Why the U.S. is Tip-toeing Around Iraq's Ayatollah

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Iraqi Shiite Muslims hold a poster of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani

President Bush vowed last Monday to "finish the historic work of democracy" in Iraq, but the leaders of Iraq's majority Shiite community are unconvinced. Having remained on the sidelines through Saddam's ouster and the clash between U.S. occupation forces and the Sunni-Baathist insurgency, the Shiites have suddenly taken to the streets to denounce the U.S. and demand democratic elections. The idea of a community brutally victimized by Saddam demanding the right of all Iraqis to elect their own leaders ought not, at face value, to trouble a U.S. administration committed to Iraqi democracy. But right now, democratic elections are not part of the plan for the U.S. to hand over sovereign authority in Iraq to Iraq on July 1.

The Bush administration insists it, too, wants elections as soon as possible, but that these are simply not feasible by the June 30 deadline set by Washington for handing over formal political control. Elections require accurate voter rolls, which requires a census. And they require a security environment more permissive than the one currently prevailing in Iraq. But the U.S. deadline for a handover remains fixed, as the Bush administration looks to show movement towards closure of the occupation chapter in Iraq long before Americans go to the polls in November.

The Problem With Elections

Instead of elections, U.S. viceroy Paul Bremer had hoped to hand over the reins to a body selected in caucuses controlled by his handpicked Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). That would allow the U.S. to satisfy international calls to restore Iraqi sovereignty, at the same time leaving Washington in a strong position to set its own terms for its continued military presence in Iraq.

But the plan failed to reckon with just how little legitimacy the IGC enjoys in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis. That problem has long been acknowledged by U.S. officials on the ground — indeed, it was the IGC's legitimacy issues that forced Washington to adopt the caucus-election plan in the first place rather than simply hand over power to the Council. Rather than the IGC, the most powerful and popular leader in Iraq has proved to be Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the supreme spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiites who has consistently advocated direct elections. His rejection of the Iranian model of political-rule-by-clergy and his relatively quiet role in the months following the fall of Baghdad may have lulled the Americans into underestimating his importance. But this week's pro-democracy demonstrations by some 100,000 people in Baghdad and 30,000 in Basra called by Sistani were a sharp reminder of why the Bush administration now recognizes that the transition plan requires the Ayatollah's approval.

With Washington committed to a July 1 handover, Sistani holds all the cards, however, and the U.S. is looking to the UN to persuade him to drop his insistence on immediate elections. That's because Sistani refuses even to meet with U.S. representatives in Iraq so as to avoid being seen to endorse the occupation, and because the UN enjoys a legitimacy among ordinary Iraqis that the U.S. simply doesn't. Sistani has, according to some interlocutors, previously hinted that he'd accept the idea that elections are unfeasible only if that's the conclusion of a UN investigation.

Ethnic Standoffs

The standoff over elections offers a sobering insight into the difficulties facing Washington in managing the political transition in Iraq. Sistani may be the biggest political headache in Iraq for the Bush administration right now, but he is a renowned moderate who believes — unlike his Iranian counterpart — that political power must be in the hands of elected representatives rather than clerics. And the fact that his insistence on the simple democratic right of Iraqis to elect their own government is causing such a problem for the U.S. is indicative of the complexity of the challenge facing Washington.

Formally, the issue is elections, and the feasibility of holding them within six months. But if the conflict were simply over practicalities, it would be relatively easy to achieve an agreement to delay the hand-over pending elections or else to agree on a timetable to hold them as soon as possible. The election standoff is about the distribution of power in a post-Saddam Iraq, a contest in which the U.S. is having a hard time finding natural allies worth betting on.

It's not as if Sistani is advocating an Iran-type theocracy. Far from it. He's simply protecting the political interest of his flock, which has been politically and economically marginalized ever since Iraq was first created by the British. With Saddam gone, Sistani is acting to ensure that the Shiites inherit a share of power congruent with their almost two-thirds majority of the population. Democracy is their best weapon.

The Kurds are demanding that the de facto republic they carved out in northern Iraq under the umbrella of the Anglo-American "no-fly" zone following the Gulf War be recognized as an autonomous entity in a new Iraqi constitution, and that it incorporate the oil-rich northern towns of Kirkuk and Mosul. That prospect is flatly rejected not only by Iraq's northern neighbor, Turkey, but also by Iraq's Shiite and Sunni political leadership.

Not even Saddam's capture has snuffed out the Sunni insurgency against the coalition and its Iraqi allies, because one key factor driving it is the uncertain position of the Sunni minority — traditionally the masters of Iraqi political and economic life, even before the Baathists took power. Democracy may not be a happy prospect for many Sunnis who see it as leading inevitably to Shiite rule and an end to their traditionally privileged status. Some coalition officials have stressed that the key to defeating the insurgency is to give the Sunnis a stake in the new political order in Iraq — a share of power beyond their 15 percent of the electorate.

But the Shiite mobilization for democratic elections is intended precisely to counter any moves to give disproportionate recognition to Sunni claims or accommodate Kurdish secessionism. And the prospect of a mass Shiite uprising is far more dangerous to the U.S. than the current insurgency, which is why Washington is sweating bullets to find a formula that will pacify Sistani.

Civil War?

CIA officials reportedly warned this week of a mounting danger of civil war in Iraq, and that's an assessment reportedly shared by around 60 percent of Iraqis. In the absence of an election, the Iraqi provisional government installed on July 1 could inherit the insurmountable legitimacy problem suffered by the IGC. Should Sistani and his followers choose to challenge them and press for a democratic election, the pattern until now suggests that the main Shiite parties currently represented on the Council would likely depart and make common cause with Sistani. But the Sunnis and Kurds can be expected to fight hard, too, for their contrary communal claims. The resulting civil conflict would leave the U.S. facing the unhappy choice of either defending an unpopular government or making a hasty exit from a country sliding into chaos.

Ambassador Bremer will, in the coming weeks — and, he hopes, with the help of the UN — fashion a compromise that will keep the hand-over on schedule. But the Bush administration may be starting to find that the exit strategy from Iraq is more complex and challenging than the invasion.