Najaf, the holy center of Shiism in Iraq, sits on the edge of a desert, parched and plain. Two-story plaster and concrete houses compose most of its historic quarters. Nowhere does one find the palm trees, the grass, and the mud that accompany the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the double spine of Mesopotamian civilization. The town's largest open square is a sprawl of dirty khaki-colored tents. In the market, frequented by locals and religious pilgrims, there are no exotic smells, and no music; for sale are only pilgrimage trinkets, small household appliances, cheap clothes, Korans, religious commentaries, and the basic necessities of daily life. From early morning until late at night pedestrians and cars clog the streets. Traffic jams are Volvo junkyards, and even among the most devout the town is known as the "village of Volvos"; Saddam Hussein flooded Najaf with them during the Iran-Iraq War, hoping to buy the loyalty of Shiites, who made up the bulk of his Sunni-led army. Everywhere in Najaf, too, one can sniff the dead. From the golden-domed shrine of Caliph Ali, where the faithful carry their deceased loved ones to bless and commend them, to the town's enormous graveyards, where for centuries hundreds of thousands of lucky Shiites have been buried, a pilgrimage for the dead endlessly repeats itself. The faith envelops one in Najaf.
The political future of Iraq may be determined here. The town is home to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric and the man who, on June 29 of last year, issued a fatwa that almost instantly unraveled America's go-slow planning for the postwar reconstruction of Iraq. The fatwa asserted that the United States had no legitimate role to play in determining Iraq's new political makeup—an announcement that made international headlines and exerted a profound effect on Iraqi public opinion. Yet almost no observer has pointed out what was most remarkable about the fatwa—namely, that despite its having been issued by a powerful religious leader who has devoted his life to the study of Islamic law, it was a flawlessly secular proclamation that clearly and concisely established "the people" as the final arbiters of Iraq's political system.