no objection”
On attacks on Christian churches in Baghdad: “We stress the need to respect the rights of Christians and other religious minorities. Among these rights is their right to live in their country, Iraq, in peace and security”
On marriage to someone of another religion: “It is incumbent, as a measure of obligatory precaution, to avoid permanent marriage with a Christian or Jewish woman. As for temporary marriage, it is permissible and there is no objection to it”
On chess: “Chess is absolutely forbidden”
On music: “Music other than for diversion and play is allowed”
On plastic surgery: “It is permissible”
On Palestine: “The ongoing tragedy of the oppressed Palestinian people leaves all Muslims unable to enjoy any food or drink until they succeed in lifting the aggressors’ brutal hands from their brothers and sisters”
From Stephen Farrell in Baghdad and Richard Beeston February 12, 2005
Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd.