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Sistani's Way

Pepe Escobar

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Much more than George W Bush vs. the-yet-unknown-Democrat-who-would-be-king, this is the ultimate confrontation of 2004. In one corner, the military might of United States power. In the other, the white-bearded, black-turbaned Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, 74, three wives, three sons and spiritual leader of 15 million Iraqi Shi’ites.

He thought he was aiding Sharon, and securing control of oil, but George Bush has handed Ayatollah al-Sistani a gift.

He thought he was aiding Sharon, and securing control of oil,
but George Bush has handed Ayatollah al-Sistani a gift.

As things stand, the Bush re-election scenario for Iraq goes like this: the Medusa - Saddam Hussein - has been decapitated by Perseus - Bush - the war hero. On July 1 there will be a transfer of sovereignty to some sort of Iraqi authority. This would mark the official, theoretical end of the American occupation of Iraq. The stage will then be set for the first round of American troops to be sent back home. And as Bush’s economic policy consists of little else than a successful Iraqi policy, non-stop spinning and propaganda will be enough to secure a second term in the White House.

The Sistani scenario does not involve campaigning, spinning or propaganda. Its political agenda is monothematic: free, direct, one-man, one-vote elections in Iraq as soon as possible. In case free, direct elections are deemed to be impossible - both by the occupying power and a mission to be sent in by the United Nations - “this does not mean that we will accept the principle of designation” of members of the future Iraqi provisional National Assembly, as Sheikh Abdel Mehdi al-Karbalai, one of Ayatollah Sistani’s spokesmen, made it clear in Najaf over the weekend.

Things are changing fast in Mesopotamia. On April 9, 2003 Saddam Hussein’s statue on Paradise Square in Baghdad was toppled. It was replaced by a monument which is now topped by a yellow flag inscribed with a Shi’ite slogan.

Time is running out - and the calendar is littered with pitfalls. By the end of February, the 25 members of the current Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) will have to adopt a law which will define the boundaries of the next transitional government, as well as the procedures to elect the delegates of the convention which will appoint the provisional national assembly. This law will be enforced until late 2005. By the end of March, another law will deal with the all-important issue of security. And before May 31, the transitional national assembly must be designated.

This is the crucial issue. In each of Iraq’s 18 provinces, the Americans want to impose an “organizing committee” of 15 members: five designated by the IGC, five named by provincial councils and five named by municipal councils of the five largest cities. These 250 indirectly-appointed people will then select the candidates for the national assembly, according to fuzzy criteria which have not been made public. And the new assembly will then name a new Iraqi government. It’s fair to estimate that by applying this criteria, the Americans will be able to choose at least two-thirds of the members of the new assembly.

Shi’ites have seen through the scheme - and have been denouncing it with all their power. Street slogans in a series of demonstrations are clear: “We want a constitution written by Iraqi hands, not by the occupying powers or the IGC.” Shi’ites also cannot accept that general elections would only happen around December 31, 2005.
Washington is still under the illusion that Chalabi will have power when the hand-over happens.
It’s no wonder the occupying power privileges a system of 18 regional caucuses to form the provisional national assembly. The whole process - and practically all the participants - are controlled by the Americans and by American-appointed Iraqi officials and formerly exiled politicians with absolutely no popular respect or support inside Iraq. The IGC was appointed by the Americans, and includes people like Ahmad Chalabi, a convicted fraudster in Jordan. Many Iraqis - Sunni and Shi’ite alike - call the IGC “the imported government”. Heads of provincial and municipal councils were also American-appointed.

On January 12, Sistani said: “We want free and popular elections, not nominations.” On January 16, he reiterated that “it’s possible to have elections in the next few months with an acceptable level of transparence and credibility”. Sistani even proposed as electoral identities the rationing cards held by practically all Iraqi families for the duration of the UN oil-for-food program.

The official American excuse for not holding direct elections - as expressed by Iraqi proconsul L Paul Bremer’s minions in Baghdad - is lack of time. No wonder. The occupying power has not taken a single measure since last April to even give the impression it was interested in organizing direct elections. The July 1 deadline cannot be postponed because it falls four months before the American presidential election - and Bush and the neo-cons must as soon as possible, according to the ideal scenario, furnish proof to the electorate that the American military adventure in Iraq may be over soon.

Why is this 74-year-old ayatollah, an Iraqi born in Iran, so dangerous? He is dangerous because he has destabilized the three-way pillar supposed to assure an easily-pliable and controlled post-occupation Iraq: the provisional constitution, the electoral system and the security agreements through which the Americans wanted to permanently install, before the end of March, their military bases - all of this before handing over power to the new Iraqi government, an unknown entity.

Sistani could not have been more straight to the point. He bound 15 million Iraqi Shi’ites to his word when he said he is against any agreement which authorizes the presence of foreign troops in Iraq after July 1, 2004. So much for the neo-cons’ dream of a “democratic” oil colony under an American military umbrella.

Now it’s UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s call - and it was Sistani who put him on the spot. Sistani never agreed to as much as be in the same room with Bremer - although he met the UN’s former special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello. Sistani will only agree to a modified version of the American plan if UN experts confirm the impossibility of organizing the elections. Kurds and Sunnis favor the Americans in this case. The Kurds have made it clear they will not tolerate concessions to the Shi’ites unless they are able to preserve their autonomy. Sunnis are afraid at the prospect of losing the power they have exercised in Iraq since the 1920s.
Paul Bremer is feeling distinctly like the fall-guy for another of Bush's failed empire dreams.
There are 13 Shi’ites in the IGC. Already despised by the majority of the Iraqi population, the IGC may well implode as it is squeezed between Bremer’s agenda and Sistani’s free election calls. The IGC is now betting everything on Annan’s mediation. More interesting is the Shi’ite reaction outside the IGC - reflecting the opinion of the poorest of the poor in Iraq. Popular firebrand mullah Muqtada al-Sadr - Sistani’s young rival - says he is against any UN role because “the UN is a servant of the United States”.

Bush and his neo-conservative entourage did everything in their power to bypass the UN to get inside Iraq. Now they need the UN to get out. But it’s not the UN that holds the magic key. It is Grand Ayatollah Sistani. If he issues a fatwa condemning the caucuses and the future, indirectly-appointed national assembly, 15 million Shi’ites will follow - and whatever government chosen indirectly will be considered a fake. Sistani has also made it very clear that only a government chosen by free, direct elections will have the legitimacy to negotiate the crucial issue with the Americans: when the occupying troops will actually leave.

But what do Sistani and the Shi’ites ultimately want? It is not a theocratic state modelled on Iran, where the principle of Velayat-e-Faqih - politics subordinated to religion - is paramount. They want a democracy, with Shi’ite politicians holding most of the levels of power - something consistent with the fact that Shi’ites make up 62 percent of the national population. And crucially, they want no political involvement by Islamic clerics. But no one in Washington seems to be listening.

An extremely discreet and reclusive man, rarely seen in public, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, born in Iran’s holy city of Mashhad, is the primus inter pares of four great marjas who lead the roughly 150 million Shi’ites spread around the world - including Iraq, Iran, India, Pakistan, the Saudi peninsula and Europe - through the Hawza, the so-called “Shi’ite Vatican” in Najaf, Iraq. A great marja - deemed to be infallible - is the equivalent to a pope: a “source of imitation” - not only as an interpreter of sacred words, but because of his intelligence and his knowledge, ranging from philosophy to the exact sciences.

Sistani rarely travels and spends most of his time reading, studying and receiving endless religious delegations in his small, Spartan study in central Najaf. His organization controls millions of dollars in donations, but the marja himself lives like an ascetic. He controls no army. He leads no political party and he harbors no political ambitions. Unlike other spiritual leaders, he never gives major speeches. He never holds press conferences and he never meets journalists - as Asia Times Online has found out in Najaf on many occasions. But any serious observer knows that all it takes is one word from Sistani for the Shi’ites to embark on a jihad against the Americans and forever bury the United States Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz-concocted scenario of a new era of American supremacy in the Middle East.

Like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - the now-deceased leader of the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979 - Sistani spent many years studying in Qom, as crucial in Iran as a holy city as Najaf is in Iraq. The Sistani seminary in Qom is still one of the most important in the Shi’ite world. According to insiders in Najaf, when Sistani speaks in Arabic, he still retains “a vague Persian accent”. Khomeini spent 13 years exiled in Najaf and held a status similar to that of Sistani. But Khomeini never became a marja - because no living marja at the time appointed him as such. Another striking difference is that Khomeini was heavily supportive of Velayat-e-Faqih - or the primacy of religion over everything, including politics. Sistani favors total separation between mosque and state - because he fears politics may pollute spiritual matters.
Ayatollah al-Sistani?s wide support comes not just from Shi?a Muslims.
This leads to the crucial point: Sistani is not in favor of an Islamic republic in Iraq, a development that although an anathema in Washington, at the same time would immensely please the ayatollahs in Tehran. What Sistani wants is an Iraqi constitution written with no foreign interference, with no articles contrary to Islam. And he wants a secular government, but composed of good Muslims who respect Islamic principles. French expert on Shi’ism, Pierre-Jean Luizard, explains that Sistani essentially wants religion to be protected from politics. But in an occupied Iraq subjected to such extreme volatility, he cannot but express a political position - because his is the supreme word.

It may be pure malice to juxtapose a sayyed (descendant of Prophet Mohammed) like Sistani with a blunt, unsophisticated, alleged former counter-terrorism expert like L Paul Bremer, the USA administrator in Iraq. But whatever the marja says in his small Najaf studio invariably drives the proconsul - working in a luxurious Baghdad palace formerly occupied by Saddam Hussein - crazy. Sistani’s fatwas are implacable: short and straight to the point. The marja has qualified the American “democratization” plans that Bremer seeks to impose as “not democratic enough”, or worse still, “fundamentally unacceptable”.

Sistani had no reason to support Saddam - who for three decades systematically persecuted and killed Iraqi Shi’ites. During the war in 2003, Washington interpreted Sistani’s call for the Shi’ites not to oppose the American army as an endorsement. But since April 9, 2003 another story has emerged: what most of Iraq’s 15 million Shi’ites see is the military occupation of holy Islamic lands by an army of infidels. Sistani’s fatwas are the succinct expression of their outrage.

Sistani may have been crucial in forcing the Americans to get United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan back in the game. However, Annan did not react as the marja expected. Annan started by basically repeating the usual American excuses: there had been no census in Iraq in the past 45 years and all electoral lists disappeared during the war. Sistani stood his way, and Annan was forced to send in an UN exploratory mission to Baghdad. But Annan’s priority remains the end of the occupation - and organizing “free, just and credible” elections only when security allows.

Last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Iranian President Mohammed Khatami expressed what hundreds of millions of Muslims are feeling all over the world: “The American administration invaded Afghanistan to find [Osama] bin Laden, where is bin Laden? The Americans occupied Iraq under the pretext of installing democracy and finding weapons of mass destruction. Where are these weapons and where is democracy?” Khatami also revealed how Iran is closely monitoring the confrontation between the proconsul and the marja: “Ayatollah Sistani demanded direct democracy, and the Americans refuse it. That’s what we have always proposed, one man, one vote.” Also in Davos, John Ruggie, professor of international affairs at Harvard and an adviser to Annan, has been far from enthusiastic: “The Bush administration has not changed. The Americans’ attitude does not incite anybody to cooperate with them.”

One of Sistani’s sons has already recognized that “the marja cannot resist the anti-American popular pressure forever”. Ali Hakim al-Safi, one of Sistani’s spokesmen in southern Iraq, clarified that “we don’t want any violence. But if there is obstruction, the people will take its responsibilities”. Asia Times Online has had credible information since late 2003 that Shi’ites of all factions are building a “secret army” to engage the Americans in case their democratic aspirations are not met.

Even with all its military might, the USA has never looked so fragile and discredited in Iraq. An occupying power which refuses democratic elections using all manners of excuses is being judged by the Islamic world - and the international community - for what it is: a neo-colonial power. It has now been proved there were never any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq - much less the means to deliver them. It is now being proved the invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with introducing democracy to the Middle East.

The UN mission - “driving under the [Washington] influence” - may estimate that direct elections are impossible before the American-imposed deadline of July 1. USA President George W Bush will then be left with two extremely unsavory options. The caucuses will proceed in Iraq’s 18 provinces, and 15 million Shi’ites will smash - by any means necessary - the legitimacy of any government that might emerge. Or the Americans may hold direct elections - and in this case Sunnis, not only in the Sunni triangle - will upgrade their already ferocious guerrilla war to code red, because they will never accept losing power to Shi’ites. Jihad or civil war: these are the options ahead.

Published Sunday, February 1st, 2004 - 10:20am GMT

Article courtesy of Asia Times

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