Sistani Calls for UN Decision
According to the Gulf Daily News, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani stands by his ruling that Iraq should go to early general elections on a one-person, one-vote basis. According to IGC member Muwaffak al-Rubaie, however, Sistani has indicated that he would back down on one condition. If Kofi Annan appoints a UN commission that concludes that early general elections are impractical because of security concerns, then he would accept some other mechanism for achieving a transitional government.
The hawks in the Bush administration have consistently attempted to sideline the United Nations from any significant decision-making role in Iraq, but Sistani is attempting to push the US to seek legitimacy for its Iraq administration from the UN. He must believe that he can get a better deal for Iraqis and for Shiites by involving Kofi Annan than he can expect from Mssrs. Bremer and Blackwill on their own.
The Coalition Provisional Authority may defy Sistani on this issue, but it will do so at some peril. As Rajiv Chandrasekharan reports, already in the past few days there have been a number of demonstrations in the central Shiite city of Hilla against the US-appointed mayor, Jawad Witwit, which caused him to resign. The US military then appointed an Iraqi former air force officer as mayor, instead. He, too, has proved unacceptable, and the demonstrators vow to continue to press for free elections for the mayor and city council. Hilla’s labor unions have also come out on the side of the demonstrators. The Shiites of Hilla say that they have taken heart from Sistani’s enunciation of the principle that general elections should be held immediately. Does the US really want lots of such urban demonstrations all over the country this spring?
When I earlier said that I thought it unlikely that Sistani would call for mass demonstrations, I hadn’t considered the possibility that Sistani’s followers and even those more radical than he might take up his fatwa in favor of grassroots democracy and demonstrate on that basis, anyway.
I should have remembered history. In 1891-92 Iran was roiled by protests against a tobacco monopoly granted to a British freebooter, a Major Talbot. The monopoly set the prices at which it bought Iranian tobacco from the farmers, and it cut Iranian merchants and money lenders out of the system. Only the monopoly and the corrupt shah benefited from the deal (the shah got “royalties” from the foreign monopoly). The Iranian public was outraged and began demonstrating in cities throughout the country. Someone began circulating a fatwa or ruling attributed to Mirza Hasan Shirazi, then the leading Object of Emulation or Shiite leader, which said that no Shiite should smoke tobacco until the monopoly was cancelled. Shirazi didn’t write the ruling, but he did not openly deny it, and people demonstrated on that basis even though he himself did not come out publicly and call for rallies.
So, in modern Shiite history there is precedent for people using the Object of Emulation for political purposes even when he doesn’t get out in front. That could happen here.
By the way, Nasir al-Din Shah (d. 1896) was forced by the popular demonstrations to cancel the tobacco monopoly.