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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- A senior Shiite Muslim cleric, sternly considering Iraq's future, states an unbending tenet: "We do not put our hand in the hand of foreigners."
Although he referred to American troops and civilians, many Iraqi Shiites are also suspicious of their brethren who spent time overseas and became secularized.
Even as Shiites move to establish power in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, they're divided over a vision for their nation. As the majority sect, they have the numbers to shape Iraq. But they disagree over whether to embrace a secular government or an Iran-style theocracy.
A substantial number of Shiites are secular and many belong to liberal, leftist and nationalist parties. But their conservative clerics are more outspoken -- and they have the clout.
"This is a fight over who will be the ultimate spokesman for the Shiites in determining Iraq's future," said Abdel Majid Zirkat, a Lebanese researcher on Shiite affairs.
Shiite clerics demonstrated their organizational abilities this week, staging a huge pilgrimage in southern Iraq that signaled Shiites' determination to secure a political role in Iraq after decades of suppression under Saddam and his minority Sunnis.
Clerics such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Hussein al-Sistani, who heads a historic center of Shiite learning in the holy city of Najaf, stayed in Iraq and suffered Saddam's repression with other Shiites. That gives them the status and following to influence politics, even if, like al-Sistani, they insist they do not want direct political power.
In contrast, many leading secular Shiites are seen as having shallow roots in Iraq. Ahmad Chalabi, a Shiite who heads the broad-based Iraqi National Congress, left Iraq as a teenager in 1958 and was educated in the United States.
Many Iraqis consider Chalabi a Westernized interloper promoted by Washington to lead an interim administration.
Jay Garner, the retired U.S. Army general who is leading efforts to restore Iraq's physical and civil infrastructure, has repeatedly said he wants Iraqis to take the reins as soon as possible.
But not only do many Shiites distrust such promises, the highest Shiite clerics don't even intend to talk to him.
"We don't put our hand in the hand of the foreigners. People should rule themselves by themselves. The Americans should leave our country peacefully," Shiite cleric Sayyed Ali al-Waethi told The Associated Press on Thursday.
Al-Waethi represents the Hawza al-Ilmiya, the Najaf religious center led by al-Sistani, whose directives are followed by many devout Shiites.
"Shiite scholars will agree on the right person that runs Iraq's affairs .... The right person does not have any connection with foreign countries," he said.
The clerical push for a theocracy brought a harsh response from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
"If you're suggesting, how would we feel about an Iranian-type government with a few clerics running everything in the country, the answer is: That isn't going to happen," he told AP on Thursday.
Secular-religious tensions are even played out within the same Iraqi Shiite group.
"We want God's word to be implemented," Sheik Karim al-Saadi, a member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, told al-Jazeera television recently. The Shiite council, which was the biggest group opposing Saddam, is based in Iran.
But Akram al-Hakim, a council activist in London, said the group does not contemplate an Iranian-style government in Iraq. "Shiites want only democratic elections that give them their share of power," he said.
The council opposes a U.S. administration in Iraq, but it has close ties with the rest of the American-backed opposition, including the Kurds and Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress.
This week, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, brother of the council's leader, Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, returned to Iraq and has been seen with crowds of supporters in several southern cities.
Abdel Aziz al-Hakim leads the council's fighting arm, the Badr Brigades, which he said is policing several Iraqi cities and towns -- although the men were ordered not to confront U.S. forces.
In the power gap left by Saddam, Iraqi Shiite religious and secular figures have challenged the U.S.-proposed civil administration by organizing local committees, paying salaries, collecting looted property and sending militias to secure government buildings.
Americans who may be tempted to sidestep Shiites run the risk of being seen as trying to deny Shiites their due. Some Shiites still resent what they see as a decision by Britain, which administered Iraq after World War I, to keep them from power.
Shiites, for religious reasons, had distanced themselves from the Ottomans who ruled Iraq before the war, while Sunnis advanced into key administrative roles that meant they were in a good position to benefit from British nation-building.
Shiites "just do not want to be the underdogs again," researcher Zirkat said by telephone from Beirut.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)