As the top spiritual leader in the Shiite Muslim world,Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has instructed his followers on what to eat and how to wash,how to marry and to bury their dead. As a temporal guide,he has championed Iraqi democracy,insisting on direct elections from the earliest days of the occupation,and warned against Iranian-style clerical rule.
However,the jockeying to succeed the 81-year-old has quietly begun,and Iran is positioning its own candidate for the post,a hard-line cleric who would give Tehran a direct line of influence over the Iraqi people,heightening fears that Irans long-term goal is to transplant its Islamic Revolution to Iraq.
The succession,a lengthy and opaque process,could shape the interplay of Islam and democracy not only in Iraq,where Shiites are the majority,but also across a Shiite Muslim world that stretches from India to Iran,Lebanon and beyond. The ayatollahs prescriptions for daily living are imbued with the force of law among the majority of the worlds 200 million or so Shiite followers.
For Iraq,the contest adds another element of uncertainty in a fledgling democracy whose politics are in upheaval as its three main factions the Shiites,Sunnis and Kurds contend for power.
Irans candidate,Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi,63,is an Iraqi-born cleric who led the Iranian judiciary for a decade and remains a top official in the government there. With Iranian financing,his representatives have for months been building a patronage network across Iraq,underwriting scholarships for students at the many seminaries here and distributing information.
The move has raised fears that Iran is trying to extend its already extensive influence in the political and economic life of Iraq. A recent visit by Iraqs prime minister,Nuri Kamal al-Maliki,to Tehran,where he met with Ayatollah Shahroudi,raised tensions further.