The Troublesome, Vote-loving Ayatollah
January 20, 2004
The Economist Global Agenda
America is getting more international help in its quest to build a peaceful, democratic Iraq but, ironically, its plans are under threat because the spiritual leader of the countrys Shia majority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is demanding fully democratic elections
AMERICAS proconsul in Iraq, Paul Bremer, met the United Nations' secretary-general, Kofi Annan, on Monday January 19th, to plead for the UN's help in salvaging America's plan to give Iraqis their sovereignty back by the end of June. The plan is in danger of collapse because Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraqs most senior Shia Muslim cleric, insists there should be proper elections to choose the members of an interim national assembly that will select a new, provisional government. America insists it would be impossible to organise such a nationwide vote without delaying the handover of power. Instead it proposes that assembly members be chosen by local caucuses, in each Iraqi province. The caucuses members would in turn largely be selected by the Governing Council, a group of Iraqis appointed by America, who have already been given some restricted powers.
The Coalition Provisional Authority gives Mr Bremer's statements and outlines plans for governing Iraq. See also the US State Department's information on Iraq and the UN's Iraq section. The US Defence Department and US Central Command report on the security situation.
Mr Bremer, accompanied by members of the Governing Council, pressed Mr Annan to send a mission to Baghdad to assess whether or not direct elections would be feasible in the next few months. A Governing Council member allied to Mr Sistani said that if such a team of UN advisers were sent and decided that elections were not feasible, then the ayatollah would accept this. Mr Annan said further talks were needed before he could decide whether to send the mission, but diplomats said they expected a positive response.
Considering President George Bushs avowed desire to build a strong democracy in Iraq that would set a positive example for the rest of the Middle East, he ought to have been heart-warmed at the sight of tens of thousands of Shias chanting Yes, yes to elections! as they protested in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Thursday and again in the capital, Baghdad, on Monday. But the demonstrations were manifestations of Mr Sistanis power to whip up strong opposition among Shiaswho are an estimated 60% of Iraqs 25m population. Though he is Iranian-born and speaks Arabic with a heavy Persian accent, Mr Sistani commands strong support from Iraqi Shias and could cause serious trouble if his demands are not met.
Mr Sistani and his people fear that the caucuses will be rigged to try to exclude the Shias from power, as they were under Saddam Husseins Sunni Muslim regime. Last week, the ayatollah issued a fatwa (religious decree) that every Iraqi must have the right to vote. His aides say that unless direct elections are held, he may issue another, tougher decree which would turn the Shiashitherto largely supporters of the American-led invasioninto opponents, resisting America's presence alongside the remnants of Saddams forces. If so, hopes for an orderly handover of power would be shattered. The ayatollah has refused to meet Mr Bremer so he has been relying on the Governing Council to try to talk the cleric into a compromise.
America believes there is not enough time to produce the new electoral register that would be needed for direct elections. Mr Sistani argues, however, that the ration cards used for the UN's oil-for-food programme (which have just been reissued, without many hitches) could be used as voters registration cards. In a last-ditch bid to persuade the ayatollah to accept the caucuses, Mr Bremer is looking at ways to make them more open. But time is short: he has only until the end of February to pass a law on how the transitional assembly should be chosen.
Until Sunday's huge suicide-bombing outside America's main base in Baghdadwhich killed more than 20 people, mostly Iraqisthings had begun to look more promising for Americas Iraqi adventure. The level of deadly attacks against coalition forces seemed to have fallen slightly since Saddam was captured in December. Polls have shown that a majority of Americans continue to support the war but, over the weekend, the number of American deaths in Iraq rose to above 500a fact that may provide a focus for opponents of the war. While America is still providing the overwhelming majority of the 152,000 foreign troops in Iraq, the number of other countries sending their forces to help in peacekeeping and reconstruction has grown to more than 30. On Monday, the first contingent of Japanese troops arrived in Iraq. Eventually, about 600 Japanese soldiers will be stationed in the country, in Japans largest military deployment since the second world war.
The reinforcements being sent by allies mean that America can start to bring home some of its battle-weary troops. On Thursday, a planeload of troops from the 101st Airborne Division arrived home in Kentucky. In the next few months, all 20,000 members of the division will return home. The prospect of waves of GIs marching home after a successful mission to build a democratic Iraq would do no harm to Mr Bushs campaign to get re-elected in Novembers presidential vote. But achieving this outcome, rather than a renewed upsurge of violence, depends on persuading Mr Sistani to compromise.
The Americans have already given in to the clerics demands that Iraqs new constitution be written by directly elected representativesthese will be chosen in a national poll by March 2005; and later that year, once the constitution is written, elections for a new parliament will be held. But if the Americans give in to him again they are likely to enrage Iraqs other religious and ethnic groups, such as the Sunni Arabsaround 15-20% of Iraqiswho are used to running the country and thus reluctant to see the Shia majority dominating. To complicate things further, Iraqs Kurds are demanding a federal Iraq in which their homeland in the north of the country has strong autonomy. This has put them into conflict with the small Turkomen minority in the north, which fears being dominated by the Kurds.
Persuading the rival religious and ethnic groups to compromise, and keeping the handover plan on course, would be easier if the UN returned to Iraq to oversee the political transition (they were withdrawn last October after two bomb attacks on the UN headquarters in Baghdad caused heavy casualties). Mr Annan has said they will only return if they are given a significant role that makes it worth risking their personal safety. After meeting Mr Annan, Mr Bremer said he hoped the UN would return to play a role in Iraq soon. There was, however, no indication from the UN chief of when his staff might be sent back.
In the meantime, it remains unclear if Iraq can hold together and become a peaceful, liberal democracy in which no group subjugates any other. Long the outpost of one empire or another, the country had little chance to develop a sense of nationhood before Saddam came along. During his long and brutal dictatorship the Shias were suppressed and the Kurds brutalised, and the countrys nascent political institutions were destroyed.
This is the wreckage upon which America now proposes to erect a beacon of hope for the Arab world. It will be a very tough, though not impossible, task. http://www.economist.com/agenda/displayStory.cfm?story_id=2363896