This is only Sistani's latest power play. In 2003, the ayatollah rejected a U.S. proposal that an appointed committee draft Iraq's constitution, insisting on elections for an interim government to write it, instead. When those elections were held, the ayatollah put together and endorsed the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition dominated by Shiite Islamist parties. When that coalition won the election and dominated the constitution-writing process, the ayatollah insisted that the constitution include language preventing any legislation that contradicted Islam. The final draft: "No law can be passed that contradicts the principles of Islam."
When the ayatollah endorsed the draft constitution, more than 90 percent of voters in predominantly Shiite regions cast ballots to ratify it, while more than 90 percent of voters in predominantly Sunni regions voted against it.
The ayatollah's favored Shiite-Islamist coalition now runs Iraq under a constitution overwhelming rejected by the country's Sunni minority.
Meanwhile, Sistani has published decrees on his multilingual Website elaborating theological views that were suppressed during Saddam's rule. These include his view that a husband can forbid his wife from going out, that a man can contract to marry a "temporary" wife for a period as short as one hour, and that singing and the game of chess are forbidden.
Most important to the U.S. troops who liberated Iraq, and the U.S. diplomats trying to politically stabilize the country, is Sistani's nagging suspicion that Christians and Jews might be "najis" (impure), as opposed to "pak" (clean).
"As regards the people of the Book (i.e., the Jews and Christians)," the ayatollah decreed, "... they are commonly considered najis, but it is not improbable that they are pak. However, it is better to avoid them."
Still, Sistani has had defenders in the United States who have argued that all this ayatollah really wants is a democratic country where people of all religions can live in peace and equality. Then-CIA Director George Tenet exemplified this thinking when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 9, 2003, that Sistani's "praise for free elections and his theology reflect, in our reading, a clear-cut opposition to Iranian-style theocracy."
The Presidential Medal of Freedom winner was right in one sense: In an Iranian-style theocracy, it takes a whole committee of ayatollahs to tell the elected government what to do.