Ayatollahs, like popes, do not give press interviews. But they do want to be heard. Grand Ayatollah Muhammed Hussein Saeed al-Hakim is one of Iraq's top four ayatollahs, who make up the howza, the supreme religious authority for the country's Shiite Muslims. Another grand ayatollah, Ali Sistani, the most senior of the four members of the howza, is so influential that when he called for direct elections to choose a government to rule Iraq, the Americans felt obliged to comply. Last week he accepted a plan to hold a ballot by the year-end. Al-Hakim's spokesman and son, Sheik Muhammed Hussein al-Hakim, met with NEWSWEEK's Rod Nordland at the cleric's home in Najaf. His views are those of his father and the howza, he explained, including Sistani. Excerpts:

NORDLAND: Beginning March 2, Iraq's Shia will for the first time be able to celebrate ashura, honoring the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. The self-flagellation ceremonies are famous but the holiday also calls for passing out food and drink at mosques. Under Saddam, even serving a free cup of tea was considered an offense.

AL-HAKIM: It was revolutionary, because recalling Imam Hussein--peace be upon him--is an example for all people who are unjustly treated. Last year in Karbala, Saddam's men executed 15 people because they cried "O Hussein."

After so much tragedy, how do you see the future for Iraq's Shia?

The oppression, then, was by a violent minority over the nonviolent majority. That is over. This is the beginning of a future for Iraq in which the rights of the individual are respected.

How do you feel about the U.S. occupation?

The occupying power will stay for a certain time, but occupation cannot last for very long, especially in the 21st century. The main thing is not to impose the future on us, as the British did.

Your leaders, including Ayatollah Sistani, have softened demands for elections.

We demanded elections, first, to establish clearly who sovereignty is handed to, and second, to give legitimacy to the future government. The United Nations thinks early elections are not possible but promised they will be held as soon as possible, not later than the end of this year. But sovereignty has not yet been clearly spelled out. Who will it be handed over to?

What sort of government do you want?

A fully legitimate government. But the somewhat good thing about the American attitude is that they are always open to discussions, and this will create room for guidance. What's important is that it be on the basis of population composition, with the preservation of the rights of all factions and all nationalities.

But none of the ayatollahs in the howza have spoken to American officials.

No, clergy with a spiritual message should not be involved in political negotiations with political leaders. But we were in continuous conversation with all the influential authorities, and we were also in a continuous contact with the office of His Eminence Sayid Al-Sistani, in order to have a clear and unified position.

Some Sunnis have challenged the accepted view that the Shia make up 60 percent of Iraq's population.

If so, they would have accepted elections.

When do you feel the Americans should withdraw from Iraq?

As soon as possible. Remember, at the beginning of the war the Americans said it would be only six months.

Now they suggest it will be years.

There is something about the nature of America. All its attitudes can be changed; they do not say one thing once and for all. Nothing is cast in stone.

What if you don't get the government you want, or the Americans stay longer than you feel is necessary?

Shias are very patient. We will keep telling the world and the Americans that occupation is neither in the interest of the American people, nor of Iraqis.

Is violent opposition justifiable?

What's happening now cannot be considered resistance against the occupier. It hurts the Iraqi people. How many Americans have died? Iraqis have suffered more.

What role do you see for Sharia law and Islamic legal principles?

We want the Americans to understand that circumstances in this country are different than in Iran. Americans should not keep saying, over and over, that they don't want a government similar to the one in Iran. This is not a real concern; none of us expect this. Our clerics do not seek political posts for themselves, and that's why as soon as the regime fell we advised clerics to steer clear of politics. But that does not mean a cleric is not entitled to go into the field of policy.