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.

A Najafi by birth, Shahroudi has lived much of his adult life in Iran. Under the patronage of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he rose to the top tiers of Iran's religious and political establishment. And in recent months Shahroudi has had several meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, most recently in Tehran in April. According to sources close to the religious and political leadership in Baghdad, Shahroudi has already informed some key Iraqi officials that he is positioning himself to take the spiritual helm of Shia Islam.

"Without Khamenei's support, he could not dream of doing this," a diplomat from the region who is based in Baghdad, and who spoke on condition of anonymity, says. Because of Shahroudi's stature in Iran, the diplomat says, he will always be seen as Tehran's candidate: "It is [Iranian] money and authority that'll make him Grand Ayatollah."

Shahroudi's challenge sets in conflict two opposing views of politics in Shiism. Iraqi Shiites have long held to the so-called quietist school of thought, a doctrine known more expansively as irshad wa tawjeeh, which translates as "guidance and direction" and is rooted in a sixteenth-century deal with the Persian monarchy by which the clerics of the day opted to remain above the political fray. Sistani's interventions in the early days of the U.S. occupation of Iraq were arguably a glaring exception to quietest thinking, but the ayatollah's singular objective at the time was to bend the will of the Americans in shaping a political process from which he and the clergy would ultimately step back. Now, Iraqis have had nearly a decade to judge contemporary application of Najaf's quietist theory.

In Iran, however, the 1979 revolution gave holy men full control of the political process. Although more than three messy decades of Islamic rule have stripped the varnish from wilayat al-faqih, "guardianship of the Islamic jurists," the revolutionary Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's constitutionally enshrined theory that God's authority is vested in the supreme leader and senior religious scholars, Tehran continues to insist that politics be guided by faith.

So in Baghdad today, this Iranian-backed intervention by Shahroudi appears to be a bid by Tehran to walk Iraq away from the pure mechanics of non-clerical democracy. "If we have a grand ayatollah who is against democracy, we have a problem," Sami al-Askari, one of Maliki's advisers, says. "We can't have someone who supports wilayat al-faqih. We want a moderate who will support the diversity of our nation." But even if he wanted to, it is unclear how much Maliki could do to halt the Iranian push in Najaf.

People who have met Shahroudi describe him more as a high-energy chief executive than the dour ayatollah that might be expected of a man in black. "Intelligent, pleasant, looks you in the eye; well-dressed, elegant, soft-spoken ... takes good care of his beard," a self-described friend of his says in private conversation. "He is loyal to his boss, non-confrontational, and serves his superior well."

Shahroudi's rise among Tehran's elite ranks stems from his loyalty to the ruling clergy in Iran. In 1989, Khomeini died without a successor, and greatness was thrust upon Shahroudi when Ali Khamenei emerged as the unlikely contender to replace the father of the revolution. The Iranian constitution requires that the leader be a marja, or senior ayatollah, but Khamenei had not studied sufficiently to earn the necessary qualification. "Shahroudi was given the task of teaching Khamenei to make him into a grand ayatollah. He worked hard for one year before declaring Khamenei to be qualified," Maliki's adviser Askari says, describing a scholarly venture that ordinarily takes a decade or more. "And for this service Shahroudi was awarded an appointment as head of the Iranian judicial system."

As an Iraqi abroad, Shahroudi carved a remarkable and, by some accounts, heavy-handed arc through the Iranian labyrinth. Cited in some quarters as a doctrinaire believer in Khomeini's wilayat al-faqih, Shahroudi was willing to crack down on the regime's opponents -- reportedly challenging opposition members of parliament, punishing students, and shuttering as many as 200 newspapers in 1999. Some reports suggest otherwise. The Washington Post notes an order that he issued in 2002, which was interpreted as an attempt to impose a moratorium on stoning as a punishment. And in the wake of the disputed presidential elections in 2009, reports surfaced that Shahroudi ordered a judicial investigation into complaints that political prisoners were being abused.

One Arab diplomat argues that on the Shia political spectrum, Shahroudi cuts a figure closer to that of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, the revered Iraqi scholar and the uncle and father-in-law of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The older Sadr, who grew close to Khomeini during the latter's exile in Najaf in the 1970s, argued that if the political process were geared toward changing the people, they in turn would change the national leadership. Khomeini insisted on the reverse -- change the ruler and he would change the people.

But were he to try, Shahroudi would have a hard time distancing himself from Tehran. He is a member of the powerful 12-man Guardian Council, selected by Khamenei to interpret the Iranian constitution and, among other things, vet all candidates for public office. Last year, the supreme leader again revealed his confidence in Shahroudi, naming him to head a team that mediates disputes between the president and the parliament. 

What makes the Shahroudi challenge serious is the absence of a standout local candidate in Najaf. Together with Sistani, three other grand ayatollahs comprise the Hawza, a leadership collective in which Sistani is first among equals. Two of the three are unlikely succession nominees because they were born beyond the Shia heartlands. Mohammad Ishaq Fayyad, 82, is Afghan and Bashir Hussein al-Najafi, 70, is Pakistani. That leaves Mohammed Said al-Hakim, a 76-year-old Najaf native, as the only contender of any prominence, and he doesn't size up.

"Go to Najaf," the Maliki adviser Askari advised. "And the establishment will throw out names, but there is no clear successor." The establishment does exactly that. As Fadhil al-Milani, one of Najaf's more junior ayatollahs who is these days is based in London, says of the three who sit by Sistani: "We have prominent [ayatollahs] in Najaf who [would continue the Sistani] tradition -- to compare others to them is unacceptable."

As many as 100 junior ayatollahs will have a role in selecting the next spiritual leader. Loosely the equivalent of the Christian rank of bishops, they command a following among the faithful that translates into lobbying power. Despite efforts by the religious establishment to dress up the succession as a contemplative, spiritual selection during which the possible nominees bide their time, waiting passively to be informed of an outcome, in fact it will edge toward the grubbiness of civilian politicking.

"Money talks loudly, because if a potential successor doesn't have money to distribute and to pay salaries for some thousands of clergy around the Shia world, he'll not be the successor," a practiced observer of the process warns. "Who knows if [any of the Najaf contenders] has the right kind of money, but we know that Shahroudi does -- he has the cash, the PR, and the support of Iran. If I were Shahroudi, I'd give all the clergy and students a regular salary -- he's doing that. I'd bring all the Arabic-speaking clergy from Qom and Tehran to teach at Najaf -- he's done that."

And any effort to have Baghdad block Shahroudi's candidacy will be further constrained by the remarkable 2010 deal that kept Maliki in power despite his not winning a conclusive majority in the parliamentary elections. The kingmaker in that arrangement was Sadr, a radical Shiite who leans toward Iran. According to senior officials in Baghdad, Shahroudi is now grooming Sadr to become an ayatollah, a role that made him a key figure in bringing the young cleric to the table. 

Since the 2003 invasion, the United States and its coalition allies have invested almost 5,000 soldiers' lives, hundreds of billions of dollars, and a fair slice of international prestige in order to shape Iraq as a bulwark against neighboring Tehran's rigid religious rule and ambition for power in the region. 

For all the movement, these are still the early days of Shahroudi's rise, so his succession gambit's impact on day-to-day politics in Iraq remains to be seen. But as an agent of influence for Tehran in Najaf, were his campaign to succeed, he would be a powerful advocate for clerical intervention. And any shift toward an Iranian-style theocracy would leave Washington facing yet another "How did that happen?" moment in Iraq.

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