In the winding back streets of Najaf lives a man who with one utterance could make or break any candidate in tomorrow's Iraqi elections. Millions of loyal followers in Iraq, and Shiites across the world, look to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani as a marja, or reference, for guidance in every aspect of their lives. Frail and nearing 80, he rarely leaves his villa and never speaks to the press or in public, but Sistani remains arguably the most influential figure in Iraq.
His announcements and fatwas have dictated the shape of Iraq's democratic system since the 2003 invasion, and are closely followed by most of Iraq's 15 million Shiites, who make up about 60 per cent of the population. He has forced Iraq's American occupiers to abruptly change course and has forced Iraq's warring forces into finding compromises. However, he has steadfastly refused to give any backing to any candidate or party, despite many desperate attempts by Iraqi politicians to appear connected to him in any way. Instead, Ayatollah Sistani has served as something of a national conscience, urging Iraqis to cast their ballots, calling it their duty, saying that to not do so "will give others a chance to realise their illegitimate goals".
There are four marjas in Najaf, but Sistani is the most directly involved in politics. His edicts, however, tend to cover the wider process rather than the policy of any particular party. "Sayed Sistani has encouraged the political process and elections since the first day after regime change, but he also respects the views and will of the Iraqi people," said Sheikh Faed Noon, president of the Najaf provincial council.
All Shiites adopt a marja al taqlid, which translates to "object of emulation", a senior religious cleric whose rulings they follow. Grand Ayatollah Sistani has the largest following of any marja in Iraq or the world. The power of his words was demonstrated when he successfully negotiated an end to the bloody clashes between supporters of the militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army and US forces in Najaf in 2004.
However, to give an endorsement to one political party would mean the cleric "would be considered to belong to them, and would contradict his role as a marja for everyone", said Sheikh Noon. He said Ayatollah Sistani's political statements always have the concerns of the Iraqi people at heart. When calling on citizens to vote, the cleric said Iraqis should pick "the best and the most concerned with Iraq's interests at present and in the future".
It is discreet, indirect, political action bourne of the most significant ideological split among Shiites. Najaf scholars prefer the "quietist" view, that clerics should be removed from the day-to-day political scene, and rather work as observers, to keep responsible officials in check. This school of thought is in stark contrast to the theory of Waliyat al Faqih, or the guardianship of the jurisprudent, which has been the basis of the regime in neighbouring Iran.
"Those that follow Waliyat al Faqih believe that a marja can take a different role, a direct role in the nitty-gritty of politics," said Hojjat al Islam Mohammed Hussein, the son and spokesman for Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sayed Hakeem, another of Najaf's senior religious leaders. "For us that's not acceptable." Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was the primary proponent of Wilayat al Faqih, arguing that clerics must have a direct political role in the running of government.
The idea has divided the Shiite scholars of Najaf and Qom, the centre for Shia religion in Iran. Yet despite his more removed role, Ayatollah Sistani has made his voice heard during any disputes with US policy in Iraq, and without him the post-invasion political history of the country would look very different. In the summer of 2003, Paul Bremer was planning for the Iraqi Constitution to be penned by US appointees, but Ayatollah Sistani issued a fatwa saying only an elected body could write the constitution, and America bent to accommodate his views.
When in 2003 the US pushed for a political system based on regional caucuses, the cleric issued a statement saying elections would be the best way for a transitional government to be formed. Most recently, as parliament wrangled over the new election law, Ayatollah Sistani came out in favour of an open list system, where voters can cast their ballots for an individual rather than a closed party list, the system under which tomorrow's elections will be held.
The pictures of the wispy bearded, black turbaned ayatollah that adorn the streets of Najaf show the extent of the people's reverence. At Babil University, 30km north of Najaf, where all political posters are banned, a huge banner with Ayatollah Sistani's call to vote still takes up a prominent space on campus. "It's our duty to vote, Sayed Sistani's words will change the minds of any who doubt it," said Ibrahim Ali, a Shiite geography student. "If Sayed Sistani said a certain person was a good man, and good for Iraq, then I would certainly consider them. He's the most respected man in Iraq and we listen closely to his opinions." @Email:email@example.com