Sistani throws down a gauntlet
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has intervened forcefully in Iraqi politics. In a fatwa, or legal ruling, issued on July 1, he denounced US civil administrator L. Paul Bremer’s plan to appoint a committee to draft a new Iraqi constitution. He insisted that Bremer had no such authority, and that the Iraqi people themselves must elect delegates to any constitutional convention. Moreover, he said, the constitution should be subject to a popular referendum before being implemented.
The US sees itself as the liberator of Iraq, one that must patiently oversee the transition to a new government for an Iraqi people still incapable of governing itself. Iraqis like Sistani, however, insist that Iraqi sovereignty must be part of the process.
The problem is that Bremer plans to rule Iraq himself, through Western and Iraqi appointees, for at least two years. He has announced he will form a political committee of 25 to 30 individuals that will, according to the liberal Iraqi newspaper Al-Zaman, advise the civil administrator and help oversee ministries. It will also prepare the way for an Iraqi constitution, to be drafted by a gathering of 125 appointees who will be called together in a month or two.
Bremer has reversed America’s course. In the past year, the US Defense Department gave the impression to the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a group largely made up of expatriate parties, that it would hand over power to it in an orderly fashion after Saddam Hussein’s regime was removed. Bremer’s predecessor, Jay Garner, appointed INC members, including its leader, Ahmed Chalabi, to a seven-man political council charged with calling a national congress to elect a transitional government in July.
Bremer, a former State Department official, canceled these plans and has largely sidelined the INC. He even opposed the holding of municipal elections. The State Department and the CIA are opposed to Chalabi and the INC. They believe that Chalabi is corrupt and suspect Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, of being an Iranian Trojan horse. Finally, after the experience of Bosnia, the State Department has argued it is unwise to hold elections too soon, since hard-liners may win and obstruct real change for years thereafter.
Enter Sistani. His fatwa was issued after he met with Chalabi. It may well be that Chalabi and Hakim have decided that the best way to push Bremer back toward the original Defense Department plan is to enlist the aid of Sistani, a towering religious and moral authority for most Iraqi Shiites. The ayatollah, a quietist, would not have ordinarily wanted to get involved in day-to-day politics. But he is in competition with more radical clerics like Muqtada al-Sadr, who have rejected American rule altogether, and he is willing to address foundational issues like the constitution.
Sistani’s fatwa burnishes his anti-imperialist credentials by appealing to the primacy of national self determination. He said of Bremer’s 125 appointees: “There is no guarantee that this council would grant a constitution that accorded with the highest interests of the Iraqi people and express their national identity, among the pillars of which is the foundation of the pure Islamic religion and noble social virtues.” His main worry appears to be that the constitution will enshrine a seperation of religion and state and a liberalism that weakens Iraq’s moral fabric.
So far, ordinary Iraqi Shiites, grateful for the end of Saddam’s reign, have provided the US with a grace period. Calls by radical followers of Sadr for demonstrations against the US occupation have elicited little support. Sistani’s fatwa, however, signals that the patience of even quietist Iraqi Shiites is not unlimited. It also raises the question of whether a government fashioned mainly by the US can ever achieve true legitimacy. Without such legitimacy, Iraq could become a cauldron of instability.
Sistani has thrown down a heavy steel gauntlet. Will Bremer pick it up? He ignores the fatwa to his great peril.