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."