But don't expect an Iran-style government dominated by mullahs-turned-politicians. The reclusive 74-year-old Sistani comes from the Quietist school of Shiite scholars, who think it's a mistake for clerics to run the affairs of state -- a view reinforced by the shortcomings of the regime next door in Iran. But the degree to which religion will govern future Iraqi society is still far from decided. Even if the clerics stay out of politics, Iraq may be on the way to a system where religion and religious laws play a bigger role than U.S. policymakers anticipate, possibly thwarting cherished American goals such as broadening women's rights and creating a freewheeling capitalist economy. "The main goal in political Islam hasn't been clerical rule. It has been the replacement of civil law with Shariah, or Islamic canon law. And that is where Iraq is headed," says Juan Cole, professor of modern Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan. "The only question is how wide-ranging the substitution will be."
If the Shiite parties allied with Sistani get their way, it's a good bet that religious authorities will gain greater influence. Most specialists think the shift, which is already occurring, will be limited to family and social matters such as marriage, inheritance, and possibly education. It seems unlikely that one community will impose their system on another. Instead, Shiite and Sunni Muslims and Christians may wind up with their own religious family courts.
What's unclear is whether religious influence will spill over into commerce. That would mean measures such as bans on banks charging interest and pressure on those participating in activities considered immoral, such as gambling and the sale of alcohol. The Shiite politicians may want broader strictures on the economy to achieve social justice. Cole thinks they might look askance at the free trading of currencies and the transfer of money out of the country. There's even a text laying out a Shiite view of economics. Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, the founder of Iraq's political Shiite movement who was executed in 1980, wrote a well-known book named Our Economy, which called for regulating the economy by the "moral and ethical values of Islam." Such policy directions, however, will depend on who becomes Prime Minister. One of the leading candidates, current Finance Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, is a free marketer favored by U.S. officials despite his affiliation with a religious party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Other figures may turn out to be skeptical of unfettered capitalism.REVERBERATIONS IN IRAN?
Among Iraqis, the debate on Islam's role is gathering steam. Since the election, some have released statements pushing for Shariah law to be the sole basis of Iraq's future constitution and legislation. But on Feb. 8, a Sistani spokesman tried to allay fears by saying that the Ayatollah merely wanted the constitution "to respect the Islamic cultural identity of the Iraqi people." Ghanim Jawad, an official of the Al-Khoei Foundation, a Shiite institution in London, says the Najaf clerical establishment just wants Islam mentioned in the constitution. "That doesn't mean the only source for legislation is Islam," he says. Any greater emphasis on Islam will make many Iraqis uneasy. The Kurds, likely to constitute the second-largest bloc in the Assembly, will resist the application of Islamic law in their area.
Should the U.S. be worried about these developments? "We should watch it," says Phebe Marr, an Iraq scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. "I think the red line would be clerical domination of the state." But she adds that social issues -- from the trivial, such as banning alcoholic beverages, to the important, such as limiting women's rights -- are matters for Iraqis to decide. "We said we wanted democracy there," she says. "This is what happens."
A Shiite-led Iraq could be a wild card in a region whose hidebound regimes, mostly led by Sunni strongmen and monarchs, are under pressure from without and within. Such a change might add to the restiveness of downtrodden Shiite minorities, including the one that inhabits Saudi Arabia's oil-rich eastern province. Already, the fall of Saddam Hussein has been a boost to Iran, energizing the pilgrimage and trade traffic between the two countries. Yet if Iraq proves a more successful model of Islamic-inspired rule than Iran, its example could help undermine the Iranian mullahs.
How Sistani plays his cards will be key. So far it's hard to fault his gamesmanship. Since the fall of Saddam in 2003, the Iranian-born cleric has played the Iraqi nationalist, refusing to meet Americans and insisting on the elections that would bring the Shiites to power. Yet he has also urged his followers not to fight against American forces and cautioned against reprisals for attacks on Shiites by Sunni suicide bombers. Sistani obviously sees the wisdom of acting with restraint -- and the Shiites will have to compromise with other groups to keep Iraq intact. The new National Assembly must choose a three- person presidential panel that will select the Prime Minister, the most powerful job. That will require a two-thirds Assembly majority. The Kurdish coalition and Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's secular grouping, which looks likely to place third in the election, may be power brokers.
One problem for Sistani is that his own group is far from monolithic. Two religious parties form its backbone. The Islamic Da'wa Party has agitated for an Islamic state in Iraq since the late 1950s. The other, SCIRI, is a Da'wa offshoot nurtured by Iran in Saddam's era. But it also includes more urbane personalities, such as Ahmed Chalabi, the former Pentagon favorite now making a comeback.
Some Shiite politicians are skeptical that this patchwork group will be able to agree on much beyond protecting the rights of Shiites. "I don't think the Shia are capable of having a unified approach to politics beyond the necessity of removing discrimination," says Ali Allawi, a politician allied with Sistani. "Once the discriminatory structures are removed, the Shia as a politically unified grouping will dissolve." If so, fears of a religious state would ease.
But powerful forces may still keep pushing Iraqi society in a religious direction, whatever shape the constitution takes. Once among the more secular countries in the region, Iraq was taking on a more pronounced religious coloring even before Shiite and Sunni clerics began to fill the postwar vacuum left by Saddam's fall. Militias tied to the religious parties also exert huge influence in some areas. The southern city of Basra, once relatively secular, has come to look a lot like Iran: Women are afraid to go outdoors without headscarves for fear of reprisals from the SCIRI-affiliated Badr brigades, as well as other toughs associated with the firebrand cleric Moqtada al Sadr. For ordinary Iraqis, who rules the streets may for years be more important than what ends up in the constitution. By Stanley Reed in London