- The Washington Times - Monday, December 22, 2003

After the capture of Saddam Hussein, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) can affirm its message of reconciliation and hope by meeting the demands of Iraqis for direct national elections. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani insists that the political process respect the dignity of Iraq’s Shi’ites and ensure their right to proportional political representation. If Ayatollah Sistani’s demands are not met, the United States risks spoiling new-found good will and inciting a destabilizing conflict with Iraq’s most respected spiritual leader.

The current plan envisions indirect caucus-style elections resulting in a provisional assembly by June 30. Iraq’s Arab Shi’ites are wary of U.S. intentions and skeptical of an electoral process controlled by the CPA and heavily influenced by the Governing Council. Indirect elections would be seized upon by rejectionists like Moktada al-Sadr, who is aggressively vying for power with the ayatollahs of Najaf.

Though Ayatollah Sistani and other Shi’ite clerics demand a direct nationwide ballot, it is difficult to imagine elections in the current climate of insecurity. As a compromise alternative it may be possible, however,toorganizedirect elections in zones of stability where violence is under control. Caucuses would still be held in volatile areas such as the Ba’athist triangle.

Asymmetrical balloting has its disadvantages. While addressing Ayatollah Sistani’s demand for direct elections, at least in Shi’ite and Kurdish regions, the arrangement would surely inflame Arab Sunnis who have grown accustomed to privileges under Ottoman, British and Ba’athist rule. They deeply resent the United States for invading Iraq and believe that the United States is conspiring with the Shi’ites and Kurds to marginalize them.

Instead of indirect caucuses, which are viewed as illegitimate, or asymmetrical balloting, which would be inflammatory, the best option is to meet Ayatollah Sistani’s request and conduct nationwide direct elections. This course is preferred by all Iraqis, but pulling it off won’t be easy.

In addition to security, the CPA is concerned that taking a census would cause delays, pushing back the deadline of June 30. Yes, it will take time to organize a population census as the basis forvoter rolls — though probably not as long as the CPA believes. Building on data from the U.N. food rations system, the Planning Ministry’s Census Bureau proposes to use 400,000 teachers for surveying every Iraqi household with a streamlined questionnaire on basic demographic issues. It insists that an adequate census of Iraq’s 25 million citizens could be completed by September. Iraqis who slip through the cracks and do not appear on voter rolls could appear at polling stations and present their identity cards.

Even if the CPA extended the date for elections, it could still disband on June 30 by inviting the United Nations to appoint a high commissioner for Iraq to take over the ballot. Not only does the United Nations have useful experience organizing elections in post-conflict settings, a leading role for the United Nations would enhance the perception of electoral integrity thereby reducing the risk of election-day violence. Ayatollah Sistani speaks for all Iraqis when he says, “The most important thing is ending the U.S. occupation.”

During my recent visit to Tehran, Iranians indicated that the United States is exaggerating technical difficulties of organizing elections because it is fundamentally unwilling to relinquish control. To be sure, Shi’ites are better organized and would be the beneficiaries of an early election. The Bush administration must weigh the risk of elections inevitably bringing to power a Shi’ite government with the costs of occupation, which is exacerbating resistance and radicalizing Iraqis as a whole.

The specter of Iran’s Islamic revolution still haunts the United States. However, Washington’s fear of a fundamentalist-style government emerging in Iraq is overblown. A recent national survey of Iraqis found that only 12 percent support a government made up mainly of religious leaders and less than 1 percent want an Islamic government. None of the four ayatollahs in Najaf — bearing the title marja al-taqlid or “source of emulation” — embraces a government run by mullahs. They maintain that tradition confines the role of clergy to spiritual matters.

They do insist, however, on a democratic government respectful of Islamic values and legislation reflecting Islamic law. Ayatollah Sistani seeks a “Constitution conforming to the greater interests of the Iraqi people and expressing their national identity, whose basis is Islam and its noble social values.”

Ambassador Paul Bremer, the top U.S. administrator in Iraq, may chafe at the idea that a cleric could dictate Iraq’s democratic transition. He should, however, be mindful of Ayatollah Sistani’s potentially disruptive role. By boycotting talks on the fundamental law, which is intended to embody principles in Iraq’s future constitution, Ayatollah Sistani could derail the process of transferring sovereignty before it even gets started. Ayatollah Sistani could ratchet up the pressure by summoning a million Iraqi protesters to the street or, worse yet, issuing a fatwah against U.S. troops. So far, violence has been largely contained precisely because Arab Shi’ites have been content to bide their time, confident that Iraq’s democratization will ultimately secure their rights and establish them in positions of power.

The United States must resign itself to the fact that Iraq’s democratization will culminate in Shi’ite leadership. Trying to manipulate the course of events would backfire, fueling resentment, strengthening extremism and sparking violence withfar-reachingconsequences in Iraq and the region. America’s failure to make good on its promise of liberation would not only constitute a betrayal of Iraqi, it would also undermine the Bush administration’s overall freedom strategy for the Arab and Muslim world.

David L. Phillips is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.


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