5 February 2004

Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husaini Sistani - Why we'd better listen to Iraq's influential cleric

But the odds of a peaceful handover depend entirely on Sistani. The United States is not about to see all the blood spilled and money spent by occupation forces go toward the creation of a new hardline Islamic republic. Sistani will have to decide whether or not to endorse a slow, imperfect transition state. What if he skunks the deal? It's nearly unthinkable that he would call for armed revolt, but it could happen without him. 'Sistani may lose control of the masses,' warned Amatzia Baram, an expert on Iraqi politics at the U.S. Institute of Peace. If the Shiites stop following his lead, 'it's anybody's guess what happens.' Alongside Sistani's moderation one must take into account his aggressive young rival, Moqtada al-Sadr, and countless others who would be glad to push the Shiites toward war.

Sistani is a deeply religious man who is also a survivor. Living in Najaf, a holy city and burial place haunted by Shiite passion for martyrdom, he has emerged as a leader through quiet rationalism. When his fatwa summoned thousands into the streets of Baghdad, Sistani crossed the line from scholar to activist. In many ways, we're all lucky that he is the voice of Iraq's Shiites, but by playing politics, he is entering a dangerous arena. A powerful Shiite cleric is calling for a peaceful, internationally moderated democracy in Iraq. Just across the border, Iran's theocracy is wrestling with the same issues, and from Egypt to Malaysia leaders struggle to integrate Islam and democracy. Behind the rhetoric of regime change George Bush added the promise that America would make that integration happen in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sistani has dared him to do it.

We know the public answer from the Bush forward strategy of freedom speech. Clearly Bush had better show much greater seriousness in carrying out the promises of that speech than we have seen thus far.

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