NAJAF, IRAQ — Every day, the pilgrims gather in the alleyway leading to the home of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, hoping to be among the lucky few to get an audience with the austere Shiite spiritual leader. Political figures are whisked to the cleric's simple office, leaving a short time later with vague pronouncements about Iraq's direction.
Even U.S. officials seek his help. Foreign Policy magazine recently reported that President Obama had sent a letter asking for Sistani's assistance in ending the months-long impasse over forming Iraq's next government. Both the White House and Sistani's office declined to comment on the matter.
Since 2003, Sistani has stepped into the breach, using his authority as the country's supreme Shiite religious leader to guard his community's welfare.
Sistani's legal decrees and threat of demonstrations forced the Americans to agree to his demands for a speedy timeline for elections and the drafting of a permanent constitution in the early days of Washington's occupation. He has long been a voice of moderation, acting to quell sectarian bloodshed and revenge killings since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.
Now, Iraq is once again looking to Najaf to see if the reclusive religious man can help extricate the nation from its dangerous political crisis.
Observers warn that the country's democracy remains extremely fragile. "If the civilians continue to flail over the next three-four years, the chances of a military coup are likely to go up," former U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said.
"That could bring with it something like the 1958 revolution" -- which ushered in an era of autocratic strongmen and further marginalization of Shiite religious leaders.
The clergy, whose history before 2003 was one of persecution, have tied their own credibility and survival to Iraq's new institutions.
Aware of the dangers to the political process, clerics close to Sistani have warned that he and the country's three other grand ayatollahs could soon intervene.
In July, Sistani representative Abdul Mehdi Karbalai made it clear that the marjaia, the country's highest-ranking Shiite clergy, were losing patience with the failure to form a government.
"Yes, if things will reach deadlock, which we don't hope, the higher marjaia will not spare giving advice and help [to] those blocs which will maintain the interests of Iraqis and solving the crisis," Karbalai said.
This month, at a conference in Najaf, one of Sistani's peers issued a warning.
"We demand that all the political blocs work hard ... to solve the many choking crises that the country is suffering and intensify the efforts to provide the basic services as soon as possible," Grand Ayatollah Ishaq Fayyad said in a speech read on his behalf. "Otherwise, the people's patience is almost running out."
Still, Sistani's followers put a premium on maintaining their neutrality. They bristle openly at whispers that Sistani may have favored anyone in the spring election, or that he does now.
"What the marjaia want is a peaceful transfer of power," said Sayed Mohamed Hasani, Sistani's representative in Baghdad's Karada district. "They also stand against the marginalization of the voters' will."
One cleric, Sheik Farhan Saadi, said Najaf's religious establishment followed a far different model from its more interventionist peers in Iran. He contrasted the Iraqi clergy's studied behavior with the conduct of Iran's ayatollahs last summer after a disputed presidential election. "The voice of the [Iraqi] marjaia is democracy," he said.
If Sistani were to act, he would probably do so from behind the scenes.
"If he chooses to weigh in, I don't expect Sistani to indicate any political preferences, but to suggest a mechanism by which to break the deadlock," said Iraq expert Joost Hiltermann. "And he will do so subtly, via his known intermediaries."
And all of it will happen behind closed doors in a quiet alley in Najaf.