An extremely discreet and reclusive man, rarely seen in public, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, born in Iran’s holy city of Mashhad, is the primus inter pares of four great marjas who lead the roughly 150 million Shi’ites spread around the world – including Iraq, Iran, India, Pakistan, the Saudi peninsula and Europe – through the Hawza, the so-called “Shi’ite Vatican” in Najaf, Iraq. A great marja – deemed to be infallible – is the equivalent to a pope: a “source of imitation” – not only as an interpreter of sacred words, but because of his intelligence and his knowledge, ranging from philosophy to the exact sciences.

Sistani rarely travels and spends most of his time reading, studying and receiving endless religious delegations in his small, Spartan study in central Najaf. His organization controls millions of dollars in donations, but the marja himself lives like an ascetic. He controls no army. He leads no political party and he harbors no political ambitions. Unlike other spiritual leaders, he never gives major speeches. He never holds press conferences and he never meets journalists – as Asia Times Online has found out in Najaf on many occasions. But any serious observer knows that all it takes is one word from Sistani for the Shi’ites to embark on a jihad against the Americans and forever bury the United States Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz-concocted scenario of a new era of American supremacy in the Middle East.

Like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – the now-deceased leader of the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979 – Sistani spent many years studying in Qom, as crucial in Iran as a holy city as Najaf is in Iraq. The Sistani seminary in Qom is still one of the most important in the Shi’ite world. According to insiders in Najaf, when Sistani speaks in Arabic, he still retains “a vague Persian accent.” Khomeini spent 13 years exiled in Najaf and held a status similar to that of Sistani. But Khomeini never became a marja – because no living marja at the time appointed him as such. Another striking difference is that Khomeini was heavily supportive of Velayat-e-Faqih – or the primacy of religion over everything, including politics. Sistani flavors total separation between mosque and state – because he fears politics may pollute spiritual matters.

This leads to the crucial point: Sistani is not in favor of an Islamic republic in Iraq, a development that although an anathema in Washington, at the same time would immensely please the ayatollahs in Tehran. What Sistani wants is an Iraqi constitution written with no foreign interference, with no articles contrary to Islam. And he wants a secular government, but composed of good Muslims who respect Islamic principles. French expert on Shi’ism, Pierre-Jean Luizard, explains that Sistani essentially wants religion to be protected from politics. But in an occupied Iraq subjected to such extreme volatility, he cannot but express a political position – because his is the supreme word.

It may be pure malice to juxtapose a sayyed (descendant of Prophet Mohammed) like Sistani with a blunt, unsophisticated, alleged former counter-terrorism expert like L Paul Bremer, the US administrator in Iraq. But whatever the marja says in his small Najaf studio invariably drives the proconsul – working in a luxurious Baghdad palace formerly occupied by Saddam Hussein – crazy. Sistani’s fatwas (religious edicts) are implacable: short and straight to the point. The marja has qualified the American “democratization” plans that Bremer seeks to impose as “not democratic enough,” or worse still, “fundamentally unacceptable.”

Sistani had no reason to support Saddam – who for three decades systematically persecuted and killed Iraqi Shi’ites. During the war in 2003, Washington interpreted Sistani’s call for the Shi’ites not to oppose the American army as an endorsement. But since April 9, 2003 another story has emerged: what most of Iraq’s 15 million Shi’ites see is the military occupation of holy Islamic lands by an army of infidels. Sistani’s fatwas are the succinct expression of their outrage.

Sistani may have been crucial in forcing the Americans to get United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan back in the game. However, Annan did not react as the marja expected. Annan started by basically repeating the usual American excuses: there had been no census in Iraq in the past 45 years and all electoral lists disappeared during the war. Sistani stood his way, and Annan was forced to send in an UN exploratory mission to Baghdad. But Annan’s priority remains the end of the occupation – and organizing “free, just and credible” elections only when security allows.

Last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Iranian President Mohammed Khatami expressed what hundreds of millions of Muslims are feeling all over the world: “The American administration invaded Afghanistan to find [Osama] bin Laden, where is bin Laden? The Americans occupied Iraq under the pretext of installing democracy and finding weapons of mass destruction. Where are these weapons and where is democracy?” Khatami also revealed how Iran is closely monitoring the confrontation between the proconsul and the marja: “Ayatollah Sistani demanded direct democracy, and the Americans refuse it. That’s what we have always proposed, one man, one vote.” Also in Davos, John Ruggie, professor of international affairs at Harvard and an adviser to Annan, has been far from enthusiastic: “The Bush administration has not changed. The Americans’ attitude does not incite anybody to cooperate with them.”

One of Sistani’s sons has already recognized that “the marja cannot resist the anti-American popular pressure forever.” Ali Hakim al-Safi, one of Sistani’s spokesmen in southern Iraq, clarified that “we don’t want any violence. But if there is obstruction, the people will take its responsibilities.” Asia Times Online has had credible information since late 2003 that Shi’ites of all factions are building a “secret army” to engage the Americans in case their democratic aspirations are not met.

Even with all its military might, the US has never looked so fragile and discredited in Iraq. An occupying power which refuses democratic elections using all manners of excuses is being judged by the Islamic world – and the international community – for what it is: a neo-colonial power. It has now been proved there were never any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – much less the means to deliver them. It is now being proved the invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with introducing democracy to the Middle East.

The UN mission – “driving under the [Washington] influence” – may estimate that direct elections are impossible before the American-imposed deadline of July 1. US President George W. Bush will then be left with two extremely unsavory options. The caucuses will proceed in Iraq’s 18 provinces, and 15 million Shi’ites will smash – by any means necessary – the legitimacy of any government that might emerge. Or the Americans may hold direct elections – and in this case Sunnis, not only in the Sunni triangle – will upgrade their already ferocious guerrilla war to code red, because they will never accept losing power to Shi’ites. Jihad or civil war: these are the options ahead.

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