Jewish World Review Jan. 21, 2004 / 27 Teves, 5764
Iraq: On the road to full-fledged democracy or transition from one form of tyranny to
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
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
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."
"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
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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