By Richard Engel Chief foreign correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/28/2005 7:36:22 PM ET 2005-01-29T00:36:22

Campaigning door to door, Wafa Hussein is determined. A devout Shiite Muslim, she's running on a little-known slate. Her campaign message: "Voting is a God-given right that will lead to stability and security." Her headquarters is a charity, now educating women voters.

Wafa's husband, Raad, is running too, but for a different small party. His forum is mosques.

But what many voters don't realize is the same invisible yet formidable force is behind both of them — the senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Al-Sistani isn't a candidate himself, but it doesn't matter. Many people here consider him to be the most powerful man in Iraq, the leader of the Shiites who make up 60 percent of the population.

The question everyone is asking is, if his supporters win, will he push this country toward Islamic rule?

The answer, according to Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the most prominent Shiite bloc, also "blessed" by al-Sistani, is no.

"We don't want to establish a religious or sectarian state, but one open to everyone," he says.

But there's a different message at Raad's mosque seminars.

"The new government will be accountable to the people who have suffered so much," says a cleric at the mosque. "And will promote Islam throughout the land."

But there is another concern about al-Sistani and his top clerics — their close ties to Iran. Wafa's charity and Raad's mosque seminars are funded by Iran's hard-line Islamic government.

"The priority for Iran at this point in time is to make sure that a government comes into power in Baghdad that is dominated by Shiites with whom they have good relations," says Geoffrey Kemp, director of regional programs at the Nixon Center.

Wafa admits Iran does have influence in these elections, but doesn't think Tehran will direct policy in Iraq. Many fear Sunday's election could set a course for Iraq to gradually drift closer to Iran and its theocracy, guided by a powerful and reclusive ayatollah whose vision for Iraq remains unclear.

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