Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, Iraq's pre-eminent Shiite cleric, who lives reclusively in an ally, is nonetheless a thoroughly modern and multilingual mullah.
He runs a website where his fatwas -- addressing everything from why wives may not go out without their husband's permission to why it is wise to avoid contact with Christians and Jews -- are conveniently posted in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, French and English.
The website even includes a Dear Abby-like question-and-answer service. "What is your ruling on Ghina or song?" asked a follower.
"Singing (al-ghina') is haram (forbidden): doing it, listening to it or living of it," wrote the ayatollah.
"Chess is Halal (permitted) or Haram (forbidden)?" asked another follower. "Chess," declared the ayatollah, "is absolutely forbidden."
Nonetheless, for two years Sistani has been playing chess with the United States. The stakes: the destiny of Iraq, and the ability of the United States to withdraw and leave behind a stable, benign regime.
The ayatollah has patiently advanced his pieces across the board. In June 2003, he vetoed a plan for a U.S.-appointed council to draft an Iraqi constitution, calling instead for Iraqis to elect delegates for that purpose -- mindful that Shias, who comprise 60 percent of Iraq, would dominate those elections. The U.S. plan for a constitutional council, said Sistani, was "fundamentally unacceptable" because it would not guarantee a constitution "expressing the national identity, whose basis is Islam and its noble values."
In November 2003, when the United States proposed caucuses to pick delegates to write a constitution, Sistani again vetoed the plan. Speaking for Sistani then, Abdul Aziz al Hakim, a leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said, "There should have been a stipulation which prevents legislating anything that contradicts Islam in the new Iraq."
In 2004, Sistani did compromise and accept an unelected interim government. But he did not back down from his demands for elections to pick the writers of Iraq's constitution and for a constitution that guarantees no law will contradict Islam.
When elections were held in January, the ayatollah endorsed the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance. It won a majority in parliament.
Now, the draft Iraqi constitution released last week seems to give the ayatollah what he demanded. "First," it says, "Islam is the official religion of the state and is a basic source of legislation: No law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam."
But the next line says: "No law can be passed that contradicts the principles of democracy." And the next says: "No law can be passed that contradicts the rights and basic freedoms outlined in this constitution."
If these three sequential lines were wholly compatible, there would be no problem. Or if the constitution, while paying lip service to the ayatollah's vision, included no mechanism that would allow him to impose that vision on Iraq, there would be no problem.
But a Foundation for the Defense of Democracies briefing paper points out that Articles 89, 90 and 91 of the draft do pose a problem. Article 89 creates a Supreme Judicial Council that will nominate the members of a Supreme Federal Court. Article 90 says: "The Supreme Federal Court will be made up of a number of judges and experts in Sharia (Islamic Law) and law," who will be confirmed by two-thirds of the parliament. And Article 91 says: "The Supreme Federal Court will have the following duties: overseeing the constitutionality of federal laws before they are issued ... interpreting the text of the constitution ... endorsing the final results of parliamentary elections."
This proposed Iraqi court could be used by the ayatollah's followers to convert Iraq into an Iranian-style theocracy. Failing that, draft constitutional provisions allowing for partitioning Iraq into federal regions could permit them to create an almost-independent Shiite theocracy in oil-rich southern Iraq, complementing an oil-rich Kurdish region in northern Iraq, leaving the Sunni Arab middle with little or no control over the nation's oil revenue.
Such outcomes are unacceptable to many Sunni Arabs, about 20 percent of Iraq's population, who may or may not be able to muster the two-thirds vote in three provinces needed to defeat the constitution.
A defeated constitution means a longer U.S. occupation. A ratified constitution that leaves Sunni Arabs bitterly unreconciled also means a longer U.S. occupation.
The United States does not need to micromanage Iraqi politics, but we do need an Iraq that is stable and benign -- and the sooner, the better. The over-reaching of Ayatollah Sistani's followers threatens this goal. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad hinted Tuesday that the United States may be pushing for changes in the draft constitution. We should push by all appropriate means, seeking to check the ayatollah's political advances, before he checkmates our chances for a timely withdrawal.