Bush Administration's Fake Democracy Is Not Good Enough
Al-Sistani's Call for Democratic Elections
In response to U.S. plans to avoid democracy in Iraq while claiming to establish it, some leaders with a stronger sense of democracy have proposed genuine elections. Now the Bush administration is in the embarrassing position of opposing democratic elections, much as the Reagan administration opposed democratic elections in South Africa.
by Erich MarquardtIn an effort to limit the perception that the United States is occupying Iraq, Washington plans on transferring power to an Iraqi provisional government by mid-2004. As part of the Bush administration's power transfer plan, U.S. and Iraqi Governing Council officials would appoint caucus members from each of Iraq's 18 provinces who would be responsible for electing individuals to sit in the country's new national assembly.
The national assembly would elect a provisional government to take power from the U.S.-led coalition on July 1. This provisional government would then draft a new constitution to be ready for national elections sometime in 2005. This plan virtually ensures that U.S. officials and their handpicked Iraqi Governing Council members would be able to shape future political developments in Iraq by having input on the makeup of the national assembly and the provisional government. However, in recent weeks, Washington's plans for the future transfer of power in Iraq have encountered a wave of resistance.
The most significant resistance to this plan was offered in a recent edict delivered by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most prominent Shi'a religious leader in Iraq. Al-Sistani does not accept the proposition that U.S. and Iraqi Governing Council members should have such strong influence over the makeup of the national assembly. Al-Sistani said, "No one has the right to appoint the members of the constitutional assembly. We see no alternative but to go back to the people for choosing their representatives."
Much to the dismay of U.S. officials, al-Sistani's demand for democratic elections to decide who will sit on the national assembly is an effort to give more power to Iraq's large Shi'a Muslim community and less power to the U.S.-led coalition. Iraqi Shi'a make up 60 percent of the country's population, yet they have always been marginalized by Iraq's Sunni population who have functioned historically as the ruling class.
Al-Sistani is certainly aware that the best possible outcome for Iraq's Shi'a majority would be if general elections were held to decide major political issues, such as the makeup of the national assembly; this would ensure significant Shi'a influence over substantive content of Iraq's constitution. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a Shi'a cleric and member of the Iraqi Governing Council, agreed with al-Sistani's concerns, arguing that current U.S. plans diminish "the role of the Iraqi people in the process of transferring authority to Iraqis."
Al-Sistani's disagreement over U.S. plans is causing a serious dilemma for Bush administration policymakers. The difficulty with complying with al-Sistani's demands is that if Iraq were allowed to follow a thoroughly democratic path, it is likely that the new government would run counter to U.S. interests. On the other hand, al-Sistani is too influential of a figure to ignore. Since he is the religious leader of Iraq's 15 million Shi'a, he has the ability to completely disrupt civil society by simply calling his religious community to action.
Al-Sistani also has the support of other influential Shi'a leaders in Iraq; in addition to al-Hakim, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi al-Modaresi, who is based in Karbala, argued on Tuesday that the national assembly should be elected through national elections rather than through regional caucuses. Al-Modaresi gave a strong message to the U.S.-led coalition: "I am concerned about increasing frustration among Iraqis and I am telling everyone that they are a peaceful people. But it will be a different story if they run out of patience. I fear sedition."
Al-Modaresi's warning should be heeded. Iraqi Shi'a have largely accepted the U.S.-led occupation thus far. Their acceptance stems from the fact that if Iraq were to have democratic elections, Shi'a leaders would take power simply because of their majority status. If U.S. officials try to avoid this outcome -- such as by rejecting al-Sistani's and other Shi'a leaders' recent demands for democracy -- the Shi'a community could quickly resort to violence, fearing a return to political disenfranchisement. Needless to say, if the huge Iraqi Shi'a population were to revolt, it would cause the situation on the ground to deteriorate rapidly for U.S.-led military forces.
It seems then that Washington must acquiesce or at least seriously consider al-Sistani's demands. Washington really has no alternative Shi'a leader to turn to. The Shi'a leader seemingly most in line with Washington's desires was the head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, who was killed in a bombing in Najaf on August 29, 2003.
Another powerful Shi'a leader in Iraq is Moqtada al-Sadr, an outspoken critic of the U.S. occupation and son of Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, a highly venerated cleric assassinated in 1999. Moqtada al-Sadr, whose base is the al-Kufa mosque in Najaf, has been urging the creation of a Shi'a guerrilla army. If the Americans are faced with a decision of choosing to support either al-Sistani or al-Sadr, they will have to turn to the former.
Yet if Washington is willing to support al-Sistani's calls for democratic elections, it could lead to a constitution with strong religious undertones, possibly threatening the secularism of Iraqi society. Shi'a leaders may also ease diplomatic relations with neighboring Iran, a country ruled and populated by Shi'a. If Iraq and Iran were to greatly improve relations, it could threaten to destabilize the current balance of power in the Middle East. The Bush administration may consider this result untenable. William Beeman, the Director of Middle East Studies at Brown University in Rhode Island, recently warned, "Washington may consider it untenable, but Washington will be unable to prevent such a development if they support true democracy in Iraq."
There still is hope in Washington that al-Sistani will remain an acceptable figurehead. Al-Sistani recently assured Washington that his proposed version of a new government in Iraq would not model the theocracy found in neighboring Iran, but that "authority [in Iraq] will be for the people who will get the majority of votes." If the Bush administration wants to create an Iraqi government in line with U.S. interests, it will have to work with al-Sistani and consider his demands.
Thanks to our friends at www.pinr.com for permission to reprint this report.
Fred Foldvary's editorial Immediate Democracy for Iraq
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