|Shi'ite leaders press for direct
By Sergei Danilochkin
PRAGUE - For the past several weeks, politicians
in Iraq have been debating the details of a plan
proposed by Washington and endorsed by the US-appointed
Iraqi Governing Council that outlines a transfer of
sovereignty to Iraqis next summer.
there is concern about how to choose the members of a
transitional assembly. That's an important consideration
because the members of that assembly - to be chosen by
the end of May - will themselves elect an interim
national government by the end of June. The Coalition
Provisional Authority will thus be dissolved and the
US-led occupation of Iraq will formally end.
US plan proposes using provincial caucuses - not a
direct vote - to choose the members of the transitional
assembly. But this idea is opposed by Shi'ite leaders, who
prefer direct assembly elections, which they say are not
only realistic but would give any future government more
Further steps provide for elections
to a constitutional assembly in March 2005 and fully
democratic elections for a new Iraqi government by the
end of that year.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
is considered to be the most powerful spiritual leader
of Sh'iite Muslims in Iraq. Al-Sistani has expressed his
support of direct elections - at first vaguely, then
more definitively. Because he does not make public
political statements, however, his ideas have had to be
interpreted by those politicians who have met with him.
The current president of the Iraqi Governing Council,
Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who is also a Shi'ite leader,
subscribes to similar ideas. The United States has yet
to respond formally to such a proposal.
Because the Shi'ites make up the majority of Iraq's population,
they are likely to dominate any directly elected body.
Minority groups have expressed their concern over such
an outcome, but Shi'ite leaders say any confrontations can
Al-Sistani's remarks caused a lot of
speculation in Iraq. Initially, it was unclear at what
stage of the transition plan al-Sistani thought it
possible to hold elections. Now, many analysts believe
al-Sistani and his supporters want the transitional
assembly to be elected.
Neil Partrick, an
analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit in London,
said al-Sistani "expressed reservations about an earlier
idea of drawing up a new constitution without having
elected or, at least, representative people involved.
That was one of the factors that led to the latest set
of proposals, which will see elected people shaping that
new constitution. And then you could argue that in the
process of bargaining, recognizing his advantage, he's
now come back and demanded more in terms of the elected
element of the provisional government that is due to be
appointed in the middle of next year."
believes that the idea of direct elections is getting
wider support in Iraq because of dissatisfaction over
the level of representation on the Governing Council,
whose members are widely seen as puppets of the United
States. "There is some significant unhappiness with the
current [US-proposed] ideas for caucus elections in the
provinces to elect the assembly because these would be
seen, and, indeed, in practice, are likely to be shaped
significantly by the Governing Council - about which
many Iraqis have significant reservations," he said.
Because of the Shi'ite majority, there are fears
that Iraq could become an Islamic theocracy like
neighboring Iran. Indeed, more conservative Shi'ite
leaders have pointed to Tehran as a model for Iraq. But
Partrick says the situation should not be considered an
automatic cause for conflict.
"It does not
necessarily mean the dominance by Shi'ite Islamists,
because there are differences amongst Islamists, and
there are other Shi'ite politicians who don't share an
Islamic conception of what should be the main thrust of
the political direction of the country," he said. "But
certainly, there is a problem which is recognized by the
Al-Sistani is believed to favor
keeping the clergy out of politics, however.
Partrick says US authorities should be sensitive
to the concerns of all sides to ensure the transition of
power in Iraq is as consultative and as representative
Reprinted with the permission
of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty,
1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036.
(Copyright 2003 RFE/RL Inc.)