30,000 Shiites march in Basra demanding Free and Fair Elections
British troops estimated that 30,000 Shiites demonstrated in Basra on Thursday, with massive crowds beginning at two separate points and wending their way to the al-Abila mosque. Al-Hayat reported that they were demanding that the elections scheduled for late May be held on a one person, one vote basis. Mainly from the al-Da`wa Party and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the crowds shouted, “No to America! We’re coming to you, Sistani!” “Colonialism is not liberty!” and “Yes, yes to Sistani, No, No to Appointment!” (i.e. they demanded free elections, not political appointments by hand-picked bodies).
The Bush administration rather cynically made providing democracy in Iraq its fallback justification for an Iraq war. First, the primary justification, of weapons of mass destruction, fell through. Now the fallback position is creating its own problems, since from an administration point of view the Iraqis are taking it ‘way too seriously!
Placards at Thursday’s demonstrations read, “The Object of Emulation [Sistani] is the true Iraqi Leadership,” and “We want a Constitution Drafted by Elected Delegates!” Another said, “Do not give your Votes to those Who Do Not Deserve Them!”
The rally was organized by Sistani’s Basra representative, Sayyid Ali al-Safi Abd al-Hakim [al-Musawi], who addressed the demonstrators when they assembled at the mosque, through a microphone. According to al-Hayat, he complained about the current plans for stage-managed elections in May, saying that the November 15 agreement “Was reached in haste, is not just” and does not reflect the pluralism of Iraqi society. He told the crowd, according to an eye-witness, that they should not let Bush and Blair choose their government. He defended the feasibility of holding open elections.
Interim Governing Council member Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum, himself a Shiite clergyman now visiting Bahrain, told al-Hayat in Manama that Sistani’s demands are “right” and “in accord with the welfare of the Iraqi people and what they demand at this juncture.” He said that free elections would remove any taint from the transitional parliament, of having been appointed by the Americans, a lack of legitimacy that has plagued the current IGC. (Sistani is also supported by al-Da`wa Party leader Ibrahim al-Jaafari, also a member of the IGC and by Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, another Shiite member and former al-Da`wa member from Basra).
Many of those who marched were tribespeople and students (tribal banners were much in evidence according to an eyewitness.) This is the largest demonstration in post-war Iraq. The previous largest in Basra was an estimated 10,000, on June,
Press reports and eyewitnesses said that Iraqi police were everywhere and British helicopters hovered above the demonstration. British troops averted a potential disaster when they found and defused a large artillery shell positioned as a roadside bomb. Someone was attempting to cause real trouble between the demonstrators and the Coalition.
The Guardian’s Rory McCarthy in Baghdad reported that a representative of Sistani, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Muhri, told Abu Dhabi television, “If Bremer rejects Ayatollah Sistani’s opinion, he would issue a fatwa depriving the US-appointed council of its legitimacy. After this, the Iraqi people will not obey this council. This US plan is not in line with Sistani’s views.”
US civil administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, rushed back to Washington for secret consultations with his direct superior, now National Security Adviser Condaleeza Rice, with an eye to seeking a compromise with Sistani. In a supreme irony, he will also seek consultations with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan about how to defuse the crisis (the Neocons in the Bush administration had pissed all over the UN and Annan last spring).
The LA Times [reg. req.] quoted one US official as saying, “We are neither so stupid nor so reckless as to want to make an enemy of Ali Sistani.” Alissa J. Rubin in Baghdad also quoted a SCIRI supporter of Sistani’s, Adil Abdul Mahdi, giving one of his motivations for opposing the US plan to have the transitional government elected by the appointed provincial councils: ‘ Underpinning Sistani’s objections to the current plan is a fear that the United States or established political parties may try to manipulate the votes of the caucus members or even buy votes outright, undercutting both the power of the Shiites and the credibility of the transitional government among all Iraqis. “We have a fear that something, someone, would try to manipulate the whole process, and that is not in the interests of Iraqis, of Muslims and of Shiites,” Mehdi said.‘
Sistani thus appears to fear that the council members will be easily bribed and that the election will be bought. (This worry seems to me most naturally interpreted as a concern about Ahmad Chalabi, an indicted embezzler accused of stealing $300 million from a bank in Jordan. Even if he has spent a lot of it, what is left would buy a lot of votes in Iraq. Sistani may also be worried about wealthy Sunni Arabs who got rich from Saddam’s patronage being able to buy politicians to ensure they keep their ill gotten gains.)
The Scotsman reported that UK PM Tony Blair said, “The demonstrators are a small minority of the local Iraqi population. They now have the freedom to demonstrate. They never had it under Saddam, but they?ve got it now.” Some 30,000 demonstrators can’t be dismissed this way, especially in a city that was so politically repressed and cautious as Basra. This demonstration seems to me a historic turning point.
The previous largest demonstrations in Basra had 10,000 participants, last June. On June 16 I reported that “A crowd of 10,000 angry Shiites led by Sheikh Khazraj Saadi in Basra demanded self-government and pelted British military vehicles with stones on Sunday, according to the Daily Telegraph. The British had appointed a tribal leader mayor at first, then removed him in favor of a council of appointed technocrats. The British authorities have promised to reply to the demands by Tuesday. ” A later, June 16, call for demonstrations in favor of clerics having a veto over civil legislation, only produced a crowd of 2000, probably mainly Sadrists. Sistani can clearly mobilize far more ordinary Shiites than Muqtada al-Sadr. And, Sistani is fast erasing the old distinction between the quietists and the political activists in Najaf.