The New York Times reports: 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.
Frail at 81, he still greets visitors each morning at his home on a narrow and sooty side street here, only steps from the glimmering gold dome of the Imam Ali Shrine. But the jockeying to succeed him 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 Iran’s long-term goal is to transplant its Islamic Revolution to Iraq.
The succession, a lengthy and opaque process in which the outcome is by no means assured, 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 ayatollah’s prescriptions for daily living are imbued with the force of law among the majority of the world’s 200 million or so Shiites who follow him, his religious teachings are sacrosanct and his political sway is powerful.
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, a contest that analysts worry could help tilt the country back toward authoritarianism.
“Iraq does not need this now,” said Hussein Mohammad al-Eloum, a cleric from a prominent religious and political family; the ambassador to Kuwait and a former oil minister are his sons. “Sistani, may God protect him.”
Iran’s 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.
“He’s there to prepare himself for after Sistani,” said Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who spent 14 years studying at seminaries in Qum, an Iranian holy city.
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 Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, to Tehran, where he met with Ayatollah Shahroudi, raised tensions further. Reidar Visser, a historian, wrote in his Iraqi politics blog that Mr. Maliki’s visit “did nothing to kill the rumors about some kind of Iranian design on the holiest center of Iraqi Shiism.”