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Politics and Religion in Iraq

December 2, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: When major combat ended in May, one of Iraq’s leading religious figures urged his fellow Shia Muslims not to resist occupying troops, a statement welcomed by U.S. officials. He is 73-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest ranking Shiite cleric in Iraq. In June, he issued a religious decree, a fatwa, that criticized U.S. administrator Paul Bremer’s plan to handpick a provisional government to draft a new constitution.

Sistani wrote, “The occupation officials do not enjoy the authority to appoint the members of a council that would write the constitution. General elections must be held so that every eligible Iraqi can choose someone to represent him.”

But the American timetable, formed with the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, would have delayed elections until a constitution was written. Bremer spoke on the NewsHour in September.

L. PAUL BREMER: The Iraqis don’t have a constitution. They need one, and you really can’t get to sovereignty without elections, and you can’t have elections without a constitution.

KWAME HOLMAN: U.S. officials said direct elections would pose a series of practical problems. Iraq has no voting rolls, no updated census. And, U.S. officials said an election could be marred by continued violence. But Sistani, whose influence is believed to be widespread among Iraq’s Shia majority, stood firm. The competing visions left the governing council deadlocked. And in November, as attacks on Americans increased, the administration changed course.

Bremer presented a new political plan, one that would allow indirect elections by regional Iraqi caucuses. But last week, Sistani criticized the new plan. He again demanded direct elections both for the constitutional conference and for a new provisional government. In written comments to The Washington Post, Sistani said the plan “does not guarantee the establishment of an assembly that truly represents the Iraqi people.” A member of the Iraqi governing council who met with Sistani said the cleric also wants to ensure the new government respects Islamic principles.

ABDEL-AZIZ AL-HAKIM, Iraqi Governing Council: (Translated): Ayatollah Sistani is deeply concerned over certain loopholes that he feels have to be resolved. Otherwise the process will be deficient and will not meet the expectations of the people of Iraq. Ayatollah Sistani found nothing that preserves Islamic identity.

KWAME HOLMAN: Despite Sistani’s views and influence, several news organizations reported today that a majority of the Governing Council disagrees with him and continues to back the U.S. approach.

JIM LEHRER: For more on this, we go to Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan. He recently authored a modern history of Iraqi Shia entitled, “Sacred Space and Holy War.” And to Gary Sick, who served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan. He now teaches Middle Eastern politics at Columbia University.

Professor Cole, how would you explain Sistani’s insistence on direct elections right now?

JUAN COLE: Well, Sistani is a genuine democrat. He believes that sovereignty resides in the body public. And so if you’re going to have a government that’s legitimate, it has to be elected by the people on a one-person/one-vote basis.

JIM LEHRER: And no other political agenda other than that?

JUAN COLE: Well, he knows, obviously that the majority of Iraqis is Shiite and therefore a one-person/one-vote type of election will return a majority Shiite government and certainly he believes that that’s what Iraq should have.

JIM LEHRER: Gary Sick, how do you see this?

GARY SICK: You’ve got to remember that Sistani is perhaps the sole legitimate force in Iraqi politics today. Ayatollahs are not appointed; they are elected by their own people. Their people basically vote by giving them respect and money and support. And so he represents a body of people who in effect have elected him, and he is perhaps the only elected official — he’s not an official — but he’s the only elected person in Iraqi politics. That gives him tremendous legitimacy, much more so than any of the other institutions. And I think what we’re seeing here is a struggle between his concept of legitimacy and that of the Governing Council and the American occupying force.

JIM LEHRER: Well, Professor Cole, what about this idea of how you hold general elections? One of the suggestions that Sistani and his folks have made is that you could put together voting rolls from the food rolls, the old U.N. food rolls. Does that make sense to you?

JUAN COLE: Well, it certainly could be done. I don’t think that there’s any legitimate objection to holding elections if the problem is how to do it. I think that it could be accomplished. The problem is that the U.S. does not want to hold popular elections at this stage in the process because it is afraid that those elections will throw up leaders who will down the road become obstacles to progress. This happened in Eastern Europe, in Bosnia after the war there. And it’s a bad experience that the U.S. has that the people who can survive a Milosevic or a Saddam are thugs, are radicals, and if they get elected, then they can stop further progress.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see it the same way, Gary Sick, that the U.S. is concerned not so much about democracy per se obviously but what the end result might be if it happens too early?

GARY SICK: I think that’s very true. I think the U.S. is worried about two things. One, speed, and I think they do want to have a provisional government in place by July 1. We’re working not only on the Iraqi calendar but we’re working on the U.S. electoral calendar at the same time. But the same thing, you’ve got to realize that the way the situation is now structured is that the governing council that is appointed by the United States will, in fact, have a dominant role in choosing everybody in that initial vote to determine who is going to be in the provisional government and then who is going to write the constitution. It gives the United States a tremendous amount of authority in determining who gets to become a member of the provisional government when, in fact, the U.S. occupation technically ends next July.

JIM LEHRER: You make a good point. Let me walk through this and you all jump in and correct me if I’ve got this wrong. As you say, Gary Sick, the governing council will set up a procedure where these regional caucuses will, in fact, elect people who will then become … who will go to Baghdad and become the provisional government, is that correct?

GARY SICK: I think that’s roughly correct, yes. And the thing is that these caucuses in the various 18 provinces are, in fact, going to be appointed. There are 15 people and five of them will be appointed by the Governing Council that now exists and ten more will be selected with their approval. So it basically means that the United States through the Governing Council will have control of that process at every stage.

JIM LEHRER: And this, Professor Cole, is what Sistani does not like, right?

JUAN COLE: Well, it should be remembered that many of those caucus delegates will be chosen by municipal councils which in turn have been appointed by the U.S. military. Many of the people chosen by the U.S. military are alleged to have been former Baathists. There might be a slight Sunni tendency there because they were, after all, the ones who knew how to run things. And Sistani is very concerned that the Shiites will be marginalized yet again as they were when the British took over in the 1920s.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Gary Sick, the other part of this … of Sistani’s problem was that I think the word was that the … that he was concerned that it does not … the Islamic identity is not preserved in the new government, the way he sees this procedure as it’s currently laid out. What’s he talking about? How do you interpret that?

GARY SICK: Well I’m not entirely sure of what he means by that, but he clearly — on one hand, Sistani is not one of the people who has been pushing hard for a clerical rule, that is to have a clerical takeover like in Iran. Instead, he has indicated that he is … he is prepared to live with the government which is respectful certainly of Islam and has an Islamic character.

I really think it does come back to the fundamental democratic issue that he does see the legitimacy and sovereignty lying in the body politic. He wants to see that body politic represented. And, of course, this reflects his interests because he is Shia and 60 percent of the population as Juan Cole said are Shia also.

JIM LEHRER: But you agree, Juan Cole, that he’s not… you agree with Gary that the ayatollah does not want an Islamic government in the way we know an Islamic government through Iran, right? I mean he wants a secular government but with a strong Islamic influence of some kind?

JUAN COLE: He doesn’t want an Iran-type of government where the ayatollahs and the clerics actually rule. He thinks that clerics should stay in the seminary and the mosque and they should issue rulings on essentially social matters. He doesn’t want them running the government. But on the other hand, he does want an Islamic government.

What he means by that is that he wants Islamic law to be the law of the land. And he wants the clerics to be the judges. So he wants the clerics to have their influence through law and through the judiciary rather than in the executive branch or necessarily in the legislature. He wants guarantees that the legislature won’t pass laws that directly contradict his interpretation of Islamic law.

JIM LEHRER: But Gary Sick, that could be talking about women’s rights, all kinds of things and pluralism as in religious freedom for Christians and others. This is not a simple matter, is it?

GARY SICK: It is not, especially in a country that has as many different factions and groups and sectarian beliefs as Iraq does. It’s going to be very difficult to govern that country. And that is something that clearly is going to be a problem. It is already being reflected in the fact that the governing council, which pays attention to Sistani and takes him seriously, is also arguing with him.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, let’s go to the bottom line here beginning with you, Juan Cole. I mean, how far can the United States go or the Governing Council and the United States together go in saying, “Thank you, Mr. Ayatollah, but no thank you, we’re going to go ahead and do it our way”? How powerful is he right now in being able to have his way, or have consequences if he doesn’t get his way?

JUAN COLE: Well, Sistani has enormous authority, as Gary Sick said. Most Shiites in Iraq if you ask them who do you follow, they will say Sistani. So if he wanted to make trouble, he could. However, he is from that quietist tradition of Najaf that believes that the clerics ought not to get involved too closely in day-to-day governing affairs. He is trying to intervene strategically on what he sees as constitutional issues.

I think it’s very unlikely that he would call for massive demonstrations against the U.S. or the interim Governing Council if he is rebuffed. I think he will issue his fatwa, his ruling. I think it will affect people’s consciences. It will affect how they view the legitimacy of the transitional government but I don’t think he will launch a social movement against the U.S., at least in the short term.

JIM LEHRER: You’re nodding in agreement, Gary Sick.

GARY SICK: Yes, very much so. I don’t see him calling for demonstrations. On the other hand, the key element of the new government, if it’s going to govern and it’s going to handle this really very complicated situation in country, is it’s going to have to have real legitimacy. And I’m afraid that if they go too obviously against his ideas, that they’re going to have a legitimacy problem later on where the people will say, you know, you’re there but you’re really a creature of the Americans. You’re not really an Iraqi government. We don’t trust you.

JIM LEHRER: Does he have the power, Gary Sick, to just to — at least from his perspective — to declare this government illegitimate?

GARY SICK: Well, again, I would find it… I don’t anticipate that certainly not in the short term. He has been very cooperative thus far with the American occupation, but he is insisting that certain procedures be followed in order to go on from here. And he’s quite prepared to wait longer than the Americans are prepared to wait.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Juan Cole, I found interesting reading today that for all of his power and influence, he has refused thus far to talk directly to Paul Bremer. What’s that all about?

JUAN COLE: Well there’s a saying in Islam that the worst of the clergy are those who associate with princes. The Najaf tradition declines to be in direct consultation with authority and certainly with authority that it considers less than legitimate. Actually here I disagree with my colleague Gary Sick. I’ve seen a fatwa from Sistani, which declares the present interim Governing Council illegitimate. He means by that, that it doesn’t spring from the Iraqi people. It’s not in accordance with Islamic law and so forth. So, I think he just doesn’t want to get involved with the Americans in a direct sort of way.

JIM LEHRER: But if they go ahead and do it their way rather than his way, would he have the power to keep this thing from functioning? I mean, is he that serious an obstacle if he decides to become that, Juan Cole?

JUAN COLE: Well, if he were to decide to take a direct role, yes, I think he could be a big obstacle because, after all, the U.S. is not liked by many of the Sunni Arabs and were the Shiites to turn against it in a big way, that might make the government untenable. But I don’t think Sistani wants to rock the boat that hard. He just wants to intervene to make sure as far as he can that the moral guidance is there for how Iraq should develop.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.