Jewish World Review Jan. 21, 2004 / 27 Teves, 5764

Jack Kelly

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Iraq: On the road to full-fledged democracy or transition from one form of tyranny to another? | Is Iraq on the road to full-fledged democracy, where the people are free and the rights of minorities are protected? Or will the American occupation prove to have been merely a period of transition from one form of tyranny to another?

Those questions underlie the procedural dispute between the United States and Iraq's most influential religious leader.

Tens of thousands of Shi'ia Muslims have taken to the streets in Baghdad, Basra and elsewhere in response to a religious opinion (fatwa) issued by the Grand Ayatollah Ali Muhammad al-Sistani that was critical of U.S. plans for selecting the provisional government to which America plans to cede power on June 30.

The U.S. wants to have a national assembly selected by caucuses in each of Iraq's 18 provinces. Sistani wants direct elections.

Because of the dicey security situation, the absence of voter registration lists, etc., it just isn't possible to hold national elections in so short a time, the Americans say.

Coalition Provisional Authority director L. Paul Bremer and several members of the Iraqi Governing Council traveled to New York to enlist the help of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to persuade Sistani that it just isn't practical to hold national elections on the timetable he wants. (Annan probably will play ball...after exacting a price.)

Amir Taheri, an Iranian exile who lives in Paris, suspects that "the Coalition rejects the election option not because it is technically difficult, but because the results cannot be pre-scripted."

Since Shi'ia Muslim Arabs comprise at least 60 percent of Iraq's population, there is little doubt who would win direct elections. The concern many Americans have is that this might be one man, one vote, one time.

About a third of Iraq's Shi'ias want to install an Iranian-style theocracy in Baghdad, estimates Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor who has studied Iraq's Shi'ia for two decades.

But Sistani isn't one of these, say Taheri and Washington Post Middle East reporter Robin Wright.

"Sistani does want Iraq's new constitution to be compatible with Islam..."Wright said. "He does not, however, favor the brand of militant Khomeini-ism that, Iraq analysts warn, has pread throughout Sh'ite-dominated southern Iraq largely undetected over the past dozen years."

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"Sistani belongs to the quietist school of Shi'ism that has always opposed mixing theology and politics," Taheri said. "This is why he has refused to meet with officials from more than a dozen countries, including the United States and Britain, who have applied to meet him."

Though many Americans regard Sistani, 73, as a pain in the butt now, he's been helpful in the past. At the beginning of the Iraq war, Sistani urged Shi'ias not to resist U.S. and U.K. forces. And he was instrumental in getting a rival Shi'ia cleric, the young firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr, to tone down his anti-American rhetoric.

In other words, there is no reason to suppose that Sistani is an enemy of democracy, and every reason to placate him if it is possible to do so, lest more of the Shi'ia migrate to more radical voices.

Ali Rubaie, secretary to another of Najaf's grand ayatollahs, suggested that a compromise was possible. A local governing council could be elected in each province, and then these councils could elect members to serve in a new provisional government in Baghdad, he told Maureen Fan of the Knight-Ridder news service.

Also, the elections need not follow immediately upon the transfer of power from the CPA to the Iraqis, Rubaie said. The existing Governing Council could rule until elections are held, he said.

Chibli Mallat, a Lebanese lawyer who is a Shi'ia Muslim, said that would be the best solution.

Though it has many shortcomings and contradictions, Iraq's Governing Council is already the most representative of all governments in the Middle East, Mallat said in an article in the New York Times.

"The council would be deemed the official interim government of Iraq - making the United States plan to select a national assembly by July 1 unnecessary," he said.

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JWR contributor Jack Kelly, a former Marine and Green Beret, was a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. Comment by clicking here.

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