4 July 2003

Culture shock and awe
Bremer's task for Iraq is to form a political council of 25 to 30 Iraqis. This council, approved by Bremer, will then appoint ministers and be consulted on all key decisions, which will then be made by Bremer himself. Bremer said on Tuesday that this "provisional authority" was expected to be set up by mid-July. It's now clear that the project has been flatly rejected by the moderate yet heavyweight al-Sistani, "The project in question is fundamentally unacceptable." While he still condemns the non-stop attacks against the Americans and the British, he is at pains to point out that "the [occupation] authorities don't enjoy any prerogative to appoint the members of the assembly charged to elaborate the constitution". United Nations special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello has witnessed first-hand the impatience and anger of the all-powerful al-Hawza - the "Shi'ite Vatican" in the holy city of Najaf. On Saturday, Vieira de Mello had a long conversation (behind closed doors) with al-Sistani, and then with al-Hakim and al-Sadr.

No leaders in Najaf - or anywhere in Iraq for that matter - have forgotten the promise made in February by the American special envoy to deal with the Iraqi opposition. Zalmay Khalilzad promised then that the government of the country would be handed over to Iraqis once the war ended. Al-Hakim is now saying that an Iraqi government should be formed soon "to work to end the occupation by peaceful means".

Vieira de Mello is now fully aware of the balancing act that he will have to perform to bridge the gulf between not only the Sunni community, but between the dominant Shi'ites (62 percent of the population) and the "occuliberators" (as the Americans have been dubbed by observers). Even though Shi'ite religious leaders are still talking about cooperation with the Americans and a strategy of non-violence, there is now a completely different ball game.

The best indication is the fact that al-Sistani told Vieira de Mello to deliver "a message to Paul Bremer" - implying that direct contact was not welcomed any more. The UN special envoy did not - and certainly could not - elaborate, but the message was almost certainly news about the fatwa declaring that an Iraqi constitution written by the Americans or even by Iraqis appointed by the Americans would be "illegitimate". Al-Sistani is clear: a new constitution can only be written and approved by popularly-elected Iraqis.

I think al-Sistani, the pre-eminent Shi'a leader in Iraq and elsewhere, may be close to saying: 'Bring it on'. Vieira de Mello had tremendous success, in an equally difficult situation, as UN transitional administrator for East Timor. The Bush administration could do worse than replacing Bremer with Vieira de Mello.

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