Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani Has Entered

*Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has entered Iraqi politics in an unexpectedly big way. He has denounced US administrator Paul Bremer’s plan to appoint a large constitutional committee to write a new Iraqi constitution. He insists that Bremer has no such authority, and that delegates to an Iraqi constitutional convention must be elected by the Iraqi people. Moreover, he says, the constitution itself should be subject to a popular referendum before it is implemented.

I reproduce below my translation of the article on this from the liberal Iraqi newspaper az-Zaman, which quotes a good deal of the fatwa itself.

It is very suspicious to me that this fatwa was issued after Sistani met with Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress. Chalabi had been hoping for some time that the US would just hand Iraq over to him and walk away after Saddam fell. Jay Garner, the first American proconsul, seemed inclined to do just that. This seems to have been what passed for a plan for post-war construction at the Defense Department. The State Department and the CIA were opposed to this plan for a number of reasons. They believe Chalabi is highly corrupt (they gave the INC $4 million, and Chalabi cannot account for $2 million of it). He is wanted on bank fraud charges in Jordan. If you can’t trust a man with $4 million, how can you trust him with a whole country, that has an oil income of some $13 billion? They also did not like that the INC includes the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which they see as a Trojan Horse for Iranian influence in Iraq. Finally, their experience in Bosnia was that it is unwise to hold elections too soon, since hardliners may get in who obstruct real change for years thereafter.

Garner tried to hand power over to the INC before he was deposed, but he was reversed in this by Paul Bremer, who is the State Department’s man even if he ultimately reports to Rumsfeld. Bremer nixed the idea of early elections, an early handover to an Iraqi government, or an unsupervised constitutional convention. Bremer thinks he is going to rule Iraq himself, personally, through his appointees–Westerners and Iraqis–for at least two years. Bremer seems determined to sideline both Chalabi and SCIRI.

My guess is that Chalabi and SCIRI spiritual leader Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim have decided that the best way to push Bremer back toward the Garner (aka Wolfowitz/Rumsfeld) plan is to enlist the aid of Sistani, the towering religious and moral authority for most Iraqi Shiites. Sistani is basically a quietist and would not have wanted to get involved, but somehow they have convinced him to do so.

What is remarkable to me is how little his fatwa appeals to principles of Islamic law. It cites no holy text or principle, at least as quoted in az-Zaman. It is a simple statement of the primacy of national self-determination. It echoes Jefferson and Wilson.

It was announced today that Bremer has decided to allow local US military authorities to hold municipal elections if they deem it best, though they can appoint governments if they choose. Bremer had earlier intervened to stop such local elections. But the outbreak of violence at Majar al-Kabir last week, along with the problems of the appointed government of Najaf, seem to have changed his mind. The appointed mayor of Najaf was an ex-Baathist officer and turns out to have been corrupt as hell. Najaf residents have been protesting against him for weeks. It was poor judgment of the US to appoint a Sunni officer only recently out of the Baathist army to rule the Shiite holy city of Najaf in the first place. (See earlier columns of mine on this). But to have his administration be so shot through with embezzlement, kidnapping, etc., is a real black eye for the US.

As if all this were not enough, SCIRI leader Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim just issued a call for the formation of an Iraqi government that would peacefully move the US back out of Iraq, according to AP. Hakim said, “”Our demand is that a government be formed by the Iraqis and work to end the occupation by peaceful means.” His statement seem coordinated with Sistani’s fatwa, and with Chalabi’s visit to Najaf.

Sistani has thrown down a very heavy steel gauntlet. Lets see if Bremer picks it up. He ignores this fatwa to his very great peril.

Here’s the article, translated by moi, from az-Zaman:

1 July 2003



Ali Sistani, the most senior of the Shiite religious authorities in Najaf, affirmed in a new fatwa that he issued yesterday (of which az-Zaman obtained a copy by fax) the necessity of holding general elections so that all Iraqis would be represented in a founding convention. It would have as its mission the fashioning of a new draft constitution. He stipulated that the constitution would have to be voted on by the Iraqis before its implementation could be authorized. Sistani issued this fatwa based on a question concerning the legitimacy in Islamic law of the Occupation Authority’s appointment of members of a founding convention authorized to produce a new constitution after consultations with political parties and movements. Sistani said in the fatwa itself, “The Occupation Officials do not enjoy the authority to appoint the members of a council that would write the constitution.”

He added, “There is no guarantee that this council would grant a constitution that accorded with the highest interests of the Iraqi people and would express their national identity, among the pillars of which is the foundation of the pure Islamic religion and noble social virtues.” He affirmed that “the proposal referred to is fundamentally unacceptable.” The American ruler of Iraq, Paul Bremer, broached at the beginning of June a plan that specifies the formation of a political council of 25 to 30 members. The chief mission of this council will be to present discussions to the occupation administration in the economic and political spheres. One of its purposes, as well, is to appoint counselors in the ministries that will achieve at a later point the rank of deputy minister. Another purpose of the political council will be to prepare a referendum on the new constitution that will be fashioned by a convention of 125 members that will be formed in a month or two. Calling for general elections, Sistani said, “general elections must be held so that every eligible Iraqi can choose someone to represent him at the constitutional convention that will write the constitution. Then there must be a public referendum that will be called by this convention.”

Sistani affirmed that “It is incumbent upon all believers to demand the realization of this important matter, and to join together in achieving it in the best manner possible.”

In other news, a spokesman for the Iraqi National Council said that the president of the INC, Ahmad Chalabi, visited Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf yesterday.

One source said that Sistani affirmed during this meeting, which lasted more than an hour, the necessity for a constitutional council that would undertake to write a new Iraqi constitution, be “a purely Iraqi council that would be chosen by the children of the Iraqi people.”

He added that Sistani and Chalabi discussed “the necessity for the American government to issue a political proclamation affirming that the American forces present in Iraq are forces of liberation and not forces of occupation.”

Chalabi and his delegation also visited Ayatollah Ishaq Fayad, one of the chief Shiite religious authorities in Najaf, according to the same source.

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