This is worrisome news:

A power struggle has begun in Iraq, as could have been predicted?indeed was predicted. Sistani is becoming more vocal and political because he faces a challenge to his leadership from the more activist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. “Al-Sadr does not have Sistani’s reputation or training as a scholar and thus presents himself as a populist leader who will look after Shia political interests,” says Nakash. It’s turning into a contest to see who can stand up to the Americans more vociferously and appeal to Shiite fears. The Iraqi Shiites are deeply suspicious that the United States will betray them, as it did in 1992 after the gulf war, or that it will foist favored exiles like Ahmad Chalabi upon them. Sistani recently told Iraq’s tribal leaders that they should take power, not “those who came from abroad.”
The tragedy is that while Sistani’s fears are understandable, Washington’s phased transition makes great sense. It allows for time to build institutions, form political parties and reform the agencies of government. An immediate transfer will ensure that the political contest will overwhelm all this institutional reform. But Washington lacks the basic tool it needs to negotiate with the locals: legitimacy. Belatedly it now recognizes that the United Nations can arbitrate political problems without being accused of being a colonizer.
American policymakers made two grave mistakes after the war. The first was to occupy the country with too few troops, creating a security vacuum. This image of weakness was reinforced when Washington caved in to Sistani’s objections last June, junked its original transition plan and sped things up to coincide with the American elections. The second mistake was to dismiss from the start the need for allies and international institutions. As a result, Washington is now governing Iraq with neither power nor legitimacy.

Is the fix in for a hurried US pullout, facilitated by hasty transfer of power to apparently moderate Islamic mullahs? (That has an oxymoronic ring, doesn’t it?) Superficially at least, the Iranian born (he looks Iranian too) Sistani appears to be a moderate. But he is in his seventies, and there has been speculation that once an Islamic government is established, the hard-core elements (better organized and more radical) will take over.
What about the personality of Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah?

Sistani, a slight man with a long white beard and thick black eyebrows who speaks Arabic with a Persian accent, is known as a marja al-taqlid, a title held by a handful of the most senior ayatollahs. To his followers, he has the right to interpret Islamic law in everyday life — in unprecedented and original fashion — giving him great sway. For them, his authority is traditionally unquestioned, and his modest office down a ramshackle alley in Najaf is besieged daily by followers seeking aid or answers to religious questions.
His statements about the U.S. occupation do not carry the weight of a fatwa, the only such edict that would be binding. But his remarks come at a time when some of his supporters in Najaf have complained about his reclusiveness, particularly as two other groups, with a distinctly more political agenda, are vying for the support of the country’s majority.
“We wish he would talk more forcefully, but he would never accept,” said Kamal Abdullah Bahr Ulum, 62, a resident of Najaf and supporter of Sistani. “If he made a fatwa tomorrow to act, no one would remain in their home.”

Bear in mind that it was Sistani who derailed the Iraqi Governing Council’s transitional agreemment, and who demands Islamic veto power over any legislation “contrary to Islam“:

[T]he November 15 “Agreement on Political Process” [was] single-handedly derailed by Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Hussein al-Sistani. Under this agreement, a transitional assembly selected through regional caucuses would form a fully sovereign Iraqi government on July 1, 2004, based on a “Fundamental Law” ? or interim constitution ? now being worked out within agreed parameters by the CPA and IGC.
Ayatollah Sistani has insisted on direct elections for the transitional assembly, as well as assurances that the interim constitution will defer to Islam, most likely in the form of a blanket prohibition against any legislation deemed contrary to Islam by unelected clerical overseers. His first demand, which concerns electoral mechanics, is eminently negotiable; but his second, which wholly subordinates politics to religious ideology (Islamism), unduly risks creating a failed state.

At least one analyst has noted the irony of creating Iranian-style religious veto power in Iraq:

Sistani’s latest fatwa forced Bremer to recognise what is happening. By taking the ayatollah’s fatwas into account, Bremer had given him both a veto and the right to intervene. Although Bremer has attempted to distance himself from Sistani, it is uncertain that he will manage to secure independence. Having lent an ear in to Sistani’s pronouncements in the first place, Bremer cannot now ignore the grand ayatollah. Some members of Iraq’s appointed Governing Council, who followed Bremer’s lead, also, belatedly, saw the danger that Sistani could marginalise the Council and deprive it of the limited consultative powers it possesses.
However, the Council itself is divided because some Shia members are inclined to accept Sistani’s authority. This split could weaken the Council and strengthen Sistani. Even if Bremer and the Iraqi Governing Council manage to resist Sistani and prevent the rise of clerical rule, the grand ayatollah and the Hawza will remain significant players on the Iraqi political scene.
It is, therefore, ironic that 15 years after the end of the eight year Iraq-Iran war which halted Tehran’s attempt to export its Islamic Revolution to Iraq by subverting that country’s Shia majority, Bush could very well be in the process of installing in Iraq the very clerical regime Khomeini had in mind. Khomeini’s shade must be chuckling as it observes developments in Iraq. Furthermore, if Sistani becomes the main power-broker in Iraq, this means the million soldiers and civilians who lost their lives on both sides in the Iraq-Iran conflict may have died in vain and the tens of billions of dollars spent by Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to halt the export of the Iranian revolution were wasted. It also means that Washington, sooner rather than later, better reconcile and seek rapprochement with Tehran, the Shia power in West Asia.

I know that I am too cynical, and I try to work on it. But I certainly hope that this imminent deal is not a product of the type of thinking Alan Sullivan described recently in a post called “Naming the Enemy.” I wish the president would read Alan’s warnings (at least, I think they should be considered warnings!) about caving to fundamentalism (plus I loved what he said about the obfuscatory nature of language):

Most word-workers puff up with pleasure if one concedes that we live in a world shaped by language; but I find it horrifying, because words are so malleable, imprecise, and overesteemed. Most of humanity believes in the divinity of one scripture or another: words to be obeyed, words to be spread, words to erase all other words. I suspect that a real god, if there were one, would not speak to us in words, but in silence. It would no more communicate through a man who takes his own inner promptings for commandments than the CIA would communicate with a lunatic through his dentures.
….Right now I see two different word-systems merging into a single, dangerous instrument of mass delusion. One derives from dissident factions in the Christian culture of Europe. It could be called Marxist, but it is much more than a critique of the European nation-state at mid-Nineteenth Century. In the materialistic and secular West, Marxism has devolved from a flawed but intellectually rigorous analysis to a hodgepodge of sentimental and romantic fallacies.
The other derives from Islam–a scripturally-obsessed culture that has stagnated since the Fifteenth Century. Islam has no idea where it can fit in a world that reduces the word of Allah to one narrative among many. Many of its fervent adherents dream of subsuming other deities and polities, incorporating them into a new caliphate. I have until now called the followers and sympathizers of al Qaeda Islamist. Most Americans (notably President Bush) eschew this term because they believe it implicitly places too much blame on Islam itself. What if the President is wrong? Some scholars of the Qu’ran admit that their scripture provides much fodder for frenzy. Maybe the president subliminally fears to admit this possibility, which calls scripture itself into question, and potentially threatens his own faith.

Those are, simply, brilliant and astute observations.
I believe Alan is also dead-on in identifying this primary fear of offending religious conservatives by calling “scripture itself into question” — because that is seen everywhere as a potential threat — both to their own brand of faith, and more importantly, to political power. Fundamentalists (or biblical literalists, or whatever you want to call them) will not question fundamentalism of the Iranian variety or any variety; they must either label it as “heresy” or try to pretend it really isn’t all that bad…..
Pretending it “isn’t all that bad” may appear to be smart politics right now. But statesmen are supposed think about what is best in the long term.
This has been very worrisome to me for some time, and I am happy not to be alone in my concerns. Read Alan’s entire post — and think about Iraq. In just a few cogent sentences, he says what would take me many thousands of words — spanning many thousands of years!
I sincerely hope that my misgivings about a potential “fundamentalist fix” in Iraq prove misplaced.
I guess we’ll see.
UPDATE: Gibberish in Neutral reports some fascinating observations by the Ayatollah Sistani about the “istihaza” and the “mustahaza” (the rules governing menstrual discharges). Bloody hilarious! Go! Read it!
Then sin no more!