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The Cleric Who Would Be Rousseau

The man who will determine the shape of the new Iraq is not Iyad Allawi but Shi'ite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The good news: He's no Khomeini.
 
 
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The United Nations Security Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a new resolution on Iraq granting legitimacy to the caretaker government of Iyad Allawi. The resolution gives the new Iraqi government substantially more sovereignty than had been envisaged by the United States in the initial draft, and the Bush administration essentially compromised in order to have an achievement for the election season.

The resolution will make it easier for the Allawi government to gain the Iraq seat at the UN and at organizations like the Arab League. It also constrains the United States from undertaking major military actions (like Fallujah) without extensive consultation with the Iraqi government, and establishes a joint committee of U.S. and Iraqi representatives to carry out those discussions. This military "partnership" was substituted successfully for a stricter French proposal that the Iraqi government have a veto over U.S. military movements in Iraq. Still, the language went far beyond what the United States had wanted.

That the United States and the UK had to give away so much to get the resolution shows how weak they are in Iraq. The problem is that they have created a failed state in Iraq, and this new piece of paper really changes nothing on the ground.

The resolution did not mention or endorse the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) or interim constitution adopted last February by the Interim Governing Council and based on the notes of Paul Bremer. The Shi'ite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, had written Kofi Annan forbidding the UN from endorsing the TAL on the grounds that it was illegitimate and contained provisions harmful to majority rule.

The Kurds, on the other hand, were absolutely furious that the UN did not mention the TAL, which they see as their safeguard against a tyranny of the Arab majority. It stipulates that the status quo will prevail in Kurdistan until an elected parliament crafts a permanent constitution in a year, and that the three Kurdish provinces will have a veto over that new constitution if they do not like it. The Kurdish leaders threatened in a letter to President Bush on Sunday to boycott the elections this coming winter if there is any move to curtail their sovereignty or to rescind or amend the interim constitution. As a result, the Kurdish street is anxious about the future, feeling insecure and deserted.

This entire process is a big win for Sistani. It is now often forgotten that the Bush administration did not intend to involve the UN in this way. The original plan was to have stage-managed council-based elections in May, producing a new government to which sovereignty would be handed over by the United States directly.

It was Sistani who derailed those plans as undemocratic. When the involvement of the UN was first broached last winter by Interim Governing Council members, the Americans were said to have been "extremely offended." It was Sistani who demanded that Kofi Annan send a special envoy to Iraq. It was Sistani who insisted that free and fair elections must be held as soon as humanly possible. It was Sistani who insisted that the UN midwife the new Iraqi government, and not the United States and the UK alone. It was Sistani who insisted that the UN resolution not mention the Transitional Administrative Law.

Sistani's conception of the new Iraq is that it should have an elected parliament, which will represent the will of the Iraqi people. His language on this is almost a translation of Rousseau. The parliament should consist of laypersons, not clerics. And it should be pluralistic and represent politically all Iraqis, including Kurds and Sunnis. This elected, lay parliament is one basic element in the good society according to Sistani.

The other is the approval of parliament and its legislation by the Shi'ite religious leadership. Legitimacy thus has dual roots, in the will of the people and in the approval of the clerics. Sistani expects a majority of members of parliament to be lay Shi'ites, and he expects them to conscientiously heed his fatwas --rulings-- on social issues.

Sistani is not a secularist by any stretch of the imagination. If he gets what he wants, religious law will have a vast influence on Iraqi society and politics and women's rights will be rolled back. On the other hand, Sistani is not a dictator or a Khomeinist. He is much more analogous to Jerry Falwell in the United States -- a major religious voice who wants to move the society in a certain direction through weakening the separation of religion and state, without himself seeking political office.

Sistani has all along been a Najaf pragmatist. He has constantly spoken of the need to assuage the feelings of the Sunni Arabs and Kurds. He will try to accomplish as much of his vision as seems practicable, and no more. His tools are not militias, guns, and bombs, but persistent persuasion and discourse. Occasionally he may bring peaceful crowds into the streets to demonstrate for some law or policy. It is in that discursive practice that his "moderation" lies.

Sistani's potential influence is generally positive given the situation of contemporary Iraq. It is important for traditionalist and even activist Shi'ites to hear praises of parliamentary governance and communal harmony. His potential impact on social legislation is reactionary, of course. But even he admits that the religious Shi'ites are likely to form less than 50 percent of parliamentarians, and that it is unlikely that he can get everything he wants any time soon.

The most significant concern is Sistani's completely unsympathetic stance toward Kurdish demands for safeguards as a minority, and his desire to remove their veto on the new constitution. The potential for Kurdish-Shi'ite violence is substantial in the coming years.

Juan Cole is professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. He wries an Iraq blog, "Informed Comment."