The enthusiasm generated by the Democratic primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire is a testament to our nation’s commitment to democracy, yet the epic battles of polemic and policy pale in comparison to the real struggle for democracy half-way around the globe. In Iraq, the future of political freedom is hardly sealed — a loss in this race won’t result in a cushy consultant job and a lucrative book deal. Failure assures chaos, violence and tyranny.

Power will begin to devolve to the Iraqi people in the coming year, however the method of attaining self-government, whether through appointed caucuses or open elections, is yet undecided. The current U.S. plan centers on the hand selection of “notable Iraqis from a broad swathe of political views” to attend a national caucus that will elect a legislature and draft an Iraqi constitution. The “democracy” of the proposed “caucus” plan is a farce — at least in Iowa the citizens could vote; there is no vote in this caucus. If the ostensible goal of the American intervention was to liberate and empower the Iraqi people, it must now be carried through to its logical conclusion: free and untainted elections.

In many ways, the fate of 24 million Iraqis rests in the hands of one man — a decidedly undemocratic principle. His hoary beard and bushy brows set beneath a black turban bear a striking resemblance to another Shi’i cleric, the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran. Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani has emerged as the leader of Iraq’s long-repressed Shi’i majority, who now, after centuries of marginalization despite their overwhelming numbers, thirst for a stake in the political future of their country.

As plans for the reconstruction of Iraq are drawn up in the offices of the Pentagon and the State Department, al-Sistani has entered into the picture as a formidable voice, demanding direct elections immediately: “No one has the right to appoint the members of the constitutional assembly. We see no alternative but to go back to the people for choosing their representatives.”

His fatwa or legal opinion takes direct aim at the American caucus proposal. Most U.S. officials claim that Iraq is simply not ready for elections: there are no verifiable forms of voter identification and violence is still rampant. The real reluctance, however, stems from fear — the fear of relinquishing control into the hands of an overwhelming Shi’i political influence. A Shi’i majority could institute an intensely Islamic code of law, undermining plans for secular rule; it could marginalize the Sunnis and Kurds in retribution; worse still, a Shi’i government could ally with Iran and undermine the entire region’s stability.

Like Khomeini, al-Sistani is in touch with the pulse of the clamoring Shi’as. As the United States painfully learned in 1979, a popular cleric is not to be underestimated. Swiftly and without so much as bullet shot, the Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini usurped the Shah, promising prosperity, freedom from the evils of Western influence, and a return to Persian glory. His promises went unfulfilled. Twenty-five years later, Iran, under the leadership of Khomeini’s successor, Ali Khameini, chafes under the yoke of an oppressive Islamic republic and yearns for liberation.

The United States is appropriately wary of al-Sistani’s intentions and is determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past. The investment is too large, the stakes are too high, and the balance too tenuous to allow Iraq to slip into the hands of an autocratic regime once again.

But if there is any comforting news from Iraq, it is this: the man who controls his country’s future has no outward signs of political ambition. The Ayatollah al-Sistani is no Khomeini. Al-Sistani openly opposed Khomeini’s bastardization of Islam, specifically criticizing Khomeini’s belief in the “supreme guidance” of the ignorant and morally weak masses. Islam is a religion that stresses individual responsibility, and the Shi’i branch in particular has been divorced from wielding temporal power. If al-Sistani remains true to his roots, he will only offer nonbinding legal opinions and remain distant from direct involvement Iraq’s government; all indications show that he will.

If for no other reason than the fact that he commands the respect of most Iraqis, Ayatollah al-Sistani should be courted, not feared. He also happens to be in the right. If the future Iraqi government is tainted with charges of puppetry, a democratic regime is destined to last for no more than a day. The United States will inevitably have to grant Iraq its complete independence, leaving its future up to the will of the majority.

Islamic Jihadists and former Baathists, invigorated by the scent of blood, circle, patiently waiting for the opportune moment to crumble the fragile Iraqi provisional government. But the greatest danger lies not in these acts of the few — rather, in the interests of the many. The Shi’i, Sunni and Kurdish composition of the country is steeped in mutual distrust and an unwillingness to cede political authority.

Agreeing to Al-Sistani’s direct elections is the first step in achieving a legitimate form of democratic government capable of rising above the intense nationalism of Iraq’s three major religious and ethnic groups. This nationalism must be channeled into a more progressive vision of a nation that encompasses all factions but yields to none.

Keith Urbahn is a sophomore in Saybrook College.