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U.S. Resistance to Direct Vote Galvanizes Iraq’s Shiite Clerics

Times Staff Writer

With a suddenness that seems to have caught American officials by surprise, Shiite Muslim clerics who for decades ministered in the quiet obscurity of the back streets of this holy city are now driving key decisions about the future governance of the nation.

The immediate focal point is a showdown with the American-led coalition over the process for transferring sovereignty to an Iraqi government.

Shiite religious parties, with the backing of the most senior cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, say they favor direct elections for a transitional government rather than the American-backed proposal to use provincial caucuses for selecting delegates to a national assembly.

But beyond this debate, far broader political forces are at work. At stake is the role religious Shiite parties will play in Iraq for the foreseeable future.

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The Shiite community, which was brutally persecuted by Saddam Hussein and his Sunni Muslim-dominated Baath Party, would likely benefit from swift direct elections because Shiites make up about 60% of Iraq’s population and their religious parties are, at this point, the most organized political force in the country.

But some Bush administration officials fear that if Shiite fundamentalists were to win at the polls, they would advance an anti-Western agenda with a theocratic bent reminiscent of Iran rather than build a relatively moderate democracy that protects the basic rights of all Iraqis, including women and minorities.

The extent to which Shiite clerics end up with a controlling influence after the foreign coalition leaves -- and the role of Koranic law in the nation’s constitution -- might well depend on how Americans handle the current challenge from Shiite leaders.

“Absolutely this is a delicate moment,” said a senior administration official who is knowledgeable about Iraq policy. “Do we throw the dice and say, ‘This is a political issue, and we’re not going to let [Sistani] dictate to us’? Will he be willing to deal or not? It’s a turning point.”

Observers here note that American opposition to the religious Shiites’ agenda puts the U.S. in the odd position of resisting what is arguably the most democratic of processes: a free election. They also worry that the Americans have not carefully considered the worst-case scenarios.

“If the Shiites do not get what they are asking for and Sistani issues a [religious order] forbidding people to vote, no Shiite will participate in the political process,” said Jabber Habib, a Baghdad University political science professor. “I don’t think that will happen, but the high Shiite clerics have great power if they want to use it.”

Three factors seem to have pushed Shiite religious leaders into their current disagreement with the coalition.

First, the conservative clerics are looking ahead to an uncertain political future if the economy improves and the country becomes more Westernized. Consequently, they want direct elections well before drafters of a national constitution are due to be selected, more than a year from now.

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Second, some Shiite leaders appear to doubt that the United States has their interests at heart. That concern has been exacerbated, the clerics say, by poor communication between the parties.

Senior members of the coalition dispute that view, insisting that there is regular communication with religious Shiites. A senior staffer noted Tuesday that civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III had met hours earlier with cleric Abdelaziz Hakim, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council who also leads the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. However, coalition officials in the provinces say it has been difficult to maintain regular communication.

The third factor is that neighboring Iran, the largest Shiite nation in the world, seems to be pushing a number of Shiite leaders in Iraq to exercise greater political power more quickly.

Iraq’s Shiite population encompasses a vast religious spectrum -- some are secular, some religiously observant and some in-between. But almost all share a pride in the scholarship and stature of the grand ayatollahs of Najaf, who historically have been rivaled only by those in the Iranian city of Qom.

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That pride has swelled in the months since Hussein’s overthrow, as even the most secular Shiites expressed admiration for the survival of members of the Shiite religious parties, many freshly returned from exile, and for senior clergy who had remained in Iraq despite the repression of Hussein’s rule.

By framing the issue as whether Americans intend to honor the wishes of the Shiite majority, Shiite clerics appear to be capitalizing on the sense of shared identity.

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd who attends many Governing Council meetings and met with Sistani in Najaf this year, warned that issues related to the Shiites’ stature would resonate among the majority. “When it comes to these issues, the Shiites have solidarity, regardless of whether they are religious or secular,” he said.

Observers believe that the sense of solidarity will ebb if reconstruction efforts succeed.

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“The religious parties are afraid that in a year or two, the standard of living will increase and prosperity will increase and the people will not go for these religious parties,” said Habib, the professor.

The three best-known Shiite parties are the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Islamic Dawa Party and a loose group of clerics around Muqtader Sadr, a radical young cleric whose father and cousin defied Hussein’s regime and were assassinated for their stance.

None of these groups openly discuss the extent to which each would like religious law to dominate Iraq, but it is an implicit theme in their recent pronouncements on the political process. It is also a theme that frightens many secular Iraqis.

All of the Shiite religious parties have armed followers. But none is as organized as the SCIRI-affiliated militia, which the Americans have been able to only nominally disarm.

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Western observers believe that the SCIRI, the dominant political force in Najaf, is trying to expand its power as rapidly as possible. Dawa controls much of the southern city of Nasiriyah, and Sadr holds sway over multitudes in the sprawling Baghdad slum known as Sadr City. Sistani, the most widely revered Shiite cleric in Iraq, has called for an election of the transitional legislature, which would take office by July. The cleric, who is not aligned with any party, is also displeased that the unelected Governing Council, rather than an elected body, will write the interim law for running Iraq that is due to be completed by March, said a senior Iraqi official who met with the cleric.

During Friday’s prayers in Najaf, preacher Sadruddin Qubanchi, a high-ranking SCIRI official, accused the Americans and the Governing Council of deception in the way they have presented the process of choosing the transitional legislature.

“It is not going to be done through elections, but through appointments. They are cheating the marja,” said Qubanchi, referring to the five most senior clerics who interpret Shiite teachings.

The Shiite parties’ determination to consolidate political influence has caused the groups to deny that serious problems could result from early elections.

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Coalition officials and secular members of the Governing Council argue that the country is too unstable for fair elections to be held soon because of the risk of attacks on voters and candidates by Hussein loyalists.

Ayatollah Mohammed Ali Yaccoubi, a supporter of Sistani, counters that “the security issue is just an excuse for not holding elections.”

“There are several stable provinces, the unstable points are only between 10% and 20%,” he said in an interview. “You may not have 100% participation. But a province without elections can say, ‘These are our delegates to the legislature,’ and pick some.”

Privately, two prominent Shiites said that considering that tens of thousands of Shiites were slaughtered by Hussein, any further casualties incurred for the sake of elections in which Shiite parties are assured of doing well would be a small price to pay.

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American officials were apparently unsure how to encourage moderate Shiite clerics and discourage the fundamentalists who might lean toward Iran. The result was that they cast their lot with secular Shiite exiles such as Ahmad Chalabi and Iyad Allawi, who lead parties that have only recently begun to put down real roots in Iraq.

Sistani, who met with U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello before his death, refuses to meet with Bremer. Although Bremer has reached out to some of the moderates, especially in Baghdad, he has few links to the powerful senior clerics in Najaf.

Similarly, there has been no effort on the part of the U.S.-led coalition to talk directly to Sadr. But the coalition makes no apology for that omission. “We absolutely don’t want to meet with Muqtader al Sadr. He’s accused of some very serious crimes -- he’s been a force for unrest and strife,” an official said.

However, shunning Sadr is seen by the Najaf authorities as a slight to an important clerical family, even though in the main they do not like or trust Sadr, who is viewed by many as a hothead who lacks his relatives’ Islamic scholarship.

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“The Americans should deal with all symbols of the Iraqi people equally,” said Yaccoubi, the Sistani supporter.

Ayatollah Ishaq Fayed, one of the five senior clergy in Najaf, harbors further frustrations. Speaking on his behalf, Sheik Ali Rubaie, who runs Fayed’s office, said hundreds of worshipers have come to senior clerics for help after confrontations with the American military.

“We suggested that there should be an American decision maker we could talk to in order to solve the problems, so Iraqis will realize these are friendly troops and not occupiers, but this has not happened. So we have stopped communication with them,” Rubaie said.

The military officers who spoke with Rubaie are no longer in Najaf, but a coalition official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the failure to appoint such a person was “probably an oversight.”

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The Americans counted on Shiite support for their occupation, but it appears that many Shiites view the deposing of Hussein as little more than payment of a long-overdue debt.

After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the Shiites, urged on by the Americans, held off Hussein’s forces and ousted the Baathists from several southern strongholds. Triumph turned to tragedy when the U.S. left them to fight alone. Hussein’s troops killed tens of thousands, burying them in mass graves.

At a recent book fair in Najaf, a man in a business suit pored over a table of tomes dedicated to the uprising. Eyeing one with a cover photograph of teenage boys marching through Nasiriyah with AK-47s in their hands, he said in English: “They are my son’s age. You know who is responsible for their deaths? George Bush, the father.”

It is also in places like this book fair, the first one in this city in 35 years, that the subtle influence of Iran becomes obvious.

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The fair was opened by the Iranian cleric Mohammed Ali Taskhiri, who spoke on behalf of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Taskhiri called for an “Islamic constitution,” adding, almost as an admonishment, “The Shiite leaders know their responsibilities.”

Iran’s links to southern Iraq are complex -- a combination of family ties, religious fraternity and spilled blood.

Among the fair’s best-attended exhibits was a set of tables where visitors could write a letter to Iran’s late supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Flocks of men gathered to fill out a piece of paper and hand it to a cleric standing nearby.

“It would be good to have a leader like Ayatollah Khomeini. He delivered Iran from darkness to light,” said Saeed Kamal Khaderi, referring to the spiritual force behind Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Khaderi, 29, is an agricultural engineer who now works in an air-conditioning repair shop to make ends meet.

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“I would prefer a cleric as a leader,” he added in a wistful tone. “They are always on the right side.”

--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---

In stories after April 9, 2004, Shiite cleric Muqtader Sadr is correctly referred to as Muqtada Sadr.

--- END NOTE ---

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