Who is the Grand Ayatollah Sistani?

January 18, 2004

Comment: #505

Discussion Threads - Comments #s: 503 and related comments

Attached References:

[Ref.1] Daniel Williams, "Clerics Urge Shiites to Protest: Call for Iraqi Elections Carries Hint of Violence," Washington Post, January 17, 2004; Page A01

[Ref.2] RICHARD W. STEVENSON, "INTERIM GOVERNMENT: U.S. Willing to Alter Steps to Iraqi Self-Rule, Bremer Says," The New York Times, January 17, 2004

[Ref.3] Paul Craig Roberts, "Is Bush Doomed?" Antiwar.com, January 17, 2004

President Bush says he wants to create a a foundation for democracy in Iraq by transferring power to a transitional assembly NLT July 1, 2004. If successful, this plan would have the added benefit of neutralizing criticism from the democratic presidential contender three months before the presidential election and go far to insure Mr. Bush's re-election. But the plan faces a serious, possibly fatal, crisis and could trap Bush in a no-win situation. The skunk at Mr. Bush's garden party is an obscure (at least to Americans) Iranian-born Shi'a cleric residing in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq.

The Bush vision for an early transition to democracy in Iraq hinges on the "election" of a transitional assembly composed of men and women selected through a complex system of regional caucuses. The stated intent of this approach is forge a kind of federal system of elections that would safeguard the minority rights of the Iraqi Kurds and Iraqi Sunni Arabs, (each group comprises a little less that 20% of the total population, although they form local majorities in some of the provinces where they live) from the majority Shi'ite Arabs (a little over 60% of the population).

Shi'ite leaders particularly the Grand Ayatollah Ali Husaini Sistani oppose this plan and are calling for a direct election, or put another way, a democracy based on the theory of one man one vote.

As James Madison explained in Federalist #10, one of the greatest threats to popular government is that posed by the the formation of what he called a "majority faction" i.e., a situation where an absolute majority unites to gang up on a minority. Madison argued in #10 that the system of checks and balances in the proposed Constitution would preserve individual and minority rights by preventing the rise of majority factions. While this system served the United States well for over 200 years, it was by no means perfect. It did not, for example, prevent the racist legacy of slavery (a classic majority faction phenomenon) from persecuting the black minority and sapping the moral strength of the American society for over a hundred years after the Civil War, nor has it cut completely the racial tentacles which continue to twist and pervert our politics to this day.

Bear in mind the context from which the American federal system flowed. It includes, among other things, the legacy of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence (particularly the evolving character of common law), the impact of Scottish moral philosophy with its emphasis on natural rights and the primacy of the individual, the idea of inviolate private property rights which necessitated a legal system to govern the transfer of these rights, the actuating principles of moderation and tolerance, the theory of separation of church and state, and perhaps most importantly, the evolving tradition of expanding reciprocal obligations between rulers and ruled that grew out of the European (particularly the Anglo-Saxon) feudal system, beginning with the Magna Carta.

Iraq has no comparable historical legacy. Indeed, despotism and a tendency toward unbridled power have characterized Iraq's peculiar mix of religious, vendetta, and tribal politics for thousands of years. Ironically, the closest approximation to separation of church and state in Iraq was seen in the dominance of the dictatorial, albeit secular, Ba'ath party led by Saddam Hussein. Private property rights and the idea of an ever-evolving common law are alien concepts to the traditional tribal and religious leaders of Iraq.

A federal system of caucuses may be music to American ears, but to Iraqis it must sound like a threatening and incomprehensible orchestration imposed by alien invaders to displace their traditional religious and tribal politics.

Tensions are mounting. Daniel Williams reports in Ref 1 below that Shi'ite clerics have called on their followers to prepare for demonstrations and possible confrontation with US forces. If the relatively quiet (at least up to now) Shi'a community explodes, the crisis could degenerate into a wider civil war which would ratchet up the strain on our overstretched forces and ultimately lead to a breakup of Iraq, with the complications described by Paul Craig Roberts, a conservative commentator, in Ref 3 below.

But in Ref 2 below, Richard Stevenson reports that the US is only willing to alter its plan at the margin, while hanging tough on the regional caucuses as well as the 1 July deadline. Mr. Bush will now try to enlist Kolfi Anan, Secretary General of the dreaded United Nations to intervene on our behalf to convince Sistani to moderate his position and go along with the plans. To Paul Craig Roberts [Ref 3] this all means that Bush has allowed the neo-conservatives behind our Iraq policy to maneuver him into a deadly trap from which there may be no escape.

Some wags might argue that hanging chads have clouded Mr. Bush's vision. After all, he received fewer total votes than his competitor in the presidential election, and he was the first president to be selected by a cabal of judges sitting on the Supreme Court; perhaps he is simply congenitally insensitive to the moral power of Sistani's "one man - one vote" appeal. But even that wildly cynical view does not excuse Bush or the leading members of his administration from being caught flat footed and unprepared for Sistani's resistance. It has been forseeable since at least June or July.

So, it should not be surprising that Sistani may be in a position to grab the moral high ground in a game of democratic chicken. In fact, my good friend and long-time Iraq observer, Andrew Cockburn, told me last July that Sistani was going to cause real problems by demanding a popular democratic referendum. Cockburn said Bush administration officials did not understand or seem to care how powerful Sistani was. Nor did the they appreciate the fact that Sistani's power flowed from his impeccable moral stature in the Shi'a community.

Cockburn predicted there would be real trouble if the administration continued to ignore him a prediction that now appears to be coming true.

So, who is Grand Ayatollah Sistani, and why does he have the power to skunk Mr. Bush's Iraq garden party?

Herewith submitted for your consideration and review is Cockburn's take on the Grand Ayatollah:

Who is the Ayatollah Sistani?

by Andrew Cockburn
January 2004

[reprinted with permission. This essay is an edited, slightly shorter version of an op-ed which appeared in the Times of London on January 16, 2004.]

As should be clear to all, U.S. policy on Iraq is now operating according to the rigorous tempo of the Bush re-election campaign schedule. This requires the transfer of power to a sovereign Iraqi government by June 30, thus relieving the U.S. of at least the appearance of responsibility for Iraq and its troubles and thereby depriving the democrats of a potent issue.

There is not much Howard Dean or his fellow candidates can do about this, but the White House master plan for Iraq may yet upset by a venerable 75 year old gentleman who never appears on television and has not left his house since Saddam's agents tried to kill him ten years ago, yet whose word is law for a majority of the Iraqi population.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Husaini Sistani is the spiritual leader of Iraq's fifteen million or so Shia muslims, over whom he wields an extraordinary moral authority. Over the past six or seven months it has become increasingly that his veto of the U.S. scheme to foist an unelected post-occupation government of their favored allies on Iraq cannot be fudged or negotiated..

"In the beginning, the Americans saw no reason to pay any attention to this old man in Najaf," says Hussain Shahristani, a nuclear scientist and former political prisoner (he did ten years in solitary for refusing to build Saddam's bomb) with whom Sistani consults regularly. "They just didn't understand." Yet, had the newly arrived conquerors been paying closer attention, there were plenty of signs that this was a man to be reckoned with. For example, even as Saddam's statues were toppling in Baghdad, the BBC World Service reported (erroneously) that Sistani's modest house in Najaf was under threat from a hostile mob. The news spread like wildfire. "I was sleeping in a village near Basra that night," recalls Shahristani. "Suddenly I saw the villagers grabbing their guns and preparing to rush to Najaf, hundreds of miles away. 'Sistani is under attack' they told me. That was all they needed to know. The same thing happened all over Iraq."

In the early days of the occupation, Sistani spoke out against looting, which then rapidly died down in the Shia towns and cities, while his representatives helped organise local popularly-supported councils to enforce law and order and restore basic services. He also issued a more controversial edict prohibiting lethal reprisals against former officials of the Baathist regime. "People even respected that," recalls one Shia politician,, "at least for a while."

Such stature and influence may seem all the more remarkable given that Sistani himself is not Iraqi, but a native of Mashad in north east Iran. A youthful prodigy from a religious family who began learning the Koran at the age of five, he has spent almost his entire life in the intellectually rigorous atmosphere of Shia scholastic institutions, first in Iran and then, from his early twenties on, in Najaf, the center of Shia learning for the past thousand years. In the schoools, promising scholars like Sistani would be expected to master philosophy and jurisprudence, mostly through the medium of debate, while he himself pursued a keen interest in modern science. Long years invested in the study of grammer and rhetoric are audible in his elegantly pure classical arabic, although he has never lost the thick Iranian accent he brought with him to Najaf almost fifty years ago.

Leaders in the Shia religious hierarchy emerge thanks to their learning and prowess in scholarly debate as well as their ability to gain a following among the faithful by virtue of their pronouncements on questions of religious law. In addition to such qualifications, Sistani enjoyed the powerful support of the very widely revered Grand Ayatollah al-Khoie, his teacher and predeccessor as supreme religious authority. By all accounts he shared his mentor's distaste for the political philosophy of Ayatollah Khomeini, who spent years of exile in Najaf before returning to rule Iran.

Al-Khoie died in 1992, and Sistani took over responsibility for a flock horribly devastated by Saddam's bloody reprisals for the Shia uprising that followed the 1991 Gulf War. Opting for a low profile, he eschewed politics but nevertheless attracted a large following thanks to his widely acclaimed learning and the international popularity of his rulings on law and personal behavior. Combining high and low technology, his followers around the world would e-mail requests for rulings to an office in the Iranian city of Qom. Such queries were then printed out and smuggled across the borderto the little house in Najaf for Sistani's consideration, the answers in turn being smuggled back to Qom for posting on the Sistani.org website. His moral authority among the pverty-stricken Shia masses was meanwhile bolstered by his unstinting generosity with the financial contributions from supporters, while he himself stuck to a rigorously austere lifestyle. ("You get just one glass of tea, and the mattresses you sit on are very thin," comments a recent visitor ruefully.)

Sistani remained politically aloof during the war last spring, declining either to condemn or endorse the anglo-U.S. invasion and occupation. Late in June however, he dropped a bombshell, issuing a hokm an absolutely binding ruling that declared the occupiers' plan to have a new Iraqi constitution written by an unelected handpicked committee "unacceptable" and demanding that any new constitution be written by an elected assembly.

Eventually persuaded that this edict might be a serious matter, occupation viceroy Paul Bremer sent a request for a meeting with Sistani, which was promptly refused. Bremer then despatched a message suggesting that the ayatollah nominate representatives to meet with his officials to negotiate a compromise on the constitution. "Mr Bremer," replied Sistani archly, "you are American. I am Iranian. I suggest we leave it to the Iraqis to devise their constitution." Subsequent efforts by Bremer and his superiors to find a way to hand power to an Iraqi government guaranteed to be malleable, a requirement that rules out elections have elicited unwavering demands from Sistani for one man (and woman) one vote.

"The Americans still don't understand Sistani," says one observer involved in the efforts to find a post occupation settlement. "They treat him like a standard politician 'what'll it take to make a deal?' whereas he's more of a law professor than a politician."

Frustated by the obstacle of the venerable cleric, some among the handpicked Iraqi "Governing Council" who are leery of submitting to the judgement of the voters spread word in Washington that Sistani's stance was dictated by a hidebound opposition to "full rights for women and other principles of democracy and human rights that President Bush has promised for Iraq." Supporters such as Hussein Shahristani dismiss this charactarisation as a "blatent lie." Shahristani argues that Sistani is merely expressing the desire of most Iraqis for an "elected government operating under a rule of law, with guarantees for ethnic and religious minorities and human rights."

It is clear that, were he to feel so inclined, Sistani could seriously derail the occupation by calling on the Shia to protest en masse. Should the U.S. authorities remain in any doubt about his ability to get results, they might mull Sistani's recent impact on Iraqi petrol queues. Grave shortages of fuel have been exacerbated by black marketeers cornering supplies, leading to enormous queues at petrol stations. Finally, Sistani issued a fatwa against black market profiteering in petrol. The lines immediately shrank by seventy five percent.

It is an example that George Bush would do well to bear in mind if he wants a quiet Iraqi backdrop for his campaign.

Chuck Spinney

"A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." - James Madison, from a letter to W. T. Barry, August 4, 1822

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference 1

Clerics Urge Shiites to Protest Call for Iraqi Elections Carries Hint of Violence

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 17, 2004; Page A01

KARBALA, Iraq, Jan. 16


"We should think seriously about the future and for the coming generation, and fashion it to keep our dignity," said Abdel-Madhi Salami, the chief cleric in Karbala, one of two Shiite holy cities in Iraq. "This will happen through serious participation in a peaceful protest, strikes and, as a last resort, possible confrontation with the occupying forces, because they plan to draw up colonial schemes."

Salami is a senior associate of Sistani. A similar appeal was made in the biggest Sunni mosque in Baghdad.


When Sistani first called for a U.N. visit, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan sent a letter to the Governing Council saying elections could not be arranged properly before July 1.

"It was not correct for Kofi Annan to sit in New York and say it," Salami said. "We feel this was all a maneuver. If the commission came, investigated and said there is no way, then an alternative would have to be found."


Elections would give the majority Shiites and, in all likelihood, the Shiite religious leadership a leg up on political rivals. The mosque is the most organized and well-financed institution in Iraq. The leadership is funded by donations from millions of the faithful.


"The issue is not just freedom. It is guaranteeing that laws be passed within the rules of Islam," Salami said.

He explained that Shiite leaders see the current situation through the prism of an Arab uprising in 1920 against British colonial rule. Then, Shiite clerics supported the revolt and later rejected a peace solution that involved installation by the British of an Arab monarch in Iraq. Effectively, the Shiites ceded control of Iraq to the minority Sunni population.

This time, the clerics want to ensure they have a deciding say in the creation of an Iraqi government, Salami said. "The people should benefit from the experience of the 1920 revolution. At that time, they lost their rights," he told worshipers at Imam Hussein mosque. "This time, the marja of Najaf is taking care about the transfer of authority from the occupiers. The people should wake up."

2004 The Washington Post Company

Reference 2

January 17, 2004

U.S. Willing to Alter Steps to Iraqi Self-Rule, Bremer Says

The New York Times




But the administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, and other Bush administration officials suggested that any changes would be limited and said the United States intended to stick by its basic approach of using caucuses rather than direct elections to choose interim rulers.

Mr. Bremer also said the administration remained committed to transferring the government back to Iraqis by June 30, a deadline that would allow the United States to begin reducing its profile in Iraq as the presidential campaign heats up at home.


Some American officials have also expressed concern that elections this year could concentrate power with the Shiites, while the United States wants Iraq to adopt a constitution that guarantees the rights of the Kurdish and Sunni minorities.

The American-backed plan, which was agreed to on Nov. 15, calls for caucuses to be held this spring in all 18 of Iraq's states, some of which are predominantly populated by Sunnis or Kurds.

The caucuses would choose delegates to an interim national assembly, which would assume sovereignty from the American-led occupying force and sit while a permanent constitution is written. The plan calls for full elections in 2005.


"We have said that we are prepared to seek clarifications in the process that was laid out in the Nov. 15th agreement, the ways in which the selection of the transitional assembly is carried forward, and I think that's obviously one of the areas that we will obviously be talking to the secretary general and his colleagues about," Mr. Bremer said.


And despite the administration's insistence that it has always wanted the United Nations to play a "vital role" in Iraq, as Mr. Bush put it as the war was winding down last spring, the United States has so far been reluctant to cede any substantial authority over the occupation.

"We do think there is a role for the United Nations in this process," Mr. Bremer said. "The U.N. has a lot of expertise in organizing elections, electoral commissions, electoral laws; has a great deal of expertise it can bring to bear on the process of writing a constitution."


Reference 3

Is Bush Doomed?

by Paul Craig Roberts
January 17, 2004


If Bush delivers on his democracy promise, the Shi'ites with 60% of the population will be elected, and the country will break out in civil war. If he tries to water down Shi'ite representation with his plan for an assembly elected indirectly by caucuses, the so far peaceful Shi'ites are likely to join the violence.


 The US military is already so thinly stretched that soon 40% of the occupying troops will be drawn from the National Guard and reservists, resulting in tremendous disruption in the affairs of tens of thousands of families.

Pilots and troops are shunning the cash bonuses offered for reenlistments. The troops recognize a quagmire even if their neocon overlords cannot. The only source of troops is the draft.


All of this was perfectly clear well in advance of the ill-considered invasion. If Bush wasn't smart enough to see it, why didn't his National Security Advisor or his Secretary of State? How did a handful of neocon ideologues hijack US foreign policy

Bush did not campaign on a neocon policy of conquest in the Middle East. There was no public debate over this policy. The invasion of Iraq was the private agenda of the neocons.


Bush, desperate to be extricated before doom strikes him is experiencing a reality totally different from the chest-thumping of neocon megalomaniacs, such as Charles Krauthammer, who declared the US so powerful as to be able to "reshape, indeed remake, reality on its own."

Bush now knows that he lacks the power to deal with the reality of Iraq. Indeed, Bush cannot even deal with his own appointees.