The Struggle to Succeed Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani

A Letter From Najaf

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is rarely seen. The most revered spiritual leader for the world's 170 million Shiite Muslims, he hardly ever speaks in public. Some 90 miles south of Baghdad, in Najaf, the seat of Shiite religious power, people say that in the last few years the 82-year-old Sistani has grown frail and relies increasingly on one of his sons to carry out his duties. "He's a weak old man; soon he might have to go to London for more treatment," a local student of religious politics says. (Like most who were interviewed for this report, the student wished to remain anonymous.)

As Sistani ages, a struggle to succeed him has begun, putting the spiritual leadership of one of the world's foremost faiths in play. But with neighboring Iran moving to install its preferred candidate in the position, the secular political foundations of Iraq's fledgling democracy are at risk. Consequently, what amounts to a spiritual showdown could pose a challenge to Washington's hope for postwar Iraq to serve as a Western-allied, moderate, secular state in the heart of the Middle East. 

Shia doctrine requires that an incumbent die before jockeying can begin in a succession process that is as opaque as it is informal. But Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the 64-year-old cleric who is widely seen as Tehran's preferred choice, has jumped the gun by sending an advance party to open an office in Najaf. This cohort works from a dust-coated building, painted in banded tones of white and salmon, just a couple of blocks from Sistani's office and home. On a recent visit, a scattering of shoes and sandals at the entrance suggested a gathering within, but a man who came to the door makes it clear: "We apologize, but we can't meet any journalists."

Without so much as setting foot in Najaf, Shahroudi is rolling out a sophisticated and expensive campaign -- reputedly bankrolled by Tehran. Key to Shahroudi's strategy has been luring Sistani and his followers into a costly bidding war for clerical loyalty. Clerics and seminarians are being offered an assortment of stipends, housing, and health services in the hope that they can be swayed.

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