March 24, 2004
By Ehsan Ahrari
Just as the United States thought it was over a major hurdle when the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) signed that country's interim constitution on March 7, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani threw a wrench in the very process of transfer of sovereignty due to take place on June 30. In a letter to senior United Nations official Lakhdar Brahimi sent last Friday, the Shi'ite leader stated that the interim constitution - also known as the transitional provisional law - was a recipe for the breakup of the country, and that he would not participate in upcoming meetings with UN officials if the world body endorsed it. The Bush administration is left, once again, to figure out its next move. This muscle-flexing by the astute ayatollah is not without a purpose, though.
The interim constitution establishes a three-member presidency, one president and two deputy presidents. The president is likely to be a Shi'ite Arab, and the deputies will be a Sunni Arab and a Kurd. At the time of the signing of the constitution, Sistani made clear his disapproval of two clauses: one that gives effective veto power over a permanent constitution to Kurds, and one which enables deputy presidents to reject the decisions of a president. In fact, the Shiite members of the 25-member IGC stalled the signing ceremony due to Sistani's opposition. In addition, Sistani considers the three-member executive arrangement as institutionalizing sectarianism and ethnicity in the future political process of Iraq. Thus, his conclusion is that the new constitution "will lead to a dead end", that it will put the country "in an unstable situation", and that it "could lead to partition and division".
The United States' backing of the interim constitution and Sistani's opposition to it, in reality, represent two visions of Iraq that are inherently contradictory and equally incompatible. As a Western pluralistic democracy, the US operates on the age-old principle of "unity of diversity". In Sistani's view, the Coalition Provisional Authority's promotion of diversity in Iraq inexorably leads to diminution of the numerical strength of the Shi'ites. To be precise, the three-member executive branch, instead of guaranteeing the majority status of the Shi'ites of Iraq in the future governmental arrangement, assigns them a lesser status - ie, as merely one among three major sects, even though Shi'ites formulate over 60 percent of the population.
Whether the US wishes to lessen the status of the Shi'ites or not, it is very likely that by pluralizing the Iraqi presidency, Washington wants to ensure that a Shi'ite-dominated Iraq would not become another Islamic republic. So one cannot dismiss the perspective of Sistani that the US's motives regarding this issue are not exactly benign. Why else would it elevate the status of the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds by giving them one seat each in the deputy presidency? The seeds of mistrust on both sides are about to give birth to a bitter harvest of even more mistrust. Political conditions seem to be ripe for the outbreak of major Shi'ite violence in Iraq.
Iraqi leaders intend to ask the UN to legitimize the transfer of sovereignty by passing a resolution. Sistani is afraid that the Bush administration will exploit that opportunity to insert the endorsement of the interim constitution into such a resolution. That is why he has made it clear that any UN approval of the interim constitution would lead to his boycotting a meeting with its officials, who are about to arrive in Iraq to craft the interim authority that will take over power from the Coalition Provision Authority at the end of June.
While the UN envoys are pondering the modalities of their response to the ayatollah, the Bush administration is facing increased complexities in its own endeavors to define the future role of the international community in Iraq. The electoral defeat of the Jose Maria Aznar's government in Spain has increased the necessity of the UN endorsement of the interim constitution so that Spanish forces aren't withdrawn from Iraq. That was the condition stipulated by the incoming socialist government of Spain. As the Bush administration comes under increased scrutiny and criticism over its handling of the "war on terrorism" both inside and outside the US, the continued presence of Spanish troops in Iraq has become of considerable symbolic significance.
But don't expect any help from Sistani for the Bush administration and its predicament related to Iraq or the global "war on terrorism". He is fully focused on using the US's own predilections for democracy to ensure a legitimate and deserving dominant role for Iraq's Shi'ites in a future democratic Iraq.
Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.
(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd.)