The Shi'a cleric is one of a handful of top religious scholars in Iraq who are considered ultimate sources of religious emulation, and for decades he has been viewed throughout the Shi'a world as a man of purely spiritual concerns. He has often been characterized as a moderate who believes clerics should give religious guidance but stay out of politics.
But recent months have seen al-Sistani increasingly become the pivotal political voice of the Iraqi Shi'a majority. He has done so by twice opposing Washington's plans for the country's political restructuring. Both times it has been by insisting the country's future sovereign governmental bodies be chosen in direct elections rather than through selection processes proposed by the U.S.
Abdel Saheb Hakim is a human rights activist in London who has close connections with the clerical world of Al-Najaf, the southern Iraqi holy city where al-Sistani and other top Shi'a leaders reside. He calls the transformation of al-Sistani, who played no political role during the Hussein era, into an influential political figure very unexpected.
"It came suddenly, like that," he says. "No one was expecting it. No one who is surrounding him was politically involved, there are no politicians among his followers in the second rank."
That is in contrast to several other top Shi'a religious leaders who were politically important and who have been assassinated in recent years. They include Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was murdered along with his two sons by presumed agents of deposed President Saddam Hussein in Al-Najaf in 1999.
They also include Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, the former spiritual leader of the best-organized Shi'a political group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who was assassinated in a bomb blast in Al-Najaf in August last year.
But if observers have been surprised by al-Sistani now emerging as a political voice, there are signs that Shi'a expectations since the toppling of Hussein in April may leave him and other clerics who once disdained politics little other choice.
Many Iraqi Shi'a, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's population, are said to view the post-Hussein era as their first opportunity to assert their political strength after decades of domination by Iraq's minority Sunni community. The Shi'a have traditionally looked to clerics for guidance in daily life and, in unsettled times, guidance becomes both religious and political. At the same time, the clerics themselves must make choices regarding how they respond to new political situations and those choices inevitably draw them into public life.
One choice made by al-Sistani that has both fascinated the media and complicated affairs for Washington is his decision never to meet personally with U.S. officials. Instead, the Americans must rely on go-betweens -- usually Iraqi politicians -- leaving Washington uncertain just where al-Sistani stands or how flexible he is.
Al-Hakim says al-Sistani's refusal to meet Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head L. Paul Bremer is partly motivated by a desire to remain above politics. But it also has a historical precedent in Iraq that dates back to the British mandate period following World War I, when Shi'a leaders did not want to be viewed as accepting foreign authority.
"The English occupiers of Iraq, when they came in 1920, [tried] to meet the high authorities at that time to discuss the situation. The [top religious leaders] were afraid to meet the [English] authorities because they were afraid that the general population would say that, 'Ah, probably he has been bribed by the English occupiers, or they have a secret deal,'" al-Hakim said.
In the past, al-Sistani has never been able to entirely avoid political life, despite his own avowed dedication to spiritual matters. He was the target of an assassination attempt during the Hussein era, when presumed security agents pretending to be seeking religious advice nearly shot him dead. The ayatollah's life was saved by a bodyguard who threw himself in front of him and was killed instead. Hussein's government periodically sought to decapitate the Shi'a religious leadership as part of its efforts to monopolize power in the country.
The 75-year-old al-Sistani is sometimes said to be viewed in Iraq as a partial outsider because he was born in Iran. But observers like al-Hakim, who is himself closely related to another top religious leader, the Iraqi-born Grand Ayatollah Seyed Muhammad Sa'id al-Hakim, disputes that view. He says that grand ayatollahs transcend their national origins and al-Sistani, who studied in Al-Najaf from an early age, is widely revered for his learning.
"[Iraqi Shi'a] don't consider this origin as such a big deal. They prefer Arabic, of course, because [someone of Iraqi Arab origin] can understand more -- they speak their language, they know their habits, their customs -- but if there is one who has become very prominent, who has advanced studies, they don't care if he is Iranian or Iraqi," al-Hakim said.
It is unclear whether al-Sistani will now become an increasingly political leader as U.S. officials enter into what could become protracted efforts to find a compromise with him.
U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said yesterday that Washington has great respect for al-Sistani and takes his opinions very seriously.
"The grand Ayatollah [al-Sistani] is a man of great stature whom we respect, and whom we recognize as an important leader in Iraq, and whose opinion we take very, very seriously," Ereli said.
CPA head Bremer told U.S. media this week that Washington is looking for a method of choosing the sovereign government that "will be both legitimate and transparent, but also meets the timeline" for transferring power by the end of June.
Washington has said the end of June deadline is too short for direct elections but that public meetings across the country can be part of a democratic process for choosing new leaders.