- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2004

MASHAD, Iran — The modest mud-brick hut where Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani was born is now a modern home with a doorbell and indoor garage. The narrow dirt alleyway where Iraq’s most important Shi’ite Muslim cleric took his first steps has become a busy commercial street with souvenir shops and cheap hotels catering to the pilgrims who descend on the holy tomb of Imam Reza nearby.

And although he adheres to the traditions of a bygone era, Ayatollah al-Sistani today the grand ayatollah in Najaf, Iraq, and the man who many say could make or break Washington’s plans for post-Saddam Hussein Iraq also has evolved with the times, adopting a modern outlook for his faith and his multinational, multimillion-dollar organization, say relatives and clerical colleagues in Iran and Iraq.

“It’s good for a cleric to know his religion, but if he doesn’t understand the world, he won’t get far,” says Fazel Maybodi, a liberal cleric based in the Iranian seminary city of Qom. “Sistani is familiar with the issues of the world.”

The ayatollah showed his central role in Iraq’s shaky political transition again yesterday. While lifting his objections to the signing of a new U.S.-backed interim constitution in Baghdad, the Shi’ite cleric cast a new cloud over the signing ceremony by warning bluntly that the document “will lack legitimacy” until it can be ratified by an elected national assembly.

The good-humored, grandfatherly ayatollah’s reservations greatly have complicated U.S. plans for a quick turnover of authority in Iraq to a transitional government.

After last week’s attacks on Iraqi holy sites that killed at least 180 pilgrims visiting tombs in Iraq, Ayatollah al-Sistani slammed the U.S.-led authority for failing to safeguard Iraq’s borders and to train security forces in a rare, direct public statement.

But clerics, relatives and Iraqi leaders who know the ayatollah say he adamantly opposes the kind of direct religious rule that prevails in his native Iran, where clergy exercise control over all aspects of social and political life.

“Not only will he not take part in politics, but he won’t allow the other Najaf clergy to take part in politics,” said Mohammad Ali Rahbani, a former student now based in Mashad.

Born into a famous clerical family, the 73-year-old ayatollah has devoted his life to theological study. After spending his early years in Mashad and Qom, he settled in Najaf 40 years ago. There he fell under the tutelage of Ayatollah Abul-Qasim Khoei, an advocate of the school of “quietist” Islam in which clerics are urged to refrain from political activity.

The approach was in stark contrast to the militant theology espoused by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who arrived in Najaf in the mid-1960s after he was exiled by the Shah of Iran.

The two ayatollahs became bitter rivals, especially after Ayatollah Khomeini began arguing for more active participation of the clergy in politics.

“Sistani would not take part in Khomeini’s lectures,” said Mr. Rahbani.

Indeed, after Ayatollah Khomeini masterminded the Iranian revolution in 1979, Iranian authorities confiscated Ayatollah Khoei’s properties in Mashad and chased his devotees into hiding. Ayatollah al-Sistani’s relatives, who mostly live in Mashad and the southeastern Iranian city of Zabol, said they continue to fear the authorities.

Ayatollah al-Sistani took over his teacher’s post and properties after Ayatollah Khoei’s death in 1992. Though his stature in Iran is superceded by other clerics including Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei his influence and financial support in other parts of the world appear to be growing.

“We have offices all over the world,” said Sadeq Dehsorkhi, the ayatollah’s representative in the nation of Georgia.

In December alone, his Qom representatives who also operate and finance several theological centers, libraries, a massive technology center and a hospital in the city sent Ayatollah al-Sistani $3.5 million in donations, Mr. Dehsorkhi said.

Ayatollah al-Sistani’s Najaf-based sons and Qom-based son-in-law conduct the day-to-day operations of the foundation’s properties, which include a successful Internet company that employs 66 workers.

Mr. Maybodi, an Islamic scholar in Qom, said Ayatollah al-Sistani firmly has rejected Ayatollah Khomeini’s approach.

“Khomeini’s ideas from the beginning were that the government should be in the hands of the top cleric,” he said. “He launched this theory in Najaf years ago. Sistani doesn’t have such a theory.”

Once, after reading an Ayatollah al-Sistani announcement that appeared to defy the quietist spirit espoused by Ayatollah Khoei, a Baghdad cleric and former representative of Ayatollah al-Sistani sent him a polite but firm letter reminding him of his past statements on religion and politics.

“He responded with a letter saying, in effect, he agreed,” said the former representative, now an advocate of a secular Iraq.

But although committed theologically to remaining aloof from political activity, Ayatollah al-Sistani voraciously devours news reports, and even modern Western novels, keeping up with contemporary political and social issues, his associates say.

“He reads newspapers, unlike other clerics,” Mr. Rahbani said.

Although far from his roots, Ayatollah al-Sistani remains sentimentally and culturally attached to Iran. Colleagues say he speaks Arabic with a noticeable Persian accent.

When his nephew, Mohammad-Taqi Mojtahedi al-Sistani, visited him three months ago in a narrow alleyway near the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, the nephew brought saffron, a spice cherished by Iranians and grown in the arid valleys near Mashad.

“He doesn’t like Iraqi food too much,” said the nephew, who sells machine-made rugs in the Mashad bazaar.

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