Real indigenous democracy does not seem to fit American plans for post-war Iraq – at least for now. Paul Bremer, the American proconsul, has said on the record that elections in Iraq are “premature” – that’s how he justified his personal ban, last Saturday, on the election for governor of the holy city of Najaf, which was supposed to take place this coming Saturday and for which local political parties had been preparing for over a month. Bremer invoked technicalities, saying “there’s no electoral law,” “no ballot boxes” and “no procedure” in place. Bremer, a Pentagon favorite, former Henry Kissinger collaborator and specialist in counter-terrorism, has no Middle East – or democratic – experience. The delayed election episode may have brought down his credibility among Iraqis – and especially Shi’ites. Before that, in the new, free Iraqi debating climate, people already knew how Bremer had blamed Libya, Syria and especially Iran as the main backers of terrorism.

Such has the situation become in Iraq that China, of all regimes, has called for “free and transparent elections” under the supervision of the United Nations, as well as the formation of a “largely representative” government. Meanwhile, former Iranian president Ali Rafsanjani – the real strongman behind Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – took his cue and predicted that the American forces will eventually have to leave the Middle East whether they like it or not.

Among all the misunderstandings, the Shi’ites’ overall strategy in Iraq seems to be the one that is really sound. Instead of just playing the demographic card – they comprise more than 60 percent of the population – a substantial part of the Shi’ite leadership is trying to accommodate the Americans. That’s the case of crucial characters like Ayatollah Bakr al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI), who returned to Iraq after 23 years of exile in Iran. Even while he relishes ironic commentaries on American “democrats” who “refuse the Iraqis to elect their own representatives,” he wants no confrontation. In the face of calls in some quarters for various forms of jihad against the Americans, Hakim’s reaction was extremely measured, considering Bremer’s delaying of the election in Najaf, as Hakim’s candidate had a very good chance of winning.

The crucial game is being played in Najaf, the holy city of 200,000 where Imam Ali is buried, the cousin of Holy Prophet Mohammed and icon of Shi’ism, assassinated in 661 in Kufa, near Najaf. Najaf is struggling to become the capital of all 120 million Shi’ites in the world, a de facto Shi’ite Vatican. Najaf is already a crucial seat of power in the new Iraq, and its expression par excellence is the powerful al-Hawza, an institution that is a mix of religious authority, political consciousness, guardian of the faith and laboratory of Islamic identity. No wonder that at the entrance of Najaf the banners read “We are all the soldiers of al-Hawza.”

Al-Hawza, created in the year 992 to replace the 12th imam, is the institution that forms the members of the clergy, and also where fatwas – religious decrees – are issued. When Asia Times Online was received in April by Sheikh Adnan Shahmani, the spokesman for Sayyed Al-Sadr (son of the famous imam al-Sadr, assassinated in Najaf in 1999), he was very clear: “Al-Hawza is the word of Allah. To obey al-Hawza is to obey Allah.” Al-Hawza dictates the religious rules to obey and the right path to follow. It comprises around 150 schools, universities and seminaries, nowadays with more than 5,000 students.

The doctors of the faith at al-Hawza have a reputation of tolerance – and many religious leaders have made clear that they don’t want an Islamic Republic in Iraq based on the Iranian model. But one crucial issue will have to be solved one way or another: the opposition between the proponents of a “general vilaya” – the clerics interfering in public matters – and “particular vilaya” – clerics outside of political life. The Grand Ayatollah Sistani – a moderate, and a Najaf icon – has already pronounced himself in favor of a separation between religion and politics.

There are no Desert Scorpion-style operations in Shi’ite country. Najaf and the whole Shi’ite south has met the American invasion and occupation with no resistance. Unlike the Sunni triangle around and north of Baghdad, there have been no attacks against the Americans. The extremely influential Shi’ite religious leaders congregated at al-Hawza have not adhered to the calls towards a guerrilla war against the invaders. On Friday prayers, there are no anti-American slogans.

Compare this with Baghdad and surrounding areas where US and Iraqi soldiers as well as civilians continue to come under deadly attack, all of which serve to steel the resolve of the Sunni Iraqi resistance against what is widely perceived as an insensitive and heavy-handed American approach.

This Tuesday, the “Iraqi Resistance Brigades,” an unknown group, has even claimed the authorship of “all combat operations” against the Americans – at the same time dismissing that they are working in tandem with Saddam Hussein: as Asia Times Online reported on May 28 (The Saddam intifada), Saddam has set the official beginning of an anti-American intifada for July 27. In a communique broadcast by Qatar television station al-Jazeera, the Brigades qualify Saddam and his followers as “enemies who have contributed to the loss of the motherland.” The Brigades refuse to be regarded as Islamist extremists, and describe themselves as “a group of young Iraqis and Arabs who believe in the unity, freedom and Arabness of Iraq.”

Shi’ites of the SAIRI mould would be as proud as these Sunnis of their Arabness, but they prefer a more subtle strategy. It’s true Americans have recovered by force some of the buildings the SAIRI has occupied when they came back from exile in Iran. And the SAIRI’s military wing, the Badr Brigades, has been officially dissolved. But Shi’ite religious leaders are concerned with a much more important matter. They are very much aware that the absolute majority of Iraqis – Shi’ites included – want peace and an opening towards the rest of the world. Whatever violence has occurred has been directed against former Ba’ath Party members and collaborators, and not against the “occuberators” – as Iranians have been referring to the Americans. Virtually all the main Shi’ite religious leaders have prohibited violence as everyone waits for the constitution of a legitimate Iraqi government.

Shi’ites are fierce partisans of democracy and the principle of “one person, one vote.” And as well as the Kurds, they also want federalism: this, by the way, is the official position of the SAIRI. Whatever American schemes are concocted to minimize Shi’ite participation in a future Iraqi government, they know that ultimately Shi’ites have the demographic majority in their favor. And on top of it there is the deliberate effort not to jeopardize the departure of the Americans – which they believe could happen in a year or two – by any kind of armed offensive.

There are of course Shi’ites who want no compromise with the Americans. And the Americans worry about them – but mainly because of disinformation (as Americans still believe that the SAIRI is an agent from Tehran). The SAIRI is only one of six Islamic parties that last Sunday created a “coordination committee” in Najaf, beside five other “secular” Shi’ite parties (there are no Sunnis in Najaf). It’s interesting to note that the SAIRI encouraged “peaceful demonstrations” against the cancellation of the Najaf election, unlike the traditional Da’awa Islamic Party, which used to be considered “terrorist” and now is conducting many talks with the Americans. Essentially, the American “occuberators” should know that Shi’ites are traditionally attached to free intellectual debate – so there’s no black-or-white or “you’re with us or against us” here. A few parties may not be on face value as opposed to the Americans as they let it be known, while others may profit to become more radicalized.

As for an Iranian point of view, there are fears that the center of gravity for 120 million Shi’ites may be displaced from the holy city of Qom, in Iran – where Ayatollah Khomeini started his campaign to depose the Shah – to the birthplace of Shi’ism in Najaf, Iraq. This is one of the key questions in the complex Iran-Iraq equation: how Iraqi Shi’ism threatens Iranian Shi’ism. The religious flowering in Iraq is already undeniable – but there are many indications it may not follow the Iranian political path. The consequences for Iran may be devastating, because the legitimacy of the theocracy of the mullahs (or “mullarchy”) is increasingly defied not only by reformist intellectuals and students but even by some religious clerics and former 1979 revolutionaries.

Amir Mohebian, a pro-mullarchy intellectual, pro-Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and journalist at Resalat, an Iranian daily aligned to the interests of right wing bazaaris (traders and merchants), says that “Iran would be happy that an Islamic republic is given birth in Iraq, but it is not willing to impose it. If Iraqis decide to opt for a non-religious political system, this is no problem for us.” Compare this to reformist Hamid Jalaeipur, professor of political science at the University of Tehran: “All Iraqi Shi’ites don’t want such a system. The role of secular Shi’ites as well as Iraqi clerics – opposed to a political role of the clergy – will have to be examined closely, because it is very probable that we will soon see the emergence in Baghdad of a secular regime.”

In Najaf, SAIRI cadres are actually hoping that the Iranian Islamic Republic will not influence Iraq; they’d rather see the new Iraqi experiment being able to democratize Iran. Meanwhile in Qom, the Grand Ayatollah Saanei, who talked to Asia Times Online last year, has told French daily Le Monde that “it is out of the question to transfer our system to Iraq. The United States should not interfere politically in Iraq, and this also applies to ourselves.” Saanei remarked that all great “sources of imitation” – or marja’a, the highest echelon of the Shi’ite clergy – who have lived in Qom, all of them came from Najaf. For him, Najaf and Qom complement each other.

Will Iran and Iraq complement each other? The answer may hinge on the impact of the more than 3,000 Iraqi Shi’ite religious leaders who came back home from exile in Iran. If a separation between religion and politics successfully takes place in Iraq, the road is paved for a secular Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi regime being able to give the Iranian theocracy a democracy lesson. If the Americans allow it, of course.

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