Cricket but no chess in Sistani's vision for democratic Iraq

CRICKET IS allowed but chess is "absolutely forbidden". Women may not shake hands with men. Music is permitted but only if it is not for enjoyment. Men cannot pray when wearing earrings.

These are the views of the most powerful man in Iraq. After the US invasion, various American officials and generals believed they occupied this position. They turned out to be wrong. As the election victory of the Shias has confirmed, the most influential figure in Iraq, dressed in tattered grey robe and black turban, is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

In politics he is a moderate. He opposes the US occupation but has not issued a call to oppose it in arms. It was his determination that Iraqis must be allowed to vote which forced the US, after prolonged prevarication, to agree to an election. It was under his auspices that the United Iraqi Alliance, combining diverse parties, mostly Shia, was formed. It is likely to win at least half the vote.

US officials have been quick to insist just how different the Iraqi Shia clergy are from their Iranian equivalents. Vice-President Dick Cheney said over the weekend that "the Iraqis have watched the Iranians operate for years and create a religious theocracy that has been a dismal failure". Mr Cheney vaguely implied that Iraqi Shia religious leaders believed in the separation of church and state. It is true that the ayatollah and his school of religious thinking do not believe that clerics should rule directly, taking over positions in government. But they do not really have to. The victorious religious parties, mostly led by laymen, are quite capable of setting up an Islamic state on their own.

Iraq could be on the verge of seeing the greatest setback to women's rights in the Middle East since Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran in 1979. Laws on marriage, divorce and inheritance could be changed in favour of men. Under Islamic law, daughters inherit less than the sons.

The views of Ayatollah Sistani on chess, cricket, music, earrings and almost any other topic can be found on his highly professional website (Sistani.org). They show tolerance of other religions. Last year he was swift to condemn attacks on Christian churches in Baghdad as "abhorrent crimes". He counselled restraint when Shia leaders demanded retaliation after the bloody bombings of Shia shrines and processions.

There is also no doubt that Iraq is heading towards some form of Islamic republic even if it is more liberal than Iran. This is likely to be reflected in the new constitution to be drafted by the National Assembly just elected. "We call for having Islam as the main and only source of legislation and we reject any article that runs contrary to the Islamic legislation," said Ibrahim al-Ibrahimi, the spokesman of another Grand Ayatollah, Ishaq al-Faladh. "We call on Iraqi officials to preserve the face of Iraq and not to separate religion and state." Ayatollah Faladh is not as influential as Ayatollah Sistani but, politically liberal though the latter may be, his views are in keeping with Islamic social norms.

Even if the Shia clergy try to stay behind the scenes, they will have great authority over Iraqi politics. Neither of the two main Shia parties, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) and Dawa, long persecuted by Saddam Hussein, are very popular. They are seen by many Iraqis as carpetbaggers, arriving in Iraq on the back of an American tank. Sciri and the Badr Brigade, its paramilitary wing, fought on the Iranian side in the Iran-Iraq war and allegedly tortured Iraqi prisoners of war.

Without the support of Ayatollah Sistani, the religious parties and independent individuals would have had far fewer votes. They must listen to the clergy.

Iyad Allawi, the interim Prime Minister, vied for the secular vote in a campaign heavily financed by the US and conservative Arab states. Even so he will finish well behind the Shia coalition and the Kurdish Alliance. Already there are signs of Iraq becoming more Islamic particularly in Sunni districts. Many shops selling alcohol, usually owned by Christians, have closed. Some have been attacked. In al-Rashid Street and the largely Sunni district of Dohra, shops selling CDs have been destroyed. Female students at Baghdad University now frequently have their heads covered to make it less likely that they will be kidnapped.

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