30 November 2003

Iraq's Shiites Insist on Democracy. Washington Cringes.

The Shiite ayatollahs say they want any constitution to be based closely on Islamic law, while still respecting individual and minority rights. What that means in practice is less clear, and may not be entirely to the liking of the United States.

Ayatollah Sistani has said constitution should guarantee individual liberties as long as they are consistent 'with the religious facts and the social values of the Iraqi people.' At the same time, he said elected leaders, not clerics, should have the final authority to make laws in a democratic Iraq. 'The authority will be for the people who will get the majority of votes,' he said in response to questions last month.

Bridging the gap between Islamic values and Western views of human rights will not be easy, said Noah Feldman, an assistant professor at New York University and expert on Islamic law who is advising Iraq on the drafting process. But Mr. Feldman said he believed the clerics would not demand an Iranian-style theocracy.

'It's going to be tricky and it's delicate, but it's going to be solvable, because in the end the Shia clerics are open to a state that's a democratic state but is also respectful of Islam,' Mr. Feldman said. 'No one around Sistani is saying, `Rule of the clerics.' '

Perhaps not, but the coalition official acknowledged that the coalition would have little control over an elected assembly and that it might result in a government unfriendly to the United States.

The US invaded Iraq with a terrifying ignorance of why it was there and what it would find. Paul Wolfowitz, for example, told the US congress that Iraqis are:

secular and "overwhelmingly Shia, which is different from the Wahhabis of the peninsula, and they don't bring the sensitivity of having the holy cities of Islam being on their territory."

No doubt that is news to the Shi'i majority in Iraq, especially those who live in holy Najaf and the other shrine cities.

Yet even now, when the cakewalk myth is dead and the occupation faces growing resistance, we read in the New Yorker:

According to a senior Administration official, not long ago in Washington, Cheney approached Powell, stuck a finger in his chest, and said, �If you hadn�t opposed the I.N.C. and Chalabi, we wouldn�t be in this mess.� But one Pentagon official acknowledged that his agency was responsible for the debacle. �It was ridiculous,� he said. �Rummy and Wolfowitz and Feith did not believe the U.S. would need to run post-conflict Iraq. Their plan was to turn it over to these exiles very quickly and let them deal with the messes that came up. Garner was a fall guy for a bad strategy. He was doing exactly what Rummy wanted him to do. It was the strategy that failed.�

The agreement with the IGC reads like a recycled treaty from the century before last. The CPA appoints the IGC who then appoint the provincial caucuses who then appoint the transitional assembly. This system of pyramids of indirect election is about as democratic as what prevailed in the old Soviet Union, the evil empire of Ronald Reagan. It would be laughable, were it not lamentable that an Iraqi cleric, feared for his medievalism, has to teach the US occupation that elections mean elections.

The road has only two forks and they lead to Najaf or Tikrit. Either the US finds another Saddam to rule in the same way Saddam did or they deal with Sistani. Elections have risks. Elections with safe (because predetermined) results are not elections, just fraudulent attempts to avoid elections.

Iraq actually does not have a bloody communal history in the same sense as Yugoslavia. The bloodshed was much more between political factions than communal groups. The International Crisis Group finds that the ethnic divisions, especially the Sunni/Shi'i division, are less significant than is often assumed. There is at least a limited prospect for an electoral democracy that recognises both the primacy of Islam and the rights of non-Muslims. The Malaysian constitution, (although I would not call Malaysia an ideal state it is an electoral democracy) provides that:

Section 3(1) Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.

In the forward strategy of freedom speech Bush said:

Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe -- because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty

Excusing and accommodating a system of caucuses to evade the popular will in Iraq would be a classic example of purchasing stability at the expense of liberty. The road to Tikrit, it should be remembered, also leads to Halabja.

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