- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 31, 2004

About Iraq, two realities are important to focus our thinking. The first is that, according to senior American commanders, the security situation on the ground has grown “materially worse” over the last six months. Iraq, already infested with an overabundance of arms, has become a more dangerous place on a “block to block” level. The areas of danger have spread from beyond Sadr City and Baghdad and the so-called “Sunni Triangle” in the center of the country to the south and even parts of the Kurdish-controlled north.

Second, the most powerful person in Iraq is not Prime Minister Iyad Allawi or anyone in his government. It is not U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte or Army Gen. George Casey. The honor goes to the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric. The recent truce Sistani brokered with the young firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr to end the siege of Najaf around the Ali Mosque has confirmed the Ayatollah’s influence and authority. But what are his motivations, intentions and plans for the future?

Thus far, he appears to be a “moderate” and does not advance a radical view of Islam, something confirmed by a quick look at his Web site, “Sistani.org.” But Americans have occasionally proved poor judges of character. In his early days battling Batista’s rule in Cuba, young Fidel Castro was regarded by some as a “freedom fighter.” And Chiang Kai-Shek proved very lacking as leader of the Republic of China despite American support that kept him and his government alive on the mainland and after the escape to Taiwan.

Three loose examples from history help in making some educated guesses about Sheikh Sistani and the future. Will Sheikh Sistani prove to be Gorbachev-like? Will he turn out instead to be a “kinder, gentler” version of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who returned from exile in Paris at about the same age as Sheikh Sistani to rule Iran? Or will he emulateMahatma Gandhi, the driving force behind India’s independence who drew on his extraordinary legitimacy and moral standing for his influence?

We tend to forget that Mikhail Gorbachev was (and probably still is) a dedicated Communist. Mr. Gorbachev tells us in his autobiography that his disillusionment with the regime started in November 1956 with Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” that revealed the horrors of Stalinism, something the future leader and his friends at first found difficult to believe. Mr. Gorbachev was not out to overthrow the system. He wanted to reform it. “Glasnost” (openness) and “perestroika (restructuring)” were his instruments.

The result was to unleash the powerful centrifugal forces inside the Soviet Union that disintegrated it. Sheikh Sistani is no Gorbachev and seems to seek no official position in government. However, by asserting himself in Najaf to end the siege, Sheikh Sistani haseffectively neutered the power of the Iraqi government along with United States. The risk is that diminishing the authority of the current regime could create or contribute to other groups more centrally challenging that government or Sheikh Sistani’s influence, using violence to gain their ends.

Sheikh Sistani does not share the same fundamentalist convictions of Khomeini, or so it appears. Were he to take or be persuaded to take a significant political role, the “kinder and gentler” description is fitting. From what Sheikh Sistani says and has written, he favors a secular government, or at least one not nearly as dominated by the clergy as Iran’s. But would that view hold?

Finally, there is Gandhi. By dint of his force of will and intellect, Gandhi prevailed in making India an independent, democratic state, the largest in the world. It would be naive to believe that Iraq could quickly (or ever) evolve along these lines for reasons that are self-evident, including how the British occupied and dealt with both countries.

So, what to do, if anything? The United States has far less influence on events in Iraq than it would like. The biggest lever it has is in attacking the causes of terror and instability that persist, not only in Iraq but also throughout the region. It also has a kitty of about $18 billion still left over from the $18.6 appropriation made by Congress on a crash basis last October to rebuild Iraq. Why not tie that into a broader Marshall-like plan for the region with the support of Sistani and the Iraqi government?

If there were no conversations with Sheikh Sistani when he was in London for heart surgery, there certainly should be now. An $18 billion inducement is not a bad bargaining chip, provided, of course, the administration does its homework to get all the parties aboard first, including Congress. Who knows where the grand ayatollah is headed. But far better that his role emulates the best of Gandhi than the worst of Mr. Gorbachev or Khomeini.

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