TOPICS > Politics

Troubled Transition

January 16, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Tens of thousands of Shiite Muslims marched through Basra yesterday shouting, “No to America.” What they are demanding is direct elections for a provisional legislature that will choose Iraq’s new government by July 1.

Instead, the Bush administration wants members of the new government to be selected through a system of local caucuses and indirect elections. The U.S. believes elections can’t be organized before the deadline for the handoff of power.

Shiite Muslims make up about 60 percent of Iraq’s population. They were brutally repressed by Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated government. Their leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is rarely seen in public. In yesterday’s protest, the latest and largest so far, demonstrators carried his picture. Sistani has repeatedly called for direct elections to choose an Iraqi government. His strongest challenge so far to the U.S. plan came in a statement issued Sunday in which he seemed to leave little room for compromise. At the White House today, Iraq administrator Paul Bremer played down differences between the United States and the Shiite ayatollah.

L. PAUL BREMER: I have the greatest respect for Ayatollah Sistani. There is a great deal that we agree with about him: First of all, that Iraq should move now to a democratic form of government; secondly, that the process by which that happens should be transparent and representative, involving all Iraqis. And we have arranged a process which involves a selection this year of a transitional assembly, and which calls for three separate elections next year: An election of a constituent assembly, a referendum on the constitution that assembly will write, and elections for the democratic government at the end of the year next year. So there is a great deal that we agree with with him.

RAY SUAREZ: On Monday, Bremer will join a delegation from Iraq’s Governing Council at the United Nations for a meeting with Secretary-General Kofi Annan. On the agenda: The scope of the U.N.’s role in the transfer of power in Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the clash over political transition in Iraq, we get two views. Mary Jane Deeb is an Arab world specialist at the Library of Congress. The views she expresses here are her own. Juan Cole is a professor of history at the University of Michigan. He recently authored “Sacred Space and Holy War,” about Shia Islam. Professor Cole, who is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, what should we know about him to understand his role in this process?

JUAN COLE: He is the most respected Shiite in Iraq. He was originally from Iran but he has been in Iraq for a long time. In the Shiite system, people without seminary training are to obey implicitly the religious rulings of al Sistani. If he formulates a ruling and says society should be such, should follow such a policy, then the Shiites are Iraq will tend to follow the ruling.

RAY SUAREZ: So his threat earlier in the week to draft the Fatwah, the religious edict demanding his followers resist this new plan for setting up a new government should be regarded seriously then?

JUAN COLE: I find it most alarming. Sistani in the past has been a voice for moderation, and has tended not to want to get too directly involved in politics. He has now come to the point of sponsoring the largest public demonstrations yet seen in postwar Iraq; issuing public statements, demanding free and fair open elections; all of this suggests a building confrontation between him and the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: Mary Jane Deeb, you have been following the situation. You have been in Iraq in the past month. What is your reaction to these latest developments back in Iraq?

MARY JANE DEEB: It was to be expected in a way because the Shiites were sort of biding their time, including the Ayatollah Sistani. Their time has come now when the United States is speaking of giving sovereignty back to the Iraqis. And, so as a good leader of the religious society, he is saying that obviously with 60 percent of the population and his leadership, that would probably mean, if we were to accept it, if we were to accept the system, the population in Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: When you say 60 percent of the population, 60 percent that’s highly conscious of being Shiia, that is organized in that way? I mean is that a 60 that can really be put into power as a majority in the country, or is it more a hard core and then people who are less closely identified?

MARY JANE DEEB: Yes, you may be right. It may be hard core and people who are less. However, the situation has reached the point, especially in the past few years, with Saddam’s repression of the Shiites in Iraq, where a consciousness, a consciousness of their own identity as Shiites, has grown to the point where they do realize that if they don’t push now for greater power nor a greater role in Iran, they may not have the chance again.

So Sistani is doing, in a way, what his community expects of him. He is taking the leadership and he is pushing for a greater role for Shiites in Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Cole, when you hear Mary Jane Deeb’s remarks, let’s talk a little bit about that pushing for a greater role. Could that be in response to the perception that the United States has close ties to some of the other constituent groups in Iraq, like the Kurds?

JUAN COLE: I think it’s in response to a number of missteps that the Americans made early after the fall of Saddam. Just to give an example, Sistani lives in the town of Najaf; it’s a fairly large city, actually.

And the Americans, when they first came in, appointed as the mayor of Najaf an ex-Baathist Sunni officer. I mean anybody could tell you that was a very bad move. Then it turns out that this man was extremely corrupt and kidnapping Najaf citizens and holding them for ransom. Ultimately the United States had to remove him from power and try him. In the meantime, Mr. Bremer announced municipal elections in Iraq and 16 candidates declared their candidacy, and then when it seemed clear that whoever won that election would be pro-Iranian, Mr. Bremer cancelled the election and went back to an appointed government.

So as Sistani watched these missteps unfold, he must have conceived an enormous mistrust on how the United States was going to handle national electoral affairs.

RAY SUAREZ: You heard Mary Jane Deeb talk about the possibility of an Islamic republic, a Shiite dominated republic in Iraq if things run their course in a certain way. Is that a possibility if Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani wants to use his power in a certain way?

JUAN COLE: Well, Islamic republic is actually an ambiguous term. I don’t think that Sistani… in fact I know Sistani does not want a system like that in Iran where the clerics rule.

What he wants is free and open elections, laypersons in positions of power. But he wants the clerics to have an influence on social policy through their rulings and through the allegiance people demonstrate to them. So he does want Islamic law to be extremely influential in Iraq and he wants religion to play a big part in the social affairs, but he doesn’t want to rule the country.

He is not a dictator. He is not a thug. He has called for peaceful demonstrations. And he’s attempting to exercise influence on society.

RAY SUAREZ: So far, Mary Jane Deeb, the United States administration says it is sticking with the June 30 deadline. They’ve seen nothing that is going to move them off of that date. Given what you know about the situation, is that still a plausible date?

MARY JANE DEEB: It’s a plausible date, but it is always dangerous to set a timeframe and to say well, this is going to be the date because if you do that, then the opposition needs only to wait and bide its time, and then move at its own pace. In other words, the time issue is tremendously important and it is not on the side of the United States. The Shiites and Ayatollah Sistani know that very well. They know that the United States is not planning to stay in Iraq forever. They just need to make sure that another system does not… is not put in place in such a way that it would be difficult to move it.

So by positioning themselves now they are putting themselves in positions of becoming a major player at the table in deciding what kind of elections are going to take place, in deciding what the role of the community is going to be. And that’s what a legal community should do.

But that’s the danger as well because a secular, a good secular leader is a leader who is inclusive and brings in all the various communities irrespective of their religious affiliation or their ethnicity. A good religious leader is accountable only to his religious community and only to the interest of this community. In other words, we are seeing here a community pushing for its own interests.

And in a way, what Bremer and others are suggesting is something much more inclusive that will bring in all the other communities. If the results of the system that would be put in place is a dominant Shiite government, then there will be opposition from the Sunnis, who have been the leaders, in a way, who have been the elite. And they could threaten the whole system.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Cole, what do you think? A clash of views of the future of Iraq?

JUAN COLE: Well, certainly Sistani is attempting to press for a system in which the Shiites will be the majority. They will have the majority of seats in parliament, they will have enormous influence on national policy.

But he is not a narrow kind of leader of only the Shiites. His rhetoric is the rhetoric of Iraqi nationalism. He talks about the Iraqi people. After all, free and fair elections of the sort that he is pressing for would make a place for Sunni Arabs and Kurds to elect their community leaders. It seemed to me that the problem is that the plan the United States initially put forward was very narrow. We’re calling them caucus elections but they’re not caucuses.

The base of the system has been largely appointed about it Americans and the British. They’re hand picked, they’re disproportionately Sunni; they’re disproportionately ex-Baathists as many of them have been corrupt. There have been demonstrations against them in places recently. So the idea that the United States could have an election based upon its own hand picked constituency and then call that a sovereign Iraqi government was always a little chancy. And Sistani is now calling us on it.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, professor, he has made it very clear that a system as laid out currently, is not acceptable to him. What does that do to the June 30 date, in your view, quickly?

JUAN COLE: I think that it places in grave doubt whether the United States is going to be able to find a compromise that will allow them to hand over sovereignty to a new government. If they can’t even come to an agreement with the major players in Iraq are about how that is to be done.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Juan Cole, Mary Jane Deeb. Thank you both.