In Iraq, an Ayatollah We Shouldn't Ignore
By Robin Wright
Sunday, December 14, 2003; Page B03
A quarter-century ago, the United States misread the power and legitimacy of a Shiite ayatollah -- and ended up "losing" Iran, then one of two pillars of American policy in the Middle East. The impact is felt to this day.
Could Washington be on the verge of making the same mistake in Iraq in a way that could also compromise, even betray, the very democratic process that the Bush administration has begun to demand for the entire region?
The problem stems from the game of chicken the United States is playing with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani over the future of Iraq. The cleric, the most powerful leader in Iraq since Saddam Hussein was toppled, wants elections for a government that will assume control when the American occupation ends on July 1.
But the United States, still smarting from its encounter with Ayatollah Khomeini after Iran's 1979 revolution, has a bad case of ayatollah-itis. Policy-think is shaped by an unspoken fear: Beware Shia-istan.
So the administration is balking at popular elections. It has lots of reasonable arguments: There's not enough time for voter registration, party formation and a campaign. There's too much violence and security is uneven, especially in Sunni strongholds. Saddam and his aides are still at large. Any election would be flawed. Washington also fears the precedent of ceding to an ayatollah -- even over the issue of a popular vote -- and further alienating Sunnis, both in Iraq and in oil-rich or strategic neighboring countries.
To transfer power, L. Paul Bremer, the administrator of the U.S.-led authority that governs Iraq, has instead devised an indirect system to choose a new Iraqi government through 18 regional caucuses. It's so complicated, however, that even some U.S. officials refer to cheat sheets to explain the different phases that begin in early January with selection of coordinating committees, continue in February with a prolonged caucus process and wrap up with selection of members for a new national assembly in May. Those Iraqis would then pick a new government in June. Not until the following year would the Iraqi people vote in a popular election.
As now envisioned, the process orchestrated by Bremer is also weighted in favor of former exiles and the aging opposition leaders who were handpicked by the United States to be members of the Iraqi Governing Council and who have been unable to provide inspiring or popular leadership. Many Iraqis have said they are suspicious of the outcome of the political transition before it has even begun.
Some officials in Washington who are involved in implementing the Iraq policy aren't all that confident that the current exit strategy will work either. They have said privately that they worry that the plan will gradually unravel: Key Iraqis will either opt out of participating in committees and caucuses, or will decide down the road that the new government has no more legitimacy than the current U.S.-selected council.
The stakes during this pivotal period involve more than who ends up ruling in Baghdad. Sistani has come to represent the dilemma that the United States will face repeatedly in the Middle East in the years ahead: When should we encourage and facilitate elections in countries with large Muslim populations?
Over the next seven months, Iraq will be the test case for American credibility, since President Bush, in two eloquent speeches last month -- in Washington and London -- pledged that the United States will no longer compromise on democratic principles in the 22 Arab nations because of economic or diplomatic ties.
Iraq's Shiite majority already has its doubts as a result of two American missteps in Najaf, one of the two holiest sites in Shiite Islam and Sistani's home base. After the United States occupied the country, it alienated Shiites by appointing a former colonel in Saddam's army -- and a Sunni Muslim -- as mayor of Najaf. Intensely unpopular, Abul Munim Abud was arrested by coalition forces three months later at the request of an Iraqi judge. Charged with kidnapping three children of a political opponent, misuse of government accounts, corruption and misuse of power, he was sentenced by an Iraqi court to 14 years in prison.
More importantly, Iraq's first free local elections were due to be held in Najaf last June. The U.S. military had conducted a voter registration drive and built ballot boxes, while 18 candidates had festooned the streets with colorful posters declaring their positions. Then Bremer overruled the local U.S. military commander and abruptly canceled the election. Publicly, the occupation authority said conditions were not suitable for a vote, although U.S. officials privately said it had been canceled in part because they were concerned about the outcome.
Najaf is a microcosm of the awkward choice that the U.S. occupation continues to face in Iraq: allow real elections and accept the result, or orchestrate the process so that it leaves behind a friendly government, which may or may not endure. Whatever our fears or past experience elsewhere with the Shiite clergy, and whatever the possible risk, the greater risk may be in not building a bridge to Sistani.
The reclusive ayatollah is probably the person the United States needs to cultivate most at this vital political juncture. Some of the Governing Council's 24 members have appealed to the 73-year-old Sistani for support, but he has so far resisted. As the senior cleric for Iraq's largest power bloc, he is more influential than any of them.
He is also the closest thing Iraq has to an elected leader.
Shiite clerics gain status because followers voluntarily support them and provide funds that in turn empower them to act on behalf of the community. Unlike their Sunni counterparts, they have more authority over the faithful because they are empowered to interpret God's word, while Sunnis clerics act more as spiritual advisers. The distinction, very roughly, is comparable to the difference between the power and influence of Catholic and Protestant clerics.
Sistani already proved his willingness to work with the United States when he indirectly bestowed legitimacy on the U.S. invasion and occupation. Even when he urged elections, he did not call for any public demonstrations to back him up -- as Khomeini did to support his fatwas in Iran.
Among Shiites, Sistani is also modest politically. He is hardly an advocate of liberal Western-style democracy but he does believe that the popular will should prevail. He has long advocated separation of politics and religion. A practitioner of the so-called "quietist" branch of Islam, he wants fellow clerics to stay out of government.
Sistani does want Iraq's new constitution to be compatible with Islam, a position adopted by allies from Egypt to Pakistan that will nonetheless make Washington nervous. He does not, however, favor the brand of militant Khomeini-ism that, Iraq analysts warn, has spread throughout Shiite-dominated southern Iraq largely undetected over the past dozen years.
The radicalization of Iraq's Shiites has increased particularly since Saddam's sweeping crackdown against their 1991 uprising -- an event inspired by former President Bush when he called for Iraqis to topple their leader after the first Persian Gulf War.
Today, at least a third of Iraq's roughly 15 million Shiites are Khomeini-ist, estimates Juan Cole, a University of Michigan expert who has studied Iraq's Shiites for two decades. Wary or disillusioned with other systems, they favor a theocratic state with a trusted religious leader at the top, which is not an idea Sistani favors.
This could well be a moment for the United States to seize -- and stem a burgeoning tide of radicalism. Significant numbers of Shiites still favor secular rule, as do vast numbers of Sunnis and Kurds. Together they constitute a majority.
In the tumultuous decades since Iran's revolution, Muslims in the Middle East have generally become cynical about the failure of Iran's ayatollahs to create a viable government of God. That has led to widespread rejection of theocracy across the Middle East, with many Arabs fearing religious rulers just as much as Western governments do.
The most effective way to foster a legitimate and secular government is through popular elections -- now, not in 2005, when too many of America's good intentions may already have unraveled.
The notion of a popular vote is gaining momentum. In Hilla last week, protesters demanded a local governor be elected, not appointed. They said they were inspired in part by Sistani. There are no easy answers. Yet direct elections, however imperfect, may be preferable to waiting. "We've got to allow, encourage and facilitate Iraqis to grapple with their own future," said one U.S. official recently, "and quit trying to do it for them."
To ensure that Iraqis feel they are fully invested in their country, many Iraq experts and even some U.S. officials warn that Washington is going to have to compromise further on its exit strategy -- before it is too late to implement it effectively.