Sistani Insists on Elections
Al-Zaman: Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani called on Wednesday for general elections to be held at the scheduled time (January 2005). He made the statement during a meeting of the Shiite leadership held in his office in Najaf. Present were Muhammad Said al-Hakim, Bashir Najafi, and Ishaq al-Fayyad in adition to Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Sistani underlined the necessity of “tossing out conflicts and emphasizing a closing of ranks, as well as intensifying efforts to create complete national unity in order to confront the danger that menaces the country.” Sistani called on the caretaker Iraqi government to take measures to release prisoners whose guilt has not been established, and to work to rebuild the cities that were damaged by the acts of violence and clashes. He asked for compensation to be given to those harmed, especially in the city of Najaf. He also called on the government to “treat problems with calm and wisdom instead of resorting to violence.” (All this according to Deutsche Press Agentur). Al-Hayat says Sistani called on Allawi to “stop the bloodbath.” He further insisted on more popular participation and on “filling in the gaps in the laws governing elections and parties” that were enacted by US civil administrator Paul Bremer and his appointed Interim Governing Council.
There are rumors that PM Iyad Allawi had wanted to storm the shrine of Ali in late August, and had been displeased with Sistani’s intervention to promote a non-violent end of the crisis.
In fact, the Iraqi government did let 750 prisoners go from Abu Ghuraib Prison as part of a commitment to process the prisoners there one way or another.
Sistani’s quite resonable demand for elections is nevertheless among the greatest dangers facing the Allawi government and the Americans. It will be extremely difficult actually to hold the elections on time. But Sistani believes only such elections can produce a legitimate government, and he already accepted a six-month delay. If the elections are not held, and if Sistani begins to fear they won’t be held soon, he may well call the masses into the streets. That could lead to an overthrow of Allawi and an expulsion of the Americans. Keep your eye on February and March of 2005.
Incidentally, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan predicted that it would be impossible to hold the elections on time. He also went on record that the Bush administration’s war against Iraq had been illegal, contravening the UN charter that forbids the launching of wars without UN Security Council authorization. Annan insists that there should have been a second UNSC vote.
The inclusion of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim in the meeting of the Grand Ayatollahs strikes me as extremely significant. Al-Hakim is probably only a Hujjat al-Islam, the stage below ayatollah, and so would not ordinarily be at a senior meeting. But because he heads a major political party, SCIRI, as well as its paramilitary, the Badr Corps, he seems to be being consulted by his seniors.
Al-Hakim lived in Tehran from the early 1980s until 2003 and has excellent relations with the hardliners in Iran, even though he has been cooperating with the Americans for the past two years. From summer of 2003, Sistani began allying with the al-Hakims and implicitly with SCIRI as a way of combatting the Sadrist movement, which has long had ambiguous feelings toward Sistani. The Sadrists maintain that al-Hakim and SCIRI spied on them for the Americans and encouraged the recent attack on them in Najaf. Although the Badr Corps was trained by the Revolutionary Guards in Iran and had been reputed to be formidable, so far it seems to have come off badly in any fight with the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr. It also seems to be the case that the Sadr movement has attracted far more followers in the past year than its rival, SCIRI, which remains a smaller movement. It is therefore not entirely clear how valuable Sistani’s tacit alliance with SCIRI is to him.
Al-Hakim has most recently been in the news because he denounced the US operation in Tal Afar (a largely Shiite Turkmen city).
Meanwhile, Sorayya Sarhaddi Nelson reports that the multi-million dollar Najaf reconstruction plan involves a provision to raze buildings considered too near to the Imam Ali Shrine. Among these are the HQ offices of the Sadr Movement, i.e. of Muqtada al-Sadr. These offices had been used by Muqtada’s father, revered by almost all Iraqi Shiites, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr. On these grounds, the Sadrists are voicing strong opposition to the plan, as a desecration of Sadr II’s memory. They say only the decree of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani would convince them.
The plan to get rid of those buildings appears to originate with US-appointed Najaf governor, Adnan al-Zurfi, whom the Sadrists view as an American agent.
Al-Hayat reports that Basra police closed a political office of Muqtada al-Sadr in the Shatt al-Arab district and arrested four of his supporters.