BAGHDAD — Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the black-turbaned cleric who was the architect of what appears to be a landslide victory by Shiite Muslims in last week's landmark Iraqi elections, is now poised to shape the new government, including its choice of prime minister and the drafting of the country's constitution.
Iraq's senior most Shiite cleric, Sistani has made it his chief cause to propel his community, long oppressed under Saddam Hussein, to the leadership of one of the Middle East's most prominent countries. And he is on his way to succeeding: The slate he helped pick, the United Iraqi Alliance, appears to have won more than triple the votes of the next-highest slate, that of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite.
"What he wants is influence over the constitution-writing process," said Mowaffak Rubaie, a prominent Shiite politician. "He wants to be sure it's done right."
The electoral sweep gives Shiites allied with Sistani a measure of power that they have not had in Iraq in centuries. But for the U.S., their victory also raises the specter of an Islamic state with more ties and affinities to Iran than with any other country in the region.
The extent to which Iraq becomes an Islamic or a secular state will be largely in the hands of this Iranian-born cleric, who, like most of the ayatollahs who surround him, has not met with U.S. diplomats or their British counterparts since the invasion in 2003.
Shiites represent about 10% of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, but in Iraq, they are in the majority, believed to make up about 60% of the population. The only other countries in which they predominate are Iran and Bahrain.
Sistani's Alliance slate has secured about 69% of the 3.2 million votes counted so far in the national assembly election, or about 38.5% of the total cast, according to a tabulation by the Los Angeles Times. Although that percentage will drop once the Kurdish provinces of the north are counted, the Alliance's share will almost certainly continue to be well over 50%.
Although the 74-year-old Sistani insists that he wants nothing to do with politics, he has been arguably the most important figure on the Iraqi political scene almost from the day the Americans entered the country.
Early in the occupation, he championed direct elections -- a demand that the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority accepted only reluctantly. He also insisted that the constitution could only be written by a body directly elected by Iraqis.
A year ago, hundreds of thousands of his followers took to the streets to support a faster timetable than one proposed by the U.S. and, even more impressively, Sistani was able to send them home, as if he were turning off a tap.
Once elections were set, he engineered the formation of a largely Shiite slate of candidates, many with a religious orientation. Heading the list is Abdelaziz Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and a cleric who spent nearly 20 years in exile in Iran during the Hussein regime.
Three of Sistani's envoys, all clerics, are on the list, and the Dawa Party, a theocratic Shiite party with ties to Iran, has a strong presence on it.
But Sistani also included those without ties to religious groups, such as Ahmad Chalabi, who heads the Iraqi National Congress, and independents such as nuclear scientist Hussein Shahristani.
Sistani let the slate use his picture on its campaign materials and he issued a fatwa, or religious opinion, making voting a duty on a par with fasting in Ramadan.
But the next phase will have even greater consequences. Under the transitional administrative law that governs the political process, the national assembly that was just elected will name a committee to draft a permanent constitution. The panel can include members of the assembly and outsiders to write the document, which must be approved by the full assembly and put to a popular referendum to take effect.
Sistani's associates say he has prepared for this moment for years. Although he has lived a cloistered life in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, immersed in religious study, he is said to be passionately interested in politics and can converse in depth about different systems of government.
From his office on a narrow street in Najaf's Old City where the small brick houses are jammed together, Sistani has a far-reaching network of representatives that stretches from Pakistan to Lebanon to Britain.
He keeps in constant touch with them through e-mail as well as by telephone. His high-speed Internet connection is similar to the kind used by large corporations and governments, according to an Iraqi government official familiar with the system. His staff uses it to research any subject in which the cleric takes an interest.
His son Mohammed Ridha is one of his chief assistants and is deeply involved in politics. Mohammed Jawad, his other son, is a clerical scholar.