Ayatollah with Iraq's future in his hands has come far from his humble origins The modest mud-brick hut in Iran where Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani was born is now a modern home with a doorbell and indoor garage. His humble roots hardly speak of a man who has the fate of Iraq in his hands. The narrow dirt alleyway in Mashad where one of Shia Islam's most important clerics took his first steps has become a busy commercial side street with souvenir shops and cheap hotels catering to the pilgrims who descend on the holy tomb of Imam Reza nearby. And though steeped in the religious and cultural traditions of a bygone era, Ayatollah Sistani - who has become a key figure in Washington's plans for post-Hussein Iraq - has also evolved with the times, adopting a modern outlook for his faith and his multimillion-dollar organisation. 'It's good for a cleric to know his religion, but if he doesn't understand the world, he won't get far,' says Fazel Maybodi, a liberal cleric based in the Iranian seminary city of Qom. 'Sistani is familiar with the issues of the world.' That may be, but he has complicated United States plans for a quick handover of authority in Iraq to a transitional government by demanding speedy direct elections. Following attacks on Iraqi holy sites that killed at least 180 pilgrims visiting tombs in Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani blasted the US for failing to safeguard Iraq's borders and properly prepare police, making a rare direct public statement and foray into Iraq's troubled affairs. But Ayatollah Sistani also gave the go-ahead to Shi'ite members of the Governing Council to vote for the transitional law, which gives a minority of Iraqis the power to reject the constitution, a provision - Kurds and secular Iraqis say - aims partly to prevent Iraq's Shia majority from establishing an Islamic government. The clerics, relatives and Iraqi leaders who know Ayatollah Sistani say he adamantly opposes clerical involvement in politics and Iranian-style clerical rule, under which clergy exercise control over all aspects of social and political life. 'Not only will he not take part in politics, but he won't allow the other Najaf clergy to take part in politics,' said Mohammad Ali Rahbani, a former student of the ayatollah. The 73-year-old cleric early on fell under the tutelage and influence of Ayatollah Abul-Qasim Khoei, an advocate of the quietist school of theology that urged clerics to devote their lives to study. The philosophy was in stark contrast to the militant theology espoused by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who arrived in Najaf, Iraq, in the mid-1960s after he was exiled by the shah. The two ayatollahs became bitter rivals, especially after Khomeini began a series of popular lectures arguing for more active participation of the clergy in politics. 'Sistani would not take part in Khomeini's lectures,' said Mr Rahbani, who lived in Najaf during the 1970s and 1980s. Maybodi, a Qom scholar among the clerics most outspoken against the powers of the clerical regime and failures of the revolution, has studied Ayatollah Sistani's writings for years and met him in Najaf last year. He called Ayatollah Sistani a democrat who would look out for the interests of Iraqis. After reading an Ayatollah Sistani announcement that he felt defied the quietist spirit espoused by Khoei, a Baghdad cleric sent him a polite but firm letter reminding him of his past statements that clerics should stay out of politics. 'He responded with a letter saying, in effect, he agreed,' said the cleric, who also was Ayatollah Sistani's former representative. Although committed theologically to remaining aloof from political activity, Ayatollah Sistani voraciously devours news, and even modern western novels, keeping up with contemporary political and social issues. 'He reads newspapers, unlike other clerics,' Mr Rahbani said.