Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN – Source: New York Times – 8/6/06

QUM, Iran — It is said that the single most influential man in Iraq today, the Shiite religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, provides cash, free housing and medical care to tens of thousands of religious students and operates hundreds of religious Web sites across the globe. Yet this is all going on not in Iraq, but here in the religious capital of Iran. His relations with the Iranian people have deepened and spread since the American occupation of Iraq. Divisions that once stood between the Shiites of Iraq and Iran, animosity fed by the eight-year war between the countries, have become less relevant as Iraq’s Shiites re-establish their identity after decades of oppression under Saddam Hussein.

“We are a family of Shia,” said Javad Shahrestani, who is Ayatollah Sistani’s son-in-law and his representative in Qum. “This is the basic fact of our life.” While the United States says it is determined to resolve its disputes with Iran through diplomatic means, many officials and political analysts in Iran say they fear that the President’s agenda is different. With that in mind, present and former Iranian security officials said they were counting on, even stoking, the sense of religious connection to Iraq as well as to fellow Shiites in places like India and Saudi Arabia, as part of a defensive strategy.

Iranians believe that despite philosophical differences with others of their faith, like Ayatollah Sistani, their country is the Shiite motherland and any kind of military attack on Iran would compel Shiites around the globe to respond. “There are two things that all grand ayatollahs care about — preventing chaos and making sure the people are as secure as possible,” said one of Iran’s central security planners, who spoke on the condition he not be identified because of the nature of his work. “If the United States hits Iran, other players will come in.”

Ayatollah Sistani’s organization is already worried that the tensions between Iran and the United States will affect its work. It has two large computer servers based in California that are the hub of its technology centre. If the United States ever cut off access to those servers, Ayatollah Sistani’s information network would be knocked offline. “Will they check, will they know this is for Ayatollah Sistani, or will they just shut down the servers?” asked Walid Salman, one of the technology managers working with the ayatollah’s operation in Qum.

Ayatollah Sistani, who is Iranian, studied religion in Qum 56 years ago before moving to the Shiite religious city of Najaf in Iraq, said Mr. Shahrestani, who left Iraq for Qum 29 years ago, never once returning. He has built Ayatollah Sistani’s operation here to include a network of services, from Web design training to health insurance, all for religious students. In Qum, he said, there are 45,000 students receiving aid of some sort, with another 20,000 in other Iranian cities.

“Because of the situation during Saddam’s time, we decided to make Qum as the centre,” Mr. Shahrestani said as he sat in one of the many cultural centres his organization’s operates here. Just 75 miles from Tehran, Qum is a gritty town, with a huge shrine decorated in fiery blue tiles, a site of pilgrimage for Shiite Muslims. It is also the site of many Shiite religious schools, drawing students from around Iran and elsewhere, who study full time and receive financial support from political leaders.

Ayatollah Sistani does not have a religious school in Iran, but he has high-tech links to all the schools here. Eight years ago his son-in-law founded the Ahlulbayt Global Information Centre, in a small building on a traffic-clogged street in the centre of Qum. Inside is a staff of technicians who design and manage four Web sites, using the Internet to spread Ayatollah Sistani’s ideas and his influence among Shiites all over the world.

Each month, for example, the centre receives hundreds of requests for guidance, and each day the staff members send back answers under the name of the ayatollah. One woman from Australia asked if her father was right to oppose her decision to marry a non-Arab. The response was that she should get her father to change his mind. A person from the United Arab Emirates asked if it was O.K. to play the guitar, and the answer was ‘No’.

“Najaf was a very important and pivotal centre for Shia studies but it was ruined by Saddam,” said Sayed Ibrahim Larjvardi, who is the information centre’s chief administrator “Qum is the same now. The motherland of Shiism is here in Qum.” Across town, along dusty streets, Ayatollah Sistani’s son-in-law was overseeing the construction of 320 apartments, each of which will be loaned to a religious student in Qum. Muhammad Shariatmadri, 35, a theology student from Tehran living in one of the apartments, said, “The free housing has been a huge help.” His neighbour, Muhammad Abedi, 35, from southern India, lives with his wife and children in another one. Asked how Shiites in India and elsewhere would react if the nuclear issue reached a stage where the United States decided to take action against Iran, he said: “They will help Iran. Of course!

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