Iraq's Shiite Islamists are in an undeniable position of strength as the June 30, 2004 hand-over of sovereignty approaches. Their leadership has gelled with the emergence of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, 75, as the major political force in the country. Mainstream Shiite Islamist forces such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Dawa Party along with secular Shiites such as Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi, have aligned themselves with Sistani. However, the April uprising against U.S. forces, sparked by the young, more extreme cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, threatens to undermine these relatively moderate voices.

Defying expectations that he would eschew clerical involvement in politics, Sistani has taken an active and highly influential role in Iraq's post-war decision making. Sistani's call for direct elections for a transitional government and his reservations about key provisions of the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), the interim constitution promulgated on March 8, have caused delays and revisions in U.S. transition plans. In January, hundreds of thousands of Shiites demonstrated in Baghdad and southern Iraq in support of Sistani's demand for elections.

While Sistani wants Shiite Muslims to dominate Iraq's politics, there are no indications that he seeks a centralized, repressive regime. He meets regularly with leaders from all of Iraq's main political factions. Nothing in his background suggests that he supports radical Shiite organizations like Lebanon-based Hizbollah. Sistani does not favor the secular democracy that the United Staets desires, but neither does he advocate a pure Islamic state run by clerics. He aims to prevent Iraq from becoming secular and westernized, and favors curbs on women's rights, alcohol consumption, and western-style entertainment.

Even Moqtada Al Sadr has recognized Sistani's supremacy, although he has shown an ability to force events without Sistani's prior blessing. After U.S. authorities closed Al Sadr's newspaper Al Hawza Al Natiqa on March 28 for alleged incitement, on April 4 his supporters launched violent anti-U.S. demonstrations and attacked coalition forces in Najaf and Baghdad. Sistani, recognizing growing Shiite impatience with the occupation and widespread suspicions that the United States seeks to undermine Shiite political power, came out in support of the demonstrators' cause, while calling for an end to violence. But Al Sadr's supporters did not immediately heed Sistani's call for calm, and there are numerous reports that many Shiites are joining Al Sadr's cause.

Should the Shiite uprising dissipate—perhaps through Sistani-mediated negotiations between the U.S.-led coalition and Al Sadr—the mainstream Shiite Islamist camp could regain its dominance. This camp has an abundance of political talent and several militias. SCIRI, Iraq's most well-established Shiite Islamist faction, offers organizational skills, extensive networks, and a 10,000-man strong militia, the Badr Brigades. (The August 2003 assassination of its longtime leader, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr Al Hakim and Iraqis' suspicions that SCIRI is an Iranian creation have, however, limited the party's influence.) The Dawa Party, the country's oldest organized Shiite Islamist grouping, shares much of the ideology of SCIRI and Sistani but, unlike SCIRI, is wary of Iranian influence. The party has several leaders and former members who are considered politically acceptable both to many Iraqis and also to the United States. Dawa's leader, Ibrahim Jafari, is a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, as is Muwaffaq Al Ruba'i, a former Dawa activist turned human rights activist. Both are widely touted as possible leaders of the interim government that, according to U.S. transition plans, will run Iraq from July 1, 2004 until national elections are held by January 31, 2005.

The Bush administration, bowing to political realities, has acquiesced to a major role for Shiite Islamists in post-Saddam Iraq. Having declared Al Sadr an "outlaw," the United States will work to ensure that he does not play any role in Iraq's future political structure. Concurrently, the United States will aim to strengthen the more mainstream Shiite groups. Thus, Washington is likely to accept a public leadership role for Islamists such as Jafari and Al Ruba'i because they are not clerics and are considered relatively moderate. Regardless of who assumes the formal leadership of a sovereign Iraq, however, Sistani will wield preponderant influence behind the scenes. As a result, Iraq's ultimate political structure will likely resemble an Islamic state, although one more moderate than Iran's and without substantial direct clerical participation in government.

Should the United States move militarily against Sadr in Najaf, however, the Shiite community may rally around him, sparking a broader Shiite uprising, draining substantial support away from Sistani, SCIRI, and the Dawa Party, and possibly undermining Sistani's overarching authority.

Kenneth Katzman is a senior analyst of Persian Gulf affairs at the Congressional Research Service.