Sistani Backing May be Key to Iraq Constitution

  • Share
  • Read Later
In Iraqi politics, the last word is not sung by the fat lady; it is spoken by the old man. So the fact that aides to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani let it be known this week that the supreme religious leader of the country's Shiite majority will call for a "Yes" vote in the Oct. 15 referendum will likely ensure safe passage at the polls for Iraq's new draft constitution.

Sistani's word is law for nearly 60% of Iraqis, and the last time he issued a political call to arms, it was enough to bring out a massive Shiite vote in the Jan. 30 general election. The Grand Ayatollah's decision severely dents hopes, expressed in recent weeks by Sunni leaders opposed to the draft, that the Shiite vote might be split on Oct. 15. Those hopes had rested on two assumptions: that Sistani would remain neutral, allowing his followers to make up their own minds, and that the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr would order his supporters to vote "No." Now, it appears the opposite will happen: The Sadr camp, which only a few days ago was denouncing the draft constitution, is now furiously backpedaling. "[Moqtada] hasn't decided what to advise his followers," says Sheikh Salah al-Aubaidi, a Sadr aide. "He objects to some aspects of the draft, but that doesn't mean the entire document should be rejected."

Al-Aubaidi says Sadr worries that rejecting the constitution could prolong Iraq's political instability and deepen its security crisis. "There is a strong argument to say 'Yes' to the constitution in order to stabilize the situation and move ahead," says al-Aubaidi. "There may be more to be gained from [a unanimous Shiite vote] than from division. We have to think very hard before announcing a decision."

This is not the first time Sadr has vacillated on a crucial political issue. He also sat on the fence during the run-up to the Jan. 30 vote, simultaneously denouncing the election as illegitimate because it was being held under occupation, but stopping short of ordering a boycott. And then, once Sistani announced his backing for the election, Sadr did a volte-face, even fielding some of his own candidates.

Sistani and Sadr disagree on important issues, but many Shiites who subscribe to Sadr's radical political views also venerate Sistani as the highest theological authority. Sadr has never dared to openly call on his supporters to disobey the Grand Ayatollah.

Some Sunni groups, like the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), which represents over 3,000 clerics, still cling to the hope that Sadr will join the "No" camp. "Like us, he recognizes that the federalism clause [in the draft] is the first step toward breaking up this country," says Abdel Salam Qubbaisi, spokesman for the AMS. But others are sceptical. "In the end, he will probably leave it to his followers to make individual decisions," says Iyad al-Samarrai, spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni organization. If that happens, al-Samarrai concedes, Sadr followers will likely take their lead from Sistani.

A united Shiite vote on Oct 15. would be very bad news for the Sunni rejectionists. The draft constitution can be vetoed if 67% of the electorate votes "No" in three provinces. But although the Sunnis are a majority in three, it's far from certain they have the required two-thirds — Sadr has substantial following in two of those provinces. A Sunni-Sadr alliance could conceivably carry a fourth province, Baghdad, where the Shiite leader has massive following. But without Sadr, Sunnis hoping to vote down the constitution will have a taller mountain to climb.