Sistani Is Winning, and That Helps U.S.

Juan Cole is professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. He runs an Iraq weblog, "Informed Comment."

Fortunately for the United States, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the chief and most revered Shiite religious figure in Iraq, has won every important political battle so far. He has successfully pushed the Bush administration to involve the United Nations and to schedule free and fair elections for next winter. Sistani’s guarded acceptance of the current process, as long as it leads to democratic elections, augurs well for the new government. Yet continued trouble on Sistani’s right in the form of the bombastic young cleric Muqtada Sadr could complicate matters.

Sistani supports the newly appointed government even though many religious Shiites see themselves as losers in its makeup. Although the new prime minister, Iyad Allawi, is a Shiite, he is also a secularist who spent much of his career organizing ex-Baath officers to attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein. As such, he is hardly counted by most religious Shiites as one of their own. The powerful Sadrist Shiite movement, one branch of which is led by Sadr, was excluded from the interim government.

Religious Shiites were not altogether shunted aside. One of two vice presidencies went to Ibrahim Jafari, leader of the Shiite Dawa Party, which seeks an Islamic state, albeit one ruled by the laity. The Shiite Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq received the powerful ministry of finance, but it had hoped for a higher office and more governmental positions.

Sistani was shown a list of candidates for high office and did not object to any of the contenders, including Allawi. Last Thursday, he acknowledged that the new government lacked legitimacy because it was not elected, but he expressed hope that it would carry out its duties and prepare the way for elections early next year. Sistani also demanded U.N. guarantees of full sovereignty for Iraq. Still, many observers are puzzled by his acquiescence to the current process.


The answer is that all of Sistani’s demands, with the exception of his timetable, have been met -- he wanted earlier elections -- and even his timetable has been delayed a mere six months. The original U.S. plan on the transfer of sovereignty, announced Nov. 15, called for elections based on provincial councils in May 2004. But Sistani feared that such elections could be stage-managed by the United States and thus would not be truly democratic. Only a freely elected government, he insisted, could honestly claim legitimacy in Iraq. Despite his religious conservatism, Sistani has embraced key elements of Enlightenment thinking about democracy.

The grand ayatollah demanded that the United Nations send a team to Iraq to determine whether open elections could be held, and on what timetable. He asked that the U.N. Security Council, not just the United States, midwife the new Iraqi nation. Initially, the leadership of the U.S.-led coalition reportedly resisted this initiative, saying it “offended” them. In mid-January, however, Sistani called huge demonstrations in Basra and then in Baghdad, proving that he had the power to send tens of thousands of Shiite protesters into the streets. His move apparently alarmed the Americans and their British allies. In short order, the United States and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan stopped dragging their feet, and Annan dispatched special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to Iraq on a fact-finding mission. It is now often forgotten that Brahimi went to Iraq at Sistani’s insistence, and that President Bush, who has since found the U.N. such a useful partner, had initially resisted the world body’s involvement.

But Sistani faces a tough challenge on his right. The young sectarian leader Sadr, whose Al Mahdi army has been rapidly arming, has implicitly criticized Sistani as too timid, first in the face of Hussein, then the occupying Americans. Sadr demanded an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, while Sistani was willing to wait patiently for six months. By cooperating with the Americans, the grand ayatollah hoped the Shiites could eventually inherit the new Iraqi state.

The American decision in early April to attempt to arrest Sadr, which set off an uprising in portions of the Shiite-dominated south, upset Sistani’s strategy. Sistani ended up denouncing both the Al Mahdi army and the Americans as their fighting threatened to seriously damage sacred Shiite shrines in Najaf. Still, he fears Sadr’s rashness. A negotiated truce has not stopped the fighting.


Sistani and his allies, the Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, need the caretaker government and the United States to offset the power of Sadr’s militia. Dawa and the Supreme Council will now begin organizing to win as many seats in parliament as possible in January. Even the Sadrists can probably be drawn into the political process by the prospect of wielding some power in parliament.

Sistani will remain happy with the process only if it produces a legitimate government, elected by the Iraqi people. Should the caretaker government become so seduced by power as to attempt to remain in place past January, or should elections be long postponed, the grand ayatollah might become so alarmed as to reenter politics. Nor will Dawa and the Supreme Council be willing to wait in the wings forever. Stability in Iraq depends not on the mere appointment of a caretaker government but on the ability of that government to hold elections seven months after it takes power.