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Bush and the Ayatollah

Salim Lone

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Even as one recoils at the carnage caused by the suicide bombings at the offices of Kurdish political parties, it becomes ever more impossible to understand how the US can justify occupation policies that have singularly failed to quell the insurgency and the spectre of civil war - and have not won over even a tiny minority of Iraqis to support continued US control.

With unrest spreading to both northern and southern Iraq, the occupation is set to enter code red.

With unrest spreading to both northern and southern Iraq, the occupation is set to enter code red.

The latest strikes will also complicate Kofi Annan’s decision on whether to field the UN’s world-class electoral team in Iraq, even though there is widespread agreement on the need for UN involvement in the process leading to the end of the occupation.

In the darkness, however, there is a glimmer of hope. The Bush administration’s resistance to acknowledging any of the disasters of its Iraq policy seems finally to have been broken by the refusal of Ali al-Sistani, the powerful Shi’a grand ayatollah, to back down from his insistence that only elected bodies can preside over the restoration of his country’s sovereignty.

The US decision to retreat from plans to appoint Iraqi delegates who would choose a new government - and at the same time, after a year’s steadfast refusal, to seek a UN role in the country’s political evolution - offers the first hint that America has recognised its need for the voice and expertise of others to fashion a successful exit strategy.

Sistani’s effortless overshadowing of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council is the latest indication of the flaws in a political strategy built around this unelected council running the country under occupation. It has still not been able to play an effective leadership role, or even establish itself as a champion of Iraqis’ freedoms.

The council does not even seem to have a finger on the country’s political pulse; it unanimously agreed to the coalition’s plan to forgo elections for the new government and, on Sistani’s first objection, continued to insist that elections would delay the return of sovereignty by at least a year. With such a sorry record, one can only assume that the US insistence on handing power to another unelected body anticipated a continuing behind-the-scenes role for the coalition. But the result would be an even more ungovernable Iraq.

Ayatollah al-Sistani is taking a huge risk by deferring to UN investigations before giving a final ultimatum. His peace offer must not be abused.

Ayatollah al-Sistani is taking a huge risk by deferring to UN investigations before giving a final ultimatum. His peace offer must not be abused.

From the beginning, elections were a key issue in Iraq, the US preferring to bypass them while the Shias, in particular, saw them as a way to end their centuries-old marginalisation under the Ottomans, the British and Saddam Hussein. Indeed, Sistani issued a fatwa early in the occupation asserting that the constitution would have to be written by an elected body, scuppering coalition plans for a US-appointed group to draft it. Indeed, one of the few tense moments in the relationship between Paul Bremer and Sergio Vieira de Mello, Annan’s representative in Iraq, who died in the bombing of the UN headquarters, concerned this issue.

That this electoral crisis evolved into a confrontation with Sistani is another example of the isolation of Paul Bremer’s team. Having made bitter enemies of the Sunnis early in the occupation and more recently through Israeli-style tactics in their civilian areas, it was reckless to challenge Sistani, whose implicit acquiescence in the occupation has been instrumental in restraining an open Shi’a revolt. But this support was explicitly predicated on speedy elections. Astonishingly, this powerful cleric’s concern was ignored. So he has now added an even tougher demand: that any decision on asking coalition forces to stay after the handover can be taken only by an elected body. Sistani is in effect incrementally challenging the whole range of occupation policies, riddled as they have been with blunders of breathtaking magnitude.

Principle and pragmatic concerns aside, Sistani is under tremendous pressure from the rank and file as well as prominent clerics who can no longer abide the burdens of the occupation. Nine months of US rule and insurgency have subjected most Iraqis to a life of unprecedented insecurity, financial hardship and social deprivation. In addition, few Iraqis - and few Arabs and Muslims worldwide - will take the June 30 handover to mean the end of occupation, since coalition troops will be “given wide latitude to provide for the safety and security of the Iraqi people”, according to the November 15 document signed by the coalition and the governing council.

And so the UN enters the picture, with George Bush anxious to inoculate himself against Iraqi turmoil as his re-election campaign looms. One of the great policy failures of the US has been to comprehensively sideline the UN. The November 15 agreement on mechanisms for creating a new government on June 30 did not even mention the UN. But this is one of those reversals that the world and Iraqis can celebrate. The UN has a huge reservoir of knowledge about Iraq, free elections, constitutions and human rights - in other words, in trying to reconcile bitterly torn societies.

If Ayatollah al-Sistani is ignored, he will be undermined. If he is undermined, more radical forces will take his place.

If Ayatollah al-Sistani is ignored, he will be undermined. If he is undermined, more radical forces will take his place.

The US should no longer try to exercise the complete control it so unfathomably seeks in a country it hardly understands. The political capital the US won with Saddam’s capture - and with the startling renunciation of WMD by Libya and agreements on Iraqi debt forgiveness - should make it easier for the US to let go and trust others to play a dominant role. The only way to undercut the insurgency is through a political, not military, solution, and to negotiate a complete political and military handover to a UN mission with a strong Arab and Muslim component. This mission would negotiate directly with insurgents, many of whom will be ready to lay down their arms if they are assured of participation in the new democratic arrangements. But the UN offers no panaceas. There was lots of anger toward the UN when I served there last summer, no widespread anger over the bombing of its headquarters in August, and last week the young Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr accused the UN of serving American interests.

The Iraqi occupation was always going to be much more than just about Iraq. It has opened bitter wounds globally, not only between the US and the world’s Muslims. For many of the latter, Iraq has become the new touchstone of Muslim pain and anger, replacing Palestinian occupation as the principal emblem of western hostility towards Islam.

Amazingly, the US continues to rile Muslim passions by threatening other countries such as Iran and Syria. Those in the west who oppose such positions must raise their voices, since it is too easy for Muslims to believe the west is a monolithic force out to destroy Islam.

Much work needs to be done to avert an even greater disaster in Iraq. It is possible that the kernel of the solution will emerge from the process started by Sistani and responded to by the Bush administration, which has had the sense to finally engage with the UN. A lot is riding on the UN electoral team’s mission to Iraq, not least of which is the organisation’s standing in the Muslim world; the UN must quickly move to shed its pro-US image if it is to provide the neutrality and legitimacy for which the entire world relies upon it.


Published Tuesday, February 3rd, 2004 - 10:54am GMT

Salim Lone was director of communications for the UN mission in Baghdad, headed by the late Sergio Vieira de Mello, until he retired on September 30th 2003.

Article courtesy of The Guardian

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