Ibrahimi, UN, see consensus on Direct Elections
UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani on Thursday. On emerging from the meeting in Najaf, he said he agreed on the need to hold (direct) elections, but he asked for “careful preparations” to be made for them. Ash-Sharq al-Awsat noted that Brahimi’s statement came as Interim Governing Council Member Nasir al-Chadirchi came out against direct elections. He is a Sunni Arab nationalist. Nevertheless, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said Thursday that a broad consensus is emerging in favor of direct elections.
Brahimi said that Sistani was insistent on direct elections, and that he, Brahimi, agreed with the ayatollah that they are the best means to solve the problems of the Iraqi people. He said, “We also agree with his excellency that these elections must be very well prepared for, so that they deliver the results that the Sayyid [Sistani] and the people desire.”
Brahimi said in a news conference in Arabic, “Sayyid Sistani continues to insist on his position, and we are with him in that view, 100 percent, since elections are the only way to deliver Iraq from its trials.”
Asked if the UN was being pressured by the great powers [i.e. the US], Brahimi stressed the UN’s independence and said that neither Kofi Annan nor he would yield to pressure. As Brahimi exited from Sistani’s modest home in Najaf, dozens of Iraqis chanted, “No, no to appointment! Yes, yes to elections! Yes, yes to Sistani!”
I personally suspect that Brahimi’s stance must be influenced by his being an Algerian. In 1991 Algeria’s elite allowed open elections, and the Muslim fundamentalists gained a majority in parliament. The military, fearful of a parliamentary coup a la the Reichstag fire, stepped in to revoke the election results. As a result, Algeria was plunged into a civil war that has cost over 100,000 lives. What I don’t know is what lesson Brahimi draws from the episode. Is it that open elctions are dangerous, or that repressing them is dangerous?
In an interview with Chadirchi in ash-Sharq al-Awsat, he complained that Sistani’s call for elections had been “transformed into a fatwa” or formal religious ruling, and said that many Iraqi notables who had embraced it did so for fear of “terrorism from the street.” He said that Sunni Arabs and Kurds on the IGC opposed direct elections at this time.
Brahimi’s pronouncements in the Arabic news conference seem to me more strongly pro-Sistani than was indicated by the way the wire services translated them. On the other hand, it is not clear what he and Sistani mean by the need to prepare carefully for the elections. Is this an acknowledgment that they cannot be held by May 31?
I heard a report on National Public Radio that suggested that some of Sistani’s supporters are prepared to boycott the elections if they are held on the basis of the provincial councils, as the US wants. The provincial councils weren’t exactly appointed, but for the most part were selected by notables gathered by the US for the purpose, and it is widely felt that they are not truly representative.
If the US insists on proceeding with the council-based elections, it seems possible that there will be a lot of trouble from the Shiites, so much trouble that the resulting process may lose legitimacy.
What is remarkable about Brahimi’s visit with Sistani today is that Sistani made it happen. He was the one who asked the UN to send such a commission to Iraq. In essence he summoned Brahimi to hear his views. The US was reportedly “deeply offended” by the idea of involving the UN. But it appears from Brahimi’s and Annan’s statements that they are increasingly siding with Sistani against the Bush administration.