NAJAF, Iraq — With a suddenness that seems to have caught American officials by surprise, Shiite Muslim clerics who for decades ministered in the quiet obscurity of the back streets of this holy city are now driving key decisions about the future governance of the nation.
The immediate focal point is a showdown with the American-led coalition over the process for transferring sovereignty to an Iraqi government.
Shiite religious parties, with the backing of the most senior cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, say they favor direct elections for a transitional government rather than the American-backed proposal to use provincial caucuses for selecting delegates to a national assembly.
But beyond this debate, far broader political forces are at work. At stake is the role religious Shiite parties will play in Iraq for the foreseeable future.
The Shiite community, which was brutally persecuted by Saddam Hussein and his Sunni Muslim-dominated Baath Party, would likely benefit from swift direct elections because Shiites make up about 60% of Iraq's population and their religious parties are, at this point, the most organized political force in the country.
But some Bush administration officials fear that if Shiite fundamentalists were to win at the polls, they would advance an anti-Western agenda with a theocratic bent reminiscent of Iran rather than build a relatively moderate democracy that protects the basic rights of all Iraqis, including women and minorities.
The extent to which Shiite clerics end up with a controlling influence after the foreign coalition leaves -- and the role of Koranic law in the nation's constitution -- might well depend on how Americans handle the current challenge from Shiite leaders.
"Absolutely this is a delicate moment," said a senior administration official who is knowledgeable about Iraq policy. "Do we throw the dice and say, 'This is a political issue, and we're not going to let [Sistani] dictate to us'? Will he be willing to deal or not? It's a turning point."
Observers here note that American opposition to the religious Shiites' agenda puts the U.S. in the odd position of resisting what is arguably the most democratic of processes: a free election. They also worry that the Americans have not carefully considered the worst-case scenarios.
"If the Shiites do not get what they are asking for and Sistani issues a [religious order] forbidding people to vote, no Shiite will participate in the political process," said Jabber Habib, a Baghdad University political science professor. "I don't think that will happen, but the high Shiite clerics have great power if they want to use it."
Three factors seem to have pushed Shiite religious leaders into their current disagreement with the coalition.
First, the conservative clerics are looking ahead to an uncertain political future if the economy improves and the country becomes more Westernized. Consequently, they want direct elections well before drafters of a national constitution are due to be selected, more than a year from now.
Second, some Shiite leaders appear to doubt that the United States has their interests at heart. That concern has been exacerbated, the clerics say, by poor communication between the parties.
Senior members of the coalition dispute that view, insisting that there is regular communication with religious Shiites. A senior staffer noted Tuesday that civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III had met hours earlier with cleric Abdelaziz Hakim, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council who also leads the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. However, coalition officials in the provinces say it has been difficult to maintain regular communication.
The third factor is that neighboring Iran, the largest Shiite nation in the world, seems to be pushing a number of Shiite leaders in Iraq to exercise greater political power more quickly.
Iraq's Shiite population encompasses a vast religious spectrum -- some are secular, some religiously observant and some in-between. But almost all share a pride in the scholarship and stature of the grand ayatollahs of Najaf, who historically have been rivaled only by those in the Iranian city of Qom.
That pride has swelled in the months since Hussein's overthrow, as even the most secular Shiites expressed admiration for the survival of members of the Shiite religious parties, many freshly returned from exile, and for senior clergy who had remained in Iraq despite the repression of Hussein's rule.
By framing the issue as whether Americans intend to honor the wishes of the Shiite majority, Shiite clerics appear to be capitalizing on the sense of shared identity.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd who attends many Governing Council meetings and met with Sistani in Najaf this year, warned that issues related to the Shiites' stature would resonate among the majority. "When it comes to these issues, the Shiites have solidarity, regardless of whether they are religious or secular," he said.