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Iraq’s Shadow Ruler

18 minute read
Johanna Mcgeary/Baghdad

The very name Sistani is shrouded in mystery. Few Westerners have ever met the most powerful man in Iraq. If they did, they would encounter a thin, bearded figure with little interest in the trappings of office. Grand Ayatullah Ali Husaini Sistani, the revered leader of the nation’s 15 million Shi’ites, receives visitors, powerful and meek alike, in a plain, bare room in his modest home down a dusty alley in the holy city of Najaf. He sits on the floor with his back to the wall, dressed always in the same simple robe and turban. (An intimate says he hasn’t refreshed his wardrobe in 10 years.) He is modest and respectful, and listens more than he talks. But his charisma is striking. His eyes “look into your psyche,” says Mohammed Kamil al-Rudaie, a university professor in Baghdad who has met him often. “He has a kind of ESP for understanding people and tailoring his answer to suit the person in front of him.”

And when Sistani speaks, Iraqis obey. At 74, the Shi’ite spiritual leader is widely acknowledged as the conscience of the nation, armed with a unique moral authority to arbitrate Iraq’s future. Though he was quiet during the long, hard years of Shi’ite repression under Saddam Hussein, Sistani has emerged since the dictator’s fall as the country’s pivotal political figure. Iraq’s Kurds and Sunnis, as well as Shi’ites, pay heed to his views. His reach extends as far as Washington, where he has repeatedly forced the Bush Administration to yield to his demands and issued decrees that have altered U.S. plans for postwar Iraq. The reclusive ayatullah inserts himself into the political fray whenever he feels it is necessary. Just last week he issued a statement encouraging all Iraqis to participate in the election scheduled for January, and he called on the Iraqi government to start registering voters. The powers that be in Iraq ignore him at their peril.

Sistani proved his authority in August, when Najaf had sunk into chaos. As the fighting began, he abruptly quit the city to seek medical treatment abroad. The rumors started: Sistani was dying; Sistani was afraid; Sistani was losing influence to Muqtada al-Sadr, the brash young cleric whose militiamen were battling U.S. troops to a standstill. But on Aug. 26, as the Americans were on the verge of assaulting one of Iraq’s most sacred Shi’ite shrines, Sistani showed he was still the Man. Straight from medical treatment for a heart condition in London, he was driven into Najaf at the head of thousands of unarmed loyalists who had answered his call to march on the city. Within hours, he had brought an end to postwar Iraq’s bloodiest battle. Even the cocksure al-Sadr bowed his head when he came to sit on a threadbare carpet across from Sistani and acceded to the cleric’s commands.

In some Western minds, an elderly white-bearded figure in a black turban who is adored by the masses evokes the dark image of another Shi’ite mullah: Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, who turned Iran into a stern, inimical Islamic theocracy. Sistani is of a different breed. He has insisted on rapid elections to choose a government reflecting “the will of the people” and forswears any executive role for himself or fellow clerics. But Sistani is equally determined that after 300 years of domination by Iraq’s minority Sunnis, the time has come for Shi’ites to take the reins of power. If he has opposed al-Sadr and others who seek control through violence, Sistani has been just as rigorous in refusing to align himself with the U.S.

That may give many Americans pause as they contemplate the U.S. investment in the embattled country’s future. But Sistani’s moral stature and unyielding push for a new democratic order have made him America’s best hope for preventing Iraq from spinning into anarchy. His intervention in Najaf paved the way for the deal cut last week, by which al-Sadr agreed to disarm his militia and enter the political arena. Here’s the story of how Sistani became the country’s supreme power and what he envisions for Iraq:


In the Shi’ite universe, the first requisite for leadership is erudition, measured by a lifetime’s knowledge of Islamic principles and law. Sistani’s learning is universally recognized. According to his official biography, the child born into a pious, scholarly family in rugged northeastern Iran began learning the Koran at age 5. He absorbed the conservative traditions of the Islamic seminaries in Qum, where he arrived as a 19-year-old prodigy. Three years later, he left to study in the Iraqi city of Najaf, the prestigious 1,000-year-old home to some of Shi’ism’s most prominent teachers of jurisprudence; he has lived there ever since. Najaf’s schools were filled with as many Persians as Arabs. Sistani never lost his thick native accent and remains an Iranian citizen, which has made him a target of Arab rivals like al-Sadr who disparage his ethnicity.

Sistani excelled in Najaf and soon became a disciple of Grand Ayatullah Abul Qassim al-Khoei. At the unusually young age of 31, Sistani reached the senior level of accomplishment called ijtihad, which entitled him to pass his own judgments on religious questions. Sistani kept his distance from Khomeini, who was then in exile in Najaf and already honing his militant philosophy of temporal clerical rule. Al-Khoei, Sistani’s mentor, preached the “quietist” approach, in which religious leaders address matters of spirituality and behavior but stay out of politics. Sistani embraced that philosophy.

For 50 years, Sistani has devoted his waking hours to solitary prayer, reading and teaching. He has acquired legions of students, attracted by his charisma, sound logic, prodigious research and quick wit. On social issues Sistani has always been an Islamic conservative. But unlike many fellow clerics, he possesses a keen appetite for subjects ranging far beyond theology–modern science, history, political philosophy, biography, comparative religions, current events–and employs an unusual freedom of expression in reinterpreting religious questions. “He merges Islamic principles and modern life,” says al-Rudaie, the Baghdad professor. “His rules are not frozen in time.” Groomed by al-Khoei for supreme religious authority, Sistani took on the mantle of marja, or object of emulation, the highest rank among Shi’ite clerics, soon after al-Khoei’s death in 1992.

Sistani proved himself an assertive competitor among the jostling senior ayatullahs, including Muqtada al-Sadr’s influential father, who was assassinated by Saddam in 1999. Perhaps even more important, Sistani inherited the treasure chest of religious tithes and pilgrim’s donations that al-Khoei had amassed, a fortune soon augmented by his own popularity. That enabled Sistani to fund a vast and flourishing network of agents and allies. From his shabby Najaf office, he runs a formidable array of schools, libraries, hospitals, charities and even technology centers spread across Iraq and Iran, as well as outreach offices from the Middle East to Western Europe.

Though the marja is akin to a Roman Catholic Pope in religious authority, no college of mullahs elects him. Every one of the faithful chooses a cleric as his spiritual guide, whose rulings he will follow. Clerics rise to the top on the basis of their popular following as well as the esteem of their colleagues. In a country given to flash and corruption, Sistani has earned widespread admiration for his ascetic lifestyle and upright reputation. For decades, he has lived out of public view with his wife, two sons and several daughters. They inhabit a humble rented house a few hundred yards from the golden-domed shrine of Imam Ali, the Shi’ites’ most venerated martyr. His meals are the frugal fare of the poor: tea, bread, yogurt, a bit of cheese, vegetables. As a result of the meager diet, he suffers on and off from anemia as well as the blocked arteries treated in London. Tall but never robust, he now looks frail and old.

Sistani’s invisibility is in part cultivated, some aides and rivals say, to enhance the aura of mystery that contributes to his appeal. Says Sheik Haitham Nasrawi, a representative of al-Sadr’s father: “When he sits behind closed doors, he is seen as a man who makes no mistakes.” But during Saddam’s reign of terror, Sistani’s seclusion turned into house arrest imposed by the regime. He endured it as a “religious duty to defend the Shi’ites’ sacred center,” says Tawfiq al-Yassery, a secular Shi’ite politician with close ties to the ayatullah. After Saddam fell, Sistani faced new threats from al-Sadr’s militia, and now armed guards tightly control access to his house. He is still most comfortable operating behind closed doors; he hasn’t conducted Friday prayers for years and even discourages the dissemination of posters bearing his image. He has refused to meet with U.S. officials and says he will not talk to any Westerners as long as their armies occupy Iraq. The Americans complain that Sistani’s reclusiveness has muddied lines of communication, as officials struggle to interpret his views secondhand.

For all his seclusion, Sistani is worldly wise about Iraq’s current realities. “He has his hands on the pulse of the nation,” says Hussein Shahristani, a former nuclear scientist who returned from exile to advise Sistani. “It’s at his fingertips.” Sistani sees a steady stream of aides and agents based around the country as well as Iraqi leaders eager to court and consult him. Sheik Jameel al-Qurayshi, who represents Sistani in Baghdad’s restive Sadr City district, visits the ayatullah at least once a week to discuss the fine points of Islamic practice and get political advice for handling his neighborhood. Sistani’s declarations are succinct and to the point. “He makes no decision until he is totally clear he has come to the right conclusion,” says Shahristani. “He says exactly what he means, and he sticks to it”–something the Bush Administration learned the hard way. “I’m very glad Washington conceded on early elections, or we’d have been in trouble,” says a Western diplomat in Baghdad. Sistani “has a few gut core beliefs, and he doesn’t change them.”

But Sistani tends to express principles that leave the details open to interpretation. He communicates them before and after sunset prayers, when he addresses his followers’ 1,001 questions on proper religious observance, social behavior and personal conduct. He engages in a busy written dialogue with his followers by letter and via the Internet. Not long ago, Rifat al-Amin, a university student in Baghdad, wrote the ayatullah to ask whether protests by his followers should take place in narrow streets where they would block traffic. The marja replied that demonstrations should take place in wide squares instead. Al-Amin also asked if Sistani accepted “what was going on” in Iraq. He received back a simple no.


Sistani’s personal history would be interesting but unimportant if the U.S. had not invaded Iraq. The fall of Saddam left the country in chaos, with a power vacuum at the top. The Shi’ite masses naturally looked to Sistani for direction, says Shahristani, and the ayatullah felt compelled by religious duty to step in. “He believes at a crisis time like this, the marja must guide the people,” says al-Qurayshi. So the cleric who had shied away from politics all his life began to issue fatwas of profound political importance.

Sistani quickly emerged as a voice of restraint, urging Iraqis to be patient and eschew violence. He told Shi’ites to neither help nor hinder the U.S. invaders, although he made his opposition to foreign occupation clear by counseling citizens to ask Americans, “When are you leaving Iraq?” He advised people against revenge killings of Baathists. Iraqi and U.S. officials agree that his calming influence was critical in tamping down Shi’ite resistance. “That was the only reason there was no bloodbath in those early days,” says a secular Iraqi politician. When the orgy of looting after Saddam’s departure ran unchecked, Sistani stood up to label it immoral and wrong. Overnight, thieves were piling up stolen air conditioners, computers, art and relics at the doors of Shi’ite mosques.

At the same time, Sistani has forced the U.S. to abandon many of its designs for Iraq’s future. When Washington laid out a lengthy timetable for returning Iraq to self-rule, Sistani’s objections forced the Bush Administration to deliver a swift handover instead. He has been uncompromising in his call for prompt elections and in his determination that Iraqis write their own constitution. When the U.S. proposed a complex caucus system for voting, Sistani responded by putting 100,000 peaceful demonstrators into the streets to support his call for national one-man, one-vote elections by January 2005. With a word, he temporarily blocked the signing of the U.S.-designed interim constitution last spring because it gave too much power to minority Kurds and too little to Islamic law. When the elected assembly drafts a permanent constitution next year, he will insist it maintains Shi’ite dominance as well as strong national unity.

The critical issue, of course, is how Islamic Sistani wants Iraq to be. He has made it clear that foreign powers cannot be allowed to dictate the country’s form of government, nor does he want to replicate a Western model. He has said Islamic law should govern family and personal matters. “His vision of the good state,” says a Western diplomat in Baghdad, “is not where my wife and daughter would want to live.” But Sistani’s aides say he considers the Khomeini and Taliban experiments in theocracy failures–too extreme and rigid for modern society, especially one as demographically diverse as Iraq. And he opposes al-Sadr in large measure because the upstart is pushing to make Iraq a carbon copy of Iran, with al-Sadr at the helm.

Sistani aides like al-Qurayshi describe the cleric’s vision as a “democratic Islamic state,” a parliamentary system whose laws comport with Muslim principles. He would allow de facto separation of church and state, leaving the daily business of government to politicians and technocrats–under the umbrella of religious values. He sees his role, says a secular politician, “as the country’s guardian wise man.” So when Iraq’s elected parliament takes up issues related to religion, says University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, an expert on modern Middle Eastern history, “he’ll issue a ruling and expect the Shi’ite members to obey.” Since a large minority in Iraq does not share the Shi’ite faith, Sistani recognizes his sect’s brand of Shari’a cannot be imposed on the country. Iraq’s system, he often says, is “up to the will of the people.” But once Shi’ites attain majority power, his aides acknowledge, Sistani hopes they will democratically vote in Islamic laws.

Despite Washington’s unspoken dependence on Sistani to keep disaffected Shi’ites in check, U.S. officials read dark omens in his increasing activism. They don’t want to set a precedent in which the grand ayatullah always has the final say. And the specter of Khomeini deeply colors the Bush Administration’s view. Officials are wary that Sistani’s long-term interests are not aligned with the U.S.’s. Some fear that he wants to become the political puppetmaster, running a religious regime behind the veil of a titular secular leader. Others distrust his Iranian background and connections and are worried that he would take instructions from the mullahs next door. Sistani and his supporters may not want a strict Islamic republic, but if they win, says Kenneth Katzman at Washington’s Congressional Research Service, “they’re going to have very, very close ties to Tehran.” But Iranian authorities say Sistani has well-established financial and philosophical independence from Tehran.

Those who know Sistani say fears of outside influence are misplaced. They describe a devout but independent cleric whose religious calling requires him to rise above both the intrigues of day-to-day politics and the pursuit of personal political power. “The Islamic view,” says Dhafer al-Qaisey, a Sistani representative in southern Baghdad, “is that a religious leader must take responsibility to say what is right and what is not. Then it is up to you whether to follow that advice.” Despite the stream of politicos knocking on his door to seek his blessing, Sistani has said he will not anoint any person or party. He even refuses to allow visitors to be photographed with him, for fear they might turn pictures into propaganda.

His overriding motive, intimates say, is to seize this moment in history to ensure that Shi’ite hopes are not dashed yet again. For centuries, the sect has ended up on the wrong side of power, and Sistani wants to make sure it comes out on top this time. He has been adamant about elections because he believes Shi’ites can get what they want at the ballot box, and the rest of the world will have to accept it. Some Sistani aides say there is an implicit warning in that: if Shi’ite expectations of electoral victory are thwarted, Sistani could call his followers to rebel. “He does not think of jihad now,” says Ali al-Mousawi al-Waath, Sistani’s agent in the Baghdad shrine district of Khadimiya, “but that depends on what the Americans do.” Iraq’s Shi’ites, he says, “follow our marja. If he tells us to die, we die.”

No one thinks Sistani is close to giving such an order. He is too “humane,” says Shahristani. When al-Sadr’s soldiers disobeyed Sistani’s directive not to spill blood in Najaf, Sistani “wept for hours” over the young Iraqi lives that were lost, says an intimate. A diplomat in Baghdad regards Sistani as a “cautious man who doesn’t go out on a limb.” Sistani’s men say he has repeatedly doused al-Sadr’s uprisings because he fears violence will only cost the Shi’ites their legitimate claim to power.

But his aides say he is growing increasingly worried that the U.S. is manipulating the electoral process to limit Shi’ite influence. White House and State Department officials are concerned that in a completely open election, Shi’ites might emerge with an enormous majority that would dangerously shunt Sunnis and Kurds aside. The National Security Council’s Iraq point man, Robert Blackwill, came up with the idea of uniting members of the former and current interim governments, made up largely of exiles chosen for their ethnic balance and pro-American attitudes, into a single slate. That would give Washington’s favored candidates, who have well-organized political operations but are not individually popular, a way to stay in power. Blackwill, says a well-placed U.S. official, “created the idea to counter Sistani’s power.” Blackwill’s office claims that while he was developing the plan, some Iraqis hit on the same idea “independently.” But the ayatullah has indicated he disapproves of the unified slate. “He’s afraid the way the voting is being set up, the Shi’ites might be cheated out of their majority,” says Michigan’s Cole. The system has also encouraged the curious alliance of the religious al-Sadr and the secular Ahmad Chalabi, former U.S. favorite, who see in each other a way to trump Sistani’s power. The ayatullah is agitating for changes that would give Islamic parties aligned with him a higher profile. While the cleric has not tried to negotiate the specifics, observers say that is as far into the grit of politics as he has ventured. He has to show Shi’ites that the election can benefit them, says Katzman. If it doesn’t, he risks a damaging loss of legitimacy among ordinary Shi’ites that demagogues like al-Sadr will try to exploit.

The last thing Washington wants is to help someone like al-Sadr rise to power. “Sistani’s the most moderate ayatullah in sight,” says a Western diplomat in Baghdad, “and the U.S. needs to see eye to eye with him on basic political steps.” That means the Bush Administration may have to accept that the version of democracy it went to war to create in Iraq may not be the one it gets. To achieve a stable, free Iraq, there’s no going around the power–and preferences–of Grand Ayatullah Sistani. –With reporting by the Iraqi staff of TIME/Najaf, Massimo Calabresi/ Washington and Nahid Siamdoust/ Tehran

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