Sheik Azri Qommi, a student of the late Khomeini and an opponent of Qom's own nominee, Rohani, told the London-based Arabic daily Al-Wasat that he nonetheless opposes Najaf's Sistani as well, "because he lives in Najaf under the authority of Saddam Hussein, whereas the Marja should live under no pressure." Hussein's power base is in the region around Baghdad, an area populated by Sunni Muslims, theological rivals of the Shiites.
Qom is not without its own political intrigues. The Iranian government last spring reportedly detained a number of senior clerics close to Rohani, who is known to oppose the concept of the "guardianship of the clergy" by which Iran installs its political and religious leadership in the same hands, in the present case those of Khamenei.
The fact that there is an argument at all is reassuring in some ways to many of those whose greatest fear is a powerful link between Shiite Iran and Iraq's 9.6 million Shiites, who make up slightly more than half of Iraq's population.
In the years since the end of the Gulf War, many U.S. analysts have feared that the downfall of Saddam Hussein could plunge Iraq into chaos and drive the Shiite south straight into the arms of Iran.
But the fact that even Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, spiritual leader of Iran's main client organization in Lebanon, Hezbollah, has said he regards Najaf's Sistani as the most qualified, is a sign that the Tehran regime's hold on the Shiite clergy around the world is far from complete.
In Najaf these days, there is a mood of quiet determination. Most of the clerics there permitted by the government to be interviewed, along with the head of the government's religious endowment ministry, seem to have thrown their support behind yet another candidate--presumably acceptable to the Iraqi government--Sayed Mohammed Sadr.
Sadr is the cousin of the celebrated Lebanese Shiite leader Imam Moussa Sadr, who mysteriously disappeared while on a visit to Libya in 1978.
"Any leadership of the Shiites must come from here, and if the Iranians say the Marja should not be in Najaf they are making a big mistake, because we know most of them received their religious studies here," said Jabr Abbas Abed, religious endowments manager in Najaf.
"These rooms you see are the first school in religious studies for the whole world," Abed said. "The successor of Imam Khoei must have qualifications to be elected here in this holy city. He must be enlightened in religious matters and highly religiously informed. For this reason, Mohammed al Sadr has been chosen. He is all Arab. He was nominated and he was chosen to be the religious source here in the holy city of Najaf, and the matter is closed."
But what about Sistani, regarded as the leading contender from Najaf?
"I want to be very clear about this point," responded another Najaf clerical leader, Sheik Abed Aly Moudafar. "The man who will represent the Shiia in the world must have special characteristics. He must be well-informed and enlightened, he must have characteristics which enable him to lead. Sistani is not our nominee. This name has been nominated by Iran and other countries, for their own interests."
Asked about Qom's nomination of Araki, both men scoffed. "Where is this man's learning?" Moudafar said. "Where are his books? What has he done for Islam? What has he done to claim this post?"
And what about allegations that the Baghdad regime is exercising undue influence over the clergy in Najaf? Abed waved his hands impatiently. "Those who say this are liars, because the government doesn't have the control you're suggesting. To prove it, the government is not responsible for naming the religious clergy. What you are talking about is exactly what is going on in Iran itself."
At that point, Jabr led his guests to a gallery of photographs, all depicting damage to the holy shrines in Najaf and neighboring Karbala. They show massive government-sponsored repairs to the gold-encrusted facades, which Jabr says were damaged by allied bombing during the Gulf War.
In fact, according to the Iraqi opposition and secret videotapes of the attack, most of the damage was done by Iraqi tanks during the attempt to put down the Shiite uprising after the war.
The tour, led by this mustachioed Hussein look-alike, had a surrealistic feel as it played out in the courtyard that was the scene of some of the fiercest resistance to Hussein only three years ago.
"This was (George) Bush's gift to the Iraqi people during his last days," Jabr said, pointing to a photograph of chipped tile on the wall of Ali's sacred shrine. He bristles when a guest asked about the uprising, which he insisted "was no uprising."
"It was an act of robbers and vandals supported by the Saudis," he said, and goes on to the next photograph.
"As you can see," he said, "the damage caused by our enemies did not spare even the houses of God."