Iraq The Mullah and Democracy
To counter the threats made by Shiite leader Sistani, the Americans, at a loss, are now turning to the United Nations again. They want the UN to help bring peace to Iraq.
The two most powerful religious leaders in the modern history of the Shiites studied in Najaf with the legendary Grand Ayatollah Abd al-Kassim al-Chui. Neither of the two turned out entirely as his teacher might have wished.
According to Chui, one of the two men, Iran's revolutionary leader Ruhollah Khomeini, was always more interested in politics than theology. A great tribune of the people, but only moderately successful as a religious scholar.
In the 1980s, Chui referred to the other of his two pupils and his later successor, Sajid Ali al-Sistani, as a great mind, adding that his problem was that he was too much of a homebody. According to Chui, Sistani spent too much time studying religious texts instead of venturing outside and encouraging his fellow believers to resist Saddam's dictatorship. The old Chui disapproved of Sistani's behavior.
Perhaps it is precisely this criticism from the man who was his teacher in the days of the Iran-Iraq war, and who died in 1992, that today shapes the actions of Grand Ayatollah Sistani.
A little more than a year ago, the name of this religious scholar from the Shiite city of Najaf, except to his followers, was little more than a concept to a few Western scholars of Islam. However, the longer the American occupation in Iraq lasts, the more significant is the 73-year-old religious leader's influence on world politics.
Prompted by Sistani's most recent declaration, US Civilian Administrator Paul Bremer made his way to Washington: the Mullah had warned that America's semi-democratic plans for a transfer of power in early July are doomed to failure. According to Sistani, a transitional government that was not the result of open, general elections is "neither capable nor qualified to perform its work. The political situation will worsen - as will the security situation."
An attendee at a meeting of clerics with Sistani reported that Jihad, or holy war, is "in the air." To reinforce Sistani's demands, tens of thousands demonstrated in the streets of Basra, followed by a demonstration by almost 100,000 people in Baghdad. The demonstrators even included Christians and Sunnis, although the majority came from the Shiite slums. The demonstrations were organized by the Hausa, the theological seminary headed by Sistani, and were his first visible show of power.
The impression left by these images served as the backdrop for Bremer's meeting with US President George W. Bush, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and Secretary of State Colin Powell, a meeting whose outcome suggested a willingness to compromise. Bremer had already submitted a fully developed seven-step plan for the transfer of power last summer, a plan that had reflected Sistani's criticism.
Just what a more recent compromise with the obstinate Mullah could look like is something Bremer discussed with someone who, of all people, the Bush administration seemed to have lost interest in discussing the Iraq issue: UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. The United Nations, which withdrew from Baghdad in August, wounded and embittered following the attack on the UN headquarters there, is being asked to help Washington get itself out of a tight spot in Iraq.
After the war ended, Sistani was more reserved than other Shiite leaders in expressing his opposition to foreign dominance in Iraq. His obliging tone, in contrast to that of his young rival Muqtada al-Sadr, for example, may have lulled the Americans into a sense of false security. Of course, Sistani never left any doubt as to his true objective: democratic elections, which would guarantee the Shiites, with their 60 percent majority, a place in the political power structure of the new Iraq.
According to Baghdad political scientist Wamid Nadhmi, it is still unclear as to whether Sistani is a true democrat or, like Khomeini, is simply interested in power: "In any event, the Shiites are entitled to demand democratic elections, something they have been promised again and again."
Nadhmi, a former dean of the Department of Political Science at the University of Baghdad, is himself a Sunni with Arab nationalist views. Last summer he rejected an offer to become part of the Governing Council appointed by the Americans, arguing that a non-elected body is powerless.
He would easily prefer a moderate, but democratically legitimized Shiite government over a cabinet appointed by Americans, which is dominated by Sunnis or structured to reflect the ethnic and religious proportions of the country. Nadhim claims that although he does not speak for all minorities in expressing this opinion, he does speak for a significant group.
The occupiers apparently disagree. The Americans fear that the Shiites' probable victory at the polls will result in a second theocracy in the Gulf region and, at the same time, in the breakup of Iraq, because neither the Kurds nor the Sunni Arabs would tolerate a mullah regime.
The first indications of such a scenario have already materialized: While the Kurds have reacted to Sistani's claim to power with open threats of secession, Muqtada al-Sadr's radical Shiite supporters are mobilizing against the previously undisputed guiding principle of federalism. At a Shiite demonstration last Tuesday, demonstrators chanted "From Sachu to Basra - Iraq remains undivided!" Federalism, according to al-Sadr's supporters, is nothing but an "Israeli plan" to divide the country.
The opponents of early elections cite many reasons for their opposition, claiming that Iraq has no valid census, no lists of voters, no election law, and that not even the boundaries of election districts are clearly defined. From a technical standpoint alone, they say, it would be impossible to enable the entire Iraqi people to go to the polls by the date of the power transfer set for early July. They also cite a risky security situation, following attacks on Iraqi police stations and the attack on the US headquarters along the Tigris in Baghdad, which claimed more than 30 lives.
Of course, this is just as applicable to the plan put forth by the Americans, to which they agreed with the Governing Council they themselves appointed: 18 caucuses, their members appointed by the Governing Council itself as well as regional councils, are to elect a 250-member transitional parliament by the end of May. This transitional parliament, in turn, would have to appoint a transitional government by June 30, the formal end of the American occupation.
Last week a Sistani spokesman rejected the US plan more forcefully than ever before, stating that the process is "extremely dangerous," and that no national assembly or government produced by such a process could be legitimate. As long as UN and Iraqi experts cannot convince him of a better model, said the spokesman, Sistani will continue to insist on democratic elections.
In fact, last summer a UN team headed by election expert Carina Perelli concluded that direct elections could certainly be organized, with a preparation period of about six months. Because of the poor security situation, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan now tends to agree with the skeptics. A letter in which Annan notified Sistani of his concerns was dismissed by the Mullah as nothing more than a document issued in response to American pressure.
Two UN security experts are now in Iraq to prepare for a UN return to the country. As an advance team, Perelli's group is to travel to the Tigris in February to examine whether and when democratic elections can be held. Lachdar Brahimi, an Algerian who has been successful in Afghanistan and is very popular in Iraq, is slated to succeed the former UN mission chief Sergio Vieira de Mella, who was murdered in August. Annan knows that he must offer Sistani alternatives.
What the Americans and the Iraqi Governing Council have thus far offered him as a basis for negotiation is not particularly encouraging. Last week participants in the UN negotiations discussed a proposal to "expand" the voter base for the official US plan. Whether Sistani can be made more cooperative by an increase in the number of Shiites in the caucuses remains questionable. This is because he has not changed his criticism of what he considers the basic flaw of the process: all caucuses that appoint delegates would still be controlled by the Americans. According to a Bremer spokesman in Baghdad, fundamental changes to this model are "not under consideration."
Instead, an entirely different scenario threatens to develop in the Governing Council: If the Grand Ayatollah rejects the proposed caucus process, say Iraqi and American officials, he may end up completely without elections. The US civilian administration, which is firmly resolved to withdraw from Baghdad in late June, could simply transfer the reins of power to the current Governing Council.
Sistani, claims Governing Council member Muwaffak al-Rubai, could agree to the elections being held by the end of the year and under Iraqi control. Of course, this solution would benefit consistently unpopular council members such as Rubai himself, Pentagon protégé Ahmed Chalabi, and Adnan Pachatchi, whose power would be artificially extended as a result.
"In the long term, it will not be worthwhile to try to manipulate Ayatollah Sistani," warns political scientist and Shiite expert Nadhmi. Although clerics of his caliber, says Nadhmi, like to pose as ringleaders, they are in fact very much in touch with their followers. "It may be possible to outmaneuver a single mullah. But that is not the way to bypass the will of the people."
Translated by Christopher Sultan