10 December 2003

Al-Sistani's Call for Democratic Elections

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.

I've given into my sad propensity for puns too much lately so I won't revive the old joke about Iraq and a hard place. If the Bush administration runs true to form they will treat al-Sistani as an opponent for opposing their ridiculous plan for show elections and then suddenly notice, when it is far too late, that their only choice is between al-Sadr and al-Sistani, not between a US proxy like Chalabi and al-Sistani.

The new Iraq will almost certainly be an Islamic republic, although it will not follow the Knomeini model of velayat-al-faqih. The new Iraq will not be especially friendly to Israel. The road to Jerusalem still runs through Jerusalem.

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