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.
As things stand, the Bush reelection 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.
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 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.
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 (religious edict) 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.