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When Sistani speaks, Bush listens
By Ehsan Ahrari

Who is the most powerful man in Iraq today? Not L Paul Bremer, the US viceroy of Iraq, not even Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of the coalition forces. It is that quiet Shi'ite cleric who is seldom seen in public, and who does not grant any interviews, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani. He communicates with his followers through written edicts (fatwas), and everyone, including the US president, listens.

In the initial days after the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime, he instructed his followers to abstain from opposing the occupation forces. His unspoken rationale was generally interpreted as favoring the US presence. Wrong. He was as much opposed to the US occupation of his adopted country as he was to the rule of Saddam Hussein. Except that in the case of the Americans, he gave them benefit of the doubt, hoping that their presence would lead to the emergence of a stable Iraq, especially since the Americans were hell-bent on eradicating all remnants of Saddam's rule.

Sistani believes in the separation of religion and politics; however, the junk-food version of instant experts on Iraq inside the United States and those who are part of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) were quick to confuse his version of that separation with the Western notion of separation of church and state - which underscores the biblical notion of "render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's".

Fact of the matter is that politics is never really separate from religion in a Muslim country. Turkey, a self-proclaimed secular state, has proved constantly that Islam has never been absent from the chambers of power throughout the existence of the modern Turkish state. That is even more true for Iraq and Iran, where Shi'ite Islam is the dominant sect. The least understood aspect of the doctrine of quietism of Shi'ite Islam is that even when the clerics are silently protesting the injustices of an existing political order, they are not exactly totally separating themselves from politics.

Sistani always knew what he wanted: the establishment of a Shi'ite-dominated moderate Islamic democracy. He envisaged the US presence as a guarantor of that eventuality. More to the point, the Americans were to safeguard the Shi'ites' right to be the dominant group, and were to protect them from the re-emergence of another form of Sunni-dominated tyranny at the end of Saddam's tyranny.

Even though he has been in Iraq for several months now, Bremer could never fathom the nuances of Sistani's thinking. Viceroys in colonies don't mingle too much with the locals. They only learn the "truth" from the chosen sycophants who tell them what they want to hear. This is so true for Iraq, where the Iraqis have been old practitioners of never speaking the truth to the powerful ones at a given time. To them, the Americans only represent the current fleeting phase of such rulers.

For Sistani, direct elections in the short run guarantee the emergence of a Shi'ite-dominated order. For Bremer, indirect elections guarantee prolongation of US control on the political future of Iraq. These two visions are not contradictory, but they are not complementary either. So Sistani made clear what he wanted last June. Bremer attempted to change his mind, and he might have been misled by the intermediaries who were talking to him and the grand ayatollah. Sistani refused to grant audience to the foreign viceroy, thereby creating even a semblance of endorsing the US occupation.

Now, since the security situation in Iraq seems to be somewhat calming down and the Americans are pushing more toward indirect elections, Sistani spoke with considerable vigor: the Iraqi provisional assembly due to select a government in June must be elected, not chosen from regional caucuses, as provided for in a November 15 agreement reached between Bremer and the Iraqi Governing Council.

Hojatul Islam Ali Abdulhakim Alsafi, the second most senior cleric of Iraq, in a letter to President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, has adopted a threatening tone by stating that their refusal to let the Iraqis chose their own institutions would drag their countries into a battle they would lose. Needless to say, Alsafi was saying what Sistani wasn't saying directly and explicitly, but really meant to say.

Bush is not interested in turning Shi'ite wrath against the US occupation forces so close to the presidential elections in the United States. Chances are that Sistani will have his wishes granted. Bremer is reported to be consulting with Bush. But even the emergence of a Shi'ite-dominated democracy is not likely to mean the surfacing of a stable or a serene Iraq. There is a lot of fight still left in the Sunnis of the country. What is definitely different now is that the Sunnis will no longer look at the Shi'ites as mere minions, to be abused and ruled. By urging the Shi'ites to sit on the fence in the initial days following the ouster of dictatorship in Iraq, Sistani has assured a dominant political status for the Shi'ites in the Iraqi arena of power. That is just one reason why, when he speaks, everyone listens.

Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.

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