Top Shiite Muslim leaders, who are expected to wield the most power after next month's parliamentary elections, are locked in a dispute over whether the new Iraq should be a constitution-based...

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — Top Shiite Muslim leaders, who are expected to wield the most power after next month’s parliamentary elections, are locked in a dispute over whether the new Iraq should be a constitution-based democracy or an Iranian-style state in which clerics reign supreme.

Several Shiite politicians say the debate nearly caused the disintegration of a powerhouse Shiite slate assembled under the auspices of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq’s most prominent cleric. A breakdown was averted when religious parties backed by Iran agreed to expand the number of secularists and religious moderates on the slate.

“There was a huge fight,” said the spokesman for a secular party on the Shiite list, who didn’t want to be named for fear of reprisal. “At one point, the threat was, ‘We’re going to go tell Sistani.’ In the end, the people who stayed on the list are really bitter about it.”

The debate still simmers and could boil over after the Jan. 30 elections, which will choose a national assembly to draft a new constitution.

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Western diplomats are nervous that the Bush administration’s goal of making Iraq a model of Middle Eastern democracy will backfire if Shiite clerics take the top posts in the newly elected government. Secular and moderate Shiite politicians fear they will be sidelined if a leadership that favors theocracy is swept into office.

At the core of the debate is a concept known in Arabic as “walayat al faqih.” Literally, it means “custodianship of the jurist.” Practically, it means absolute rule by clerics. Observers note that Iran, which strictly follows walayat al faqih, would like to export the model to Iraq in hopes of preventing a secular Shiite-run democracy from emboldening reformers in the Islamic republic.

“They’re very treacherous waters, but I take some comfort from what I’ve been told repeatedly by Shiites from all walks of life: that the Shiite community, as a whole, is very allergic to the influence of Iran,” said a senior U.S. diplomat in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity. “So, if many turbans win, I don’t equate it with an Iranian victory. I equate it instead to a possible shift on that continuum between completely secular and completely religious.”

Even al-Sistani, who was born in Iran and speaks Arabic with an Iranian accent, reportedly doesn’t agree with such clerical rule. His aides have said repeatedly that the ayatollah prefers a strict separation of mosque and state, although his intervention in Iraq’s wartime politics suggests otherwise.

Still, the main proponents of walayat al faqih read like a who’s who of Shiite politics. Candidates familiar with the debate said supporters included members of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Dawa Party and Hussain Shahristani, a nuclear physicist recently labeled an “Iranian agent” by the interim Iraqi defense minister.

These leaders are widely known to have received money and refuge from Iran as they fled persecution under Saddam Hussein. They include Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who holds the No. 1 position on the Shiite slate and survived an apparent assassination attempt Monday.

The top opponents to clerical guidance are former Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi, supporters of the rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and allies of al-Sistani.

Angered by the supposedly pro-Iranian contingent, some Shiite political groups threatened to form a different list of candidates, which would have split the Shiite vote and offered Sunni Muslim, Kurdish and other rivals an opportunity for more slots in the national assembly.

In an interview, al-Hakim played down the disagreement, likening it to “a tempest in a teacup.”

Walayat al faqih “hasn’t been found in Iraq, not in the past or the present, and I don’t know anyone calling for it,” al-Hakim said, adding that he opposed it. “People are using this provocative issue to scare European and Arab countries.”

Other leading Shiite candidates, including several of al-Hakim’s allies on the slate, suggested he was at the very least disingenuous. When moderate Shiite politicians who belong to the Hezbollah group were told of al-Hakim’s remarks, they looked incredulous.

“Well, it’s good if it’s true,” said one smirking candidate, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of backlash from al-Hakim’s group. “Hmm, will he also go on TV and say this? I don’t think so.”