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Surging Shiite Demands Put U.S. in a Bind

Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration has been backed into a corner on its political plan for Iraq by unexpectedly strident opposition from Shiite Muslim clerics, who played their trump card last week, calling on their followers to stage mass demonstrations.

In the next few days, the administration, along with the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council, plans to craft a new plan for choosing a transitional government that is more satisfactory to all the sects and ethnic groups in the country, including the long-suppressed Shiite majority. But there is every indication that no matter what shape it takes, the proposal could be unacceptable to crucial political players.

“The administration is facing problems on all three fronts -- with the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds ... and the situation with the Shiites is looking more and more like a crisis,” said Bathsheba Crocker, a fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The picture could get a whole lot uglier.”

The bind for the U.S. is that if it accedes to the Shiites’ demand for direct elections -- and thus more clout -- it risks alienating Sunni Muslims and Kurds as well as secular Iraqis and women, who would probably have more representation under the current plan calling for caucuses and indirect elections. If the United States sticks to the proposal now on the table, it will face potentially destabilizing Shiite street protests.

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The key figure in the Shiite play for power is the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who for months restrained the masses from taking a stand against occupation forces, perhaps lulling the Americans into believing that the Shiites would be easy to work with. Shiite-dominated southern Iraq has seen nothing remotely like the violence in the chiefly Sunni central part of the country -- no mines targeting coalition soldiers, no lobbing of rocket grenades, no mortars fired at military bases.

Through last spring and summer, when the coalition had trouble keeping the electricity on and the gas stations pumping, the reclusive cleric with the long salt-and-pepper beard and dark, intense eyes -- giving him a startling resemblance to Iran’s late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini -- told his assistant clerics to preach patience to the Shiite streets and to hold in reserve the threat of violence.

Last week, however, his patience appeared to run out. Tens of thousands of his followers poured into the streets to reinforce his call for direct elections, and a cleric close to Sistani threatened strikes and further disturbances.

The combustibility of the situation was heightened with new signs that a Shiite government may put in place a more theocratic regime than the U.S. had hoped. The most recent reflection of that danger was the Governing Council’s enactment a week ago of a law requiring the use of Sharia, or Islamic law, for domestic matters such as divorce, child custody and marriage -- a move that would roll back women’s rights.

The proposal was framed in a way unacceptable to most Kurds, who are secular, and Sunnis, and the council’s vote was largely along religious and ethnic lines.

Although it is unlikely that the Coalition Provisional Authority will agree to the law -- under the terms of the occupation, all laws have to be approved by civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III -- as soon as the U.S. hands over power, it could be enacted.

“Beneath the new interest of the United States in bringing democracy to the Middle East is the central dilemma that the most powerful, popular movements are ones that we are deeply uncomfortable with,” said Thomas Carothers, director of the Democracy Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Sistani has objected to a Nov. 15 deal with the Governing Council that calls for a transitional assembly, selected by caucuses in May, to elect a provisional government that will assume sovereignty by July 1. General elections would come in late 2005 after the drafting of a constitution.

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Sistani and his fellow Shiites fear that unless there are direct elections, the process will be manipulated and they will be deprived of their fair share of power while the Sunnis and secular representatives receive more than their fair share.

The U.S. continues to assert that it will not bow to the Shiite demands for direct elections for the transitional assembly, but the conflict appears to have reached a new level.

Even if the United States could see its way clear to accepting direct elections, it is difficult to see how it could do so without provoking a backlash from the Sunnis and the Kurds, who fear the rising Shiite tide.

Such a scenario could precipitate more serious violence and civil strife than the country has already seen, which would almost certainly derail the U.S. ambition to have a stable transitional government within six months.

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The Shiites are thought to make up roughly 60% of Iraq’s population. They were brutally repressed under former President Saddam Hussein.

Across the Shiite urban strongholds in southern Iraq last week, clerics close to Sistani prepared their followers for days of demonstrations and possible violence: “peaceful protests, strikes and, as a last resort, possible confrontation with the occupying forces,” in the words of Abdel-Mahdi Salami, the senior cleric close to Sistani in Karbala, one of the two most holy Shiite cities in the country.

“The CPA has to start learning lessons. We don’t want them to learn lessons the hard way, but if they keep on being pigheaded, they will be hurt,” said Mouwafak Rabii, a Shiite and a member of the Governing Council, who has been present during most of the council’s discussions with Sistani.

The tougher tactics came as a Monday meeting in New York between U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Bremer and the Governing Council neared, and it became evident that coalition officials were refusing to look at any major change in the plan to hold caucuses.

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Now U.S. officials are talking about a more comprehensive overhaul, although they have said little about specifics. But Washington is known to be pressuring the United Nations to send a team of election experts to Iraq to assess the fairness of its plan. U.S. officials have also been urging the U.N. to expand its role in Iraq.

With the days diminishing before the Governing Council signs off on a law to govern the country during the rule of an interim government -- the deadline is the end of February -- Sistani made his move.

“Once the real political process starts, people grab for power,” Carnegie’s Carothers said. “They aren’t going to stop -- they are just going to keep pushing to see how much they can get. They know the door is open to a renegotiation of the process.”

For every step closer to Sistani that the United States takes, it loses ground in its already rocky relationship with the Sunnis, who dominated the country under Hussein.

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In an interview Saturday, Sheik Mohammed Bashar Faidi, the spokesman for the Board of Clergy and Scholars, a prestigious Iraqi Islamic religious organization, said that Sunni clerics are likely to issue a communique soon that if the government were elected along the lines requested by Sistani, it should be viewed as illegitimate.

Sistani representatives had already made a similar threat, saying that if the government were chosen through a caucus system, Sistani might issue a fatwa, or religious ruling, saying that the government was illegal.

Reluctant to concede that they are a minority, many Sunni Muslims -- regardless of their support for Hussein -- believe that the Shiites are in league with the United States and Israel, always an archenemy, to strip the Sunnis of all power.

In living rooms and on street corners, the talk in Sunni majority neighborhoods was of Sistani’s call to action and the Sunnis’ fervent hope that the U.S. would fight the Shiites as Hussein did.

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“You need to take a strong stand with them. You should treat them like Saddam did -- he knew how to deal with them,” said Ahmad, a Sunni and former diplomat, who asked that his full name not be used. Under Hussein, tens of thousands were killed, and many others were imprisoned and tortured.

Faidi, however, underscored that the near object of Sunni rage was the American presence and that any retaliation would be initially directed at them.

“Our problem is not Sistani -- our problem is the American forces, because the Americans from the beginning ignored the Sunni people,” he said, charging that the U.S. had a plot to spur violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

“We do not rule out the possibility that this is the first step toward triggering sectarian strife,” he said.

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The way forward is filled with doubt. Some Iraq watchers believe that at the end of the day, Sistani will call off the crowds he urged to take to the streets.

“If the United States brings in the United Nations, that would be a strong signal from Washington, and if there could be some certification that elections were not possible in such a short time, then Sistani might accept that,” said Joost Hiltermann, head of the International Crisis Group’s Jordan office, which tracks developments in Iraq. ICG is a Washington- and Brussels-based research organization that closely follows democracy development in troubled countries.

“He only has to give one nod and he can turn off this stuff,” Hiltermann said.

With the U.N. certifying the difficulty of organizing free and fair elections, perhaps a compromise that called for caucuses with a broader membership, including some locally elected figures, might be palatable, he suggested.

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Others are less sanguine. They see Sistani as an unstoppable force who will refuse to back down from his demands.

“They have to find an accommodation, and if they don’t, when the transitional government is put in place, it will be broadly viewed as lacking legitimacy [by the Shiite majority], and that is a big problem,” said Juan Cole, a professor of modern Arab history at the University of Michigan.

Harder still is that whatever government is put in place will inherit the Sunni insurgency that has racked the center of the country, as well as the terrorist assaults -- a long way from the stable democracy the United States has envisioned.


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