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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now across Iran's border in Iraq, American forces have a visitor today. Robert Gates is their new boss, and the new defense secretary is meeting with American commanders. Gates has said the U.S. is not winning in Iraq. And for the first time, Gates' boss appears to share that assessment. President Bush told the Washington Post, quote, "We're not winning; we're not losing."

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This week on MORNING EDITION we're describing key players in Iraq. These are Iraqis whose names you hear whenever there is big news. What they do will greatly affect the future of Iraq, and as such, that of the U.S.

Our guide this week is NPR's Anne Garrels, who has been in and out of Iraq since before the war. And Anne, yesterday you spoke to us about Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Today we are going to turn to a very powerful figure, but one who stays mostly in the background. And that's the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Let us begin with his source of power.

ANNE GARRELS: Well, this 76-year-old is the leading Shiite religious figure in Iraq, and it is that which gives him the power. He was, in the '90s, voted in by the Shiite leadership.

MONTAGNE: Is he, then, listened to effectively by all Shiites in Iraq?

GARRELS: No. He does have this spiritual authority, but he does not have a militia, he does not have an army at his disposal. So in many ways his only means of power is the respect and ethical code that he espouses. In the very beginning, he was enormously powerful because he helped bring all the competing Shiite groups together to form a coalition of Shiite parties, and that was enormously important. He has urged Shiites not to respond to violence, but the Shiite community is becoming increasingly frustrated with that position.

MONTAGNE: Could there be in this a strategy?

GARRELS: That is possible. All along, his strategy has been to try to keep the Shiites as united as he possibly can. And by sort of not getting involved too much in the current political fights that may be what he's trying to do.

MONTAGNE: Since that time when we first heard about him and he did seem to be a presence, even politically, we haven't heard much from him.

GARRELS: No. We don't know a great deal about exactly what Sistani is thinking. He speaks out through basically his aides, many of whom are his close relatives. We do know that in recent months he has criticized the Maliki government and the Shiite political community as a whole for not doing enough to help people, for the ministries not being effective, but he has been quite quiet of late over the sectarian violence.

MONTAGNE: How does he connect to other key players in Iraq? And I'm thinking here actually of Sunnis and Kurds.

GARRELS: Many leaders do come to consult with him, including Sunnis and Kurds, but for the most part Sistani has shown that he wishes there to be a Shiite-led government. That at long last that the Shiites, who are 60 percent of the country, who were oppressed under Saddam Hussein, should be in control. However, he does not work in the same vein as say the Iranian ayatollahs. He does not subscribe to belief that the clerics should run the country.

MONTAGNE: Sistani does not speak to the United States. Is that right?

GARRELS: He does not meet with U.S. officials. He has never met with U.S. officials.

MONTAGNE: And that is meant to communicate what?

GARRELS: To keep his distance. He has been highly critical of the U.S. It was because of his pressure in fact early on that there were direct elections. It was Sistani's view that if there were direct elections, the Shiites would get the power they now have.

MONTAGNE: At this point in time, has he lost his influence?

GARRELS: I think he has lost some influence. He does not have a militia. And at this point, much of the power has devolved onto the ground in terms of fighting.

MONTAGNE: Anne, thanks very much.

GARRELS: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Anne Garrels. And we'll continue with Anne tomorrow as we discuss leadership among Sunni Muslims. Hear earlier conversations about militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at NPR.org.

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