U.S. Ignores This Ayatollah in Iraq at Its Own Peril

The various plans under discussion in the Bush administration for handing more power to Iraqis -- either in the form of a single ruler or a bolstered Governing Council -- all appear to share a common element: No one wants to let the Iraqi people vote on the matter just yet.

This determination to postpone the Iraqi democracy we were supposedly fighting for ignores the views of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq's 15 million Shiite Muslims. No one should have any doubts about either his influence or the fact that we may be ignoring him at our peril.

Just about the time that the U.S. Marines were pulling down Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad, an event occurred that should have attracted more attention from Iraq's conquerors than it did. The BBC 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," one of Sistani's advisors recalled. "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 Shiite hierarchy, the 71-year-old Sistani, who moved from his native Iran to study in Najaf about 50 years ago, is a source of emulation for millions of followers inside and outside Iraq. As such he can pronounce judgments and rulings on religious and secular issues that his devotees are obliged to follow.

Hence, in the early days of the occupation, Sistani spoke against looting, which then died down in Shiite towns and cities. His representatives helped organize local councils to enforce order and restore basic services.

In June, Sistani issued a momentous judgment on the future governance of Iraq. The occupation authorities had announced that the writing of an Iraqi constitution would be turned over to a committee appointed by U.S. overseer L. Paul Bremer III's handpicked and unelected Governing Council. Only after the committee had finished its work would ordinary Iraqis be allowed a say in the form of a referendum.

Sistani was having none of it. The occupation powers, he declared in the classical Arabic that comes naturally to Shiite scholars (whose training includes 10 years of grammar), had no authority to appoint the framers of an Iraqi constitution. "The entire project is unacceptable." There should instead be a general election (using voting rolls drawn from the comprehensive United Nations ration distribution lists) through which each and every Iraqi could choose a constitutional assembly.

The prospect of a democratically elected constitutional assembly reflecting the views and aspirations of Iraq's Shiite majority was not acceptable to U.S. officials, who assumed that they would end up with an Islamic Republic just as unwelcome as the one that emerged from the Iranian revolution.

Yet Sistani's edict was carefully phrased so as to make it clear that he is not demanding an Islamist constitution. In denouncing the idea that the Governing Council should develop a constitution, he explained that this group might not produce a document conforming to "the higher interests of the Iraqi people, of which righteous Islamic faith and the noble values of society are an integral part."

"He's making it clear that he views Islamic faith and the 'noble values' as two distinct things," one close advisor to Sistani told me recently. "He's talking about other groups in Iraq, such as Kurds and Christians."

Nor should it be assumed that the Shiite leader is a mere clone of the ruling ayatollahs over the border in Iran. The Najaf religious leadership never thought very much of Ayatollah Khomeini's innovation of exclusive clerical rule, and Sistani has told Khomeini's successors not to meddle in Iraqi affairs.

For months after Sistani's constitutional edict, the occupation authorities hoped that the issue could be fudged. At one point Bremer sent a message suggesting that Sistani designate a representative to negotiate on the matter. "Mr. Bremer," Sistani replied, "you are an American and I am an Iranian. I suggest we leave it up to the Iraqis to devise their constitution."

"If the Americans continue to ignore Sistani on this, he will lose patience and call for protests and mass demonstrations," his advisor told me. "And they will grow and grow."

"Like what happened in the Iranian revolution?" I asked.

"Exactly," he answered.

Andrew M. Cockburn, co-author of "Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein" (Perennial Press, 2000), recently returned from assignment in Iraq for Smithsonian magazine.

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