NAJAF, Iraq — Behind the scenes in this holy city, Shiite clerics are quietly intriguing over who will succeed the sect's most revered and politically influential leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in a tussle that circles around money and foreign meddling as much as knowledge and piety.
The 83-year-old al-Sistani's departure from the scene would dramatically change Iraq's political landscape. There are already signs that neighboring Iran is seeking to increase its influence in Najaf and has long-term hopes of seeing a figure closer to Tehran's clerical leadership eventually ascend to al-Sistani's position.
Since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein, al-Sistani has used his patriarchal standing to keep stability throughout Iraq's shaky shift to democratic rule by urging Shiites to stay away from any violence. At the same time, he has firmly promoted the rise and consolidation of Shiite power by urging his followers to turn out strongly in every election.
Al-Sistani, who rarely leaves his modest Najaf home and does not grant media interviews, works from behind-the-scenes, offering his counsel to senior politicians who privately seek his guidance and support.
His public pronouncements – carefully worded fatwas, or edicts, that address the nation – are observed by most Shiites in Iraq and elsewhere.
But his inability to stop the brutal Shiite-Sunni violence of 2006 and 2007 has shown the limitations of his authority, which may be tested again if the violence of recent days does not soon stop.
In attacks that appear reminiscent of the sectarian violence, about 120 people have been killed in and around Baghdad over the past week as Iraq sinks deeper into political instability after March 7 parliamentary elections failed to produce a clear winner. It may now take weeks, maybe months, to form a new government.
Aides say al-Sistani has a clean bill of health, though a heart condition sent him to London for treatment in 2004. But his advanced age has been enough to spark maneuvering behind the scenes in Najaf, the cloistered holy city south of Baghdad that is the Shiite world's foremost seat of theological scholarship, with dozens of religious schools.
Whoever replaces the Iranian-born al-Sistani could play a role in shaping the future of Iraq and the direction of its recently empowered Shiite majority.
That makes the position a lure for Iran as it seeks to boost its position while American forces begin their withdrawal, due to be completed by the end of 2011. Iran already wields considerable influence, largely because most Iraqi Shiite politicians lived there for years while in exile during Saddam's rule.
"Iran would like to shape al-Sistani's succession," said Iran expert Alireza Nader of the Washington-based RAND Corporation. But "the Iranian government may lack the necessary religious and ideological levers to shape the succession entirely to its liking."
Still, insiders in Najaf say Tehran is beefing up its presence in the city, which has long maintained a stubborn independence from Iran's Shiite theological centers.
"There are sometimes attempts by hidden hands to meddle in the affairs of the marjaiyah," said Sheik Ali al-Najafi, the son and top aide to Pakistani-born Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi, one of the city's four top clerics. Marjaiyah is Arabic for the collective Shiite spiritual leadership.
"It is to be expected that foreign nations meddle in Najaf," he said, in an implicit reference to Iran.
An aide to al-Sistani said top clerics from Iran, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have recently opened representative offices in Najaf, with some collecting the Shiite tax known as "khoms," or "fifth," and enrolling students in seminaries run by their representatives.
"When the Americans leave, the Iranians will play with us as they please," said the al-Sistani aide, mirroring fears in Najaf and elsewhere in Iraq that Tehran's influence in post-U.S. Iraq would grow. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Money is also a factor in the choice of a successor to al-Sistani, say several Najaf insiders, who are in daily contact with the city's clerical leadership. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of Najaf's internal dealings.
For example, seminary students – there are an estimated 7,000 in Najaf, from across the Shiite world – are mostly poor and depend on the city's top clerics for food and housing.
Clerics who offer better living conditions and higher stipends attract more students, translating into a wider base of support.
Al-Sistani holds the title of "al-marja al-akbar," or the "greatest object of emulation," and is venerated in Iraq and around the Shiite world. The world's estimated 200-plus million Shiites can choose what cleric they follow, but even among those who have their own "marja," al-Sistani holds considerable weight.
Choosing a successor is a complicated, informal process, without clear requirements beyond basic qualifications like knowledge and piety. Dozens of senior and middle-ranking clerics known as the "experts" take part, privately debating their choice – and their view carries a great deal of weight.
Two grand ayatollahs in Najaf are seen as the top candidates to succeed him: The Afghan-born Mohammed Ishaq al-Fayadh and the Iraqi Mohammed Said al-Hakim. Both, however, are old and may only be interim figures.
The 80-year-old al-Fayadh is widely seen as the more likely. He has lived in Najaf for the past 40 years, enjoys only a fraction of the worldwide support al-Sistani commands. But the Najaf insiders say he is the closest to al-Sistani from among the city's grand ayatollahs.
Al-Sistani has kept his distance from Iran's regime and, significantly, does not subscribe to the religious principle on which the Islamic republic is based: "welayet al-faqeeh," or the right of the most learned cleric to hold political power.
Al-Fayadh is known to conditionally subscribe to that doctrine, though that does not necessarily mean he supports Iran, or that Tehran would prefer him in the post.
More likely, Iran is looking long-term, hoping that by building its influence among Najaf's lower clerics, it can ensure a figure close to its ruling clergy eventually rises to the top.
Since there is no figure with al-Sistani's stature, it is possible a weak or ailing successor moves in as a stopgap. The insiders say it is also possible that no one takes al-Sistani's title, and the three other grand ayatollahs continue to function the same way as they do now.