NAJAF, Iraq — Long gone are the days when the clergy and students in this city of shrines and seminaries confined their debates and studies to arcane questions of Islamic jurisprudence.
Now the talk in the libraries, teahouses and Internet cafes is almost always about politics: the deadlock over government formation in Baghdad, the violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, when to get American troops out of the country.
Most often, discussion turns to how much this city's Shiite clerical establishment should participate in the governing of Iraq.
"The clergy are looking at what's going on in the whole country with great concern," said Ali Bashar Najafi, the son and spokesman of one of Najaf's four grand ayatollahs. "So they're very much involved in what's going on."
The once-secluded shrine city, suppressed and marginalized under Saddam Hussein's rule, is now being pulled into Iraq's political fray. Although they try to stay above politics -- in deliberate contrast to their clerical colleagues in neighboring Iran -- members of the Shiite marjaiyah, the clerical elite which is centered here, have repeatedly felt obligated to intervene in the country's day-to-day affairs.
Some of those interventions have brought success. Others have set precedents and molded dependencies that even clerics here fear could shape the country's future for the worse.
When the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites, was destroyed in late February, word of the bombing reached here before the media reported it. Najaf's four leading Shiite clerics, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, quickly met to discuss the event and "tried directly and indirectly to control the anger of the people," said Ali Mohammed Saeed Hakim, son and spokesman of another of the four grand ayatollahs.
The clergy issued a statement that called for peaceful demonstrations and forbade retaliation against Sunnis. When retaliatory violence began to taper off within days, Iraqi and American analysts credited the clergy with forestalling a full-scale civil war.
The clergy's efforts to guide Iraq's unruly politics have proved more frustrating.
Iraqi politicians, many with close family ties to the Shiite clergy, have shown no qualms about bringing the marjaiyah into their factional fights. They drive down from the capital in huge armed convoys, pepper the marjaiyah with questions and then publish the clergy's answers as if they were proclamations, in effect turning religious rulings into political press releases. But the same politicians have been unable to form a widely acceptable government.
The sense that a long-awaited opportunity for the country's Shiite majority to consolidate its status is being squandered adds urgency to the impromptu debates in the ancient alleys of the old bazaar, in the hallways of the seminaries and in the unadorned chambers of the senior clergy.
"We are of two feelings," said Mohammed Kraedi, a representative of a Shiite cleric here. "We feel embarrassed about the government, but we also sympathize with the great and heavy burden on its shoulders."
That burden includes the task of making up for the Shiites' sense of deprivation, restoring rights and opportunities many think have been denied for centuries.
Najaf's history haunts the cracked walls and alleys surrounding the Imam Ali shrine, believed to be the tomb of the prophet Muhammad's son-in-law and cousin. Shiites believe Ali was murdered by tribal leaders in an attempt to usurp his family's claim to the mantle of Islam.
Once toiling away in obscurity and isolation, the custodians of Najaf's libraries, some with manuscripts dating back 1,300 years, now electronically scan ancient texts before e-mailing them to colleagues at scholarly institutes in Iran, Lebanon and the Indian subcontinent. They surf the latest news of violence on once-banned satellite television stations.
The city shows signs of newfound wealth. The crumbling two-story building off one of the maze-like alleyways of the old city where Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini spent years in exile is being gutted and rehabbed, part of a modest real estate boom here that includes a proposed airport.
Even the shrine at the center of the city's religious, cultural and economic life has been changed. The heavy green fence and dozens of armed men manning checkpoints around the shrine are signs of the city's newfound importance amid Iraq's Shiite resurgence but also of its vulnerability to the world's troubles.
"Our Hawza [religious seminary] during Saddam's time was only concerned with studying and the students were only concerned with their lessons," said Sheik Abu Mohammed Baghdadi, a deputy to one of the leading clerics in Najaf.
"But the Hawza now has many options," added Baghdadi, who has installed an Internet connection and satellite television in his sliver of a home in the old city. "Now the students have many choices: law, science and, of course, politics."