Who is the Grand Ayatollah Sistani?
January 18, 2004
Discussion Threads - Comments #s: 503 and related comments
[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:
"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.]
Clerics Urge Shiites to Protest Call for Iraqi Elections Carries Hint of Violence
By Daniel Williams
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
January 17, 2004
By RICHARD W. STEVENSON
WASHINGTON, Jan. 16 -
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."
Is Bush Doomed?
by Paul Craig Roberts
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.