ROVING EYE The grand elector Sistani By Pepe Escobar
elections won't happen on January 30 because the Bush
administration wants them: they will happen because
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani wants them. The Shi'ite
leader knows it's now or never for the Shi'ite majority
in the country to take power. The majority of Sunnis -
because of the Fallujah offensive - won't vote: Sunnis
comprise from 20% to 30% of Iraq's population. The
elections will have no effect on the Sunni Iraqi
resistance against the occupation. Secular Sunnis in
Baghdad are already saying post-election Iraq will not
resemble a democracy, but a Shi'ite "elective
Iraqis will elect 275 members of a
national assembly, which will then choose a prime
minister and cabinet. The most likely prime minister is
Ibrahim al-Jafaari, of the Islamic Da'wa Party, arguably
the most popular politician in Iraq at the moment. The
assembly will write a permanent constitution, which will
have to be ratified by a second general election at the
end of 2005. Sistani's profound influence means that the
next Iraqi government will be strongly Islamic. But
there's no evidence yet to affirm it will be
subordinated to strict Sharia law.
the oil? The Sistani-brokered Shi'ite green (the
color of Islam) electoral list, called the United Iraqi
Congress, is finally out. Every major Shi'ite party is
included - from Da'wa to the Supreme Council for Islamic
Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), from Iraqi Hezbollah (the
marsh Arabs) to Muqtada al-Sadr's movement, from
independents to the Iraqi National Congress of former
Pentagon darling Ahmad Chalabi. Half of the list
includes Shi'ite tribal chiefs who had to endure Saddam
Hussein's rule on site and are not linked to any of the
expatriate-infested parties. A smattering of Sunnis (such
as the chief of the crucial Sunni Shamar tribe), Shi'ite
Kurds and Turkmen are also on the list.
to Naim al-Qaabi, one of Muqtada's lieutenants in Sadr
City in Baghdad, "We will participate in the elections
in a discreet fashion. Not publicly." Muqtada's movement
will have 28% of the seats in the united list, the
lion's share. Their official position is that "we could
have had more, but we accepted to preserve the unity of
Shi'ites". Our contacts, though, say that Muqtada's
bargain with Sistani included the number of seats in the
joint list. The three Da'wa parties - the product of a
series of splits - have 10%, 8% and 4% of the seats. The
SCIRI received 12%.
Jalal Talabani and Massoud
Barzani, the top Kurdish leaders, have also announced
their own Kurdish list. The Turkmens have refused to be
part of it. At this point there's also no evidence of
any Sunni Arabs being included.
Shi'ites are furious with the fact that 40% of the seats
in Sistani's list were allotted to religious parties,
believers in velayat al-faqih - the theory of
Iran's ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of the primacy of
theology over jurisprudence. Thirty-eight small secular
parties threatened to abandon the list - but in the end
didn't. All 50 women on the list must wear the Islamic
veil: this basically means they were selected because
they are conservative Shi'ites.
Whatever happens, disaster looms. The Sunni Iraqi
resistance's ultimate political aim is to cut off the majority
of Sunnis from the US-imposed political calendar. They
are succeeding because Sunnis have realized the
elections will take place - whatever their complaints about
their legitimacy. Iraq cannot possibly have a
meaningful permanent constitution without Sunni input.
For instance, if there's only one chamber in
parliament, Shi'ites will always have the majority. There's also
the crucial question of who gets Kirkuk and its oilfields:
Sunni Arabs or Kurds? The consequences of the majority
of Sunnis boycotting the election and thus being
under-represented in parliament spells only one thing:
alternative to civil war is Balkanization. Six hundred
Shi'ite delegates from the Middle Euphrates met in Najaf
with plans to carve a large Shi'ite province. Iraq
remains with 18 provinces - but everybody now seems to
want their own province, not only the Middle Euphrates
Shi'ites: the Kurds want a major Kurdish province out of
six that already exist, and the Shi'ites of the deep
south also want their own. Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, former
national security adviser, wanted Iraq divided into five
provinces: one Kurdish, two Sunnis and two Shi'ites. If
this plan were ever to be carried out, the Turkmen and
the Christians would also want their own provinces.
A "federal", Balkanized Iraq is central to the
Bush-neo-conservative project for the whole Middle East.
It was discussed in Jordan in 2002, before the invasion.
It would certainly create even more chaos. This is the
same old British Empire "divide and rule" logic -
remnant of the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 which
carved up the Arab nation.
Northern Iraq is
already a de facto separate state. Corrupt warlords such
as Talabani and Barzani already have their Kurdistan: they
just had to support the invasion and occupation, and
never say a word to infuriate the Turks. If Kurdistan
ever became a state, Turkey would have to do something
lest Kurds in its own territory got similar ideas.
The Americans would only tolerate a
Shi'ite south split into small provinces: a major province
could become an Iranian satellite. Central Iraq would
in theory be a Sunni province. But any way one looks at
it, it's practically impossible to carve up Iraq. In
greater Baghdad there are Sunni neighborhoods,
Shi'ite neighborhoods and a lot of mixed neighborhoods. The
2 million-plus Shi'ite Sadr City would be a state
in itself. Arabs and Kurds would fight to their deaths
for the oilfields of Kirkuk. Thanks to Saddam's Arabization
policy, Kirkuk's population of roughly a million is more
or less distributed among Sunni Arabs, Kurds and
Turkmens. The Kurds want Kirkuk as part of Kurdistan.
Sunni anger, Shi'ite cunning Key Sunni
cleric Abdul Salam al-Kubaysi, of the powerful
Association of Muslim Scholars - which has called for a
boycott of the elections - told al-Jazeera television no
election can be legitimate under foreign occupation.
Sheikh Muhsin al-Shamari told the London-based newspaper
al-Hayat that 90% of Arab sheikhs of the key Iraqi
tribes want the elections to be postponed because of
lack of security.
Compare this with Mohammad
Khatami, Iran's president, who is in favor of elections
"as soon as possible". It's very important to note that
Khatami has also framed the whole Iraqi equation in
terms of security: this means that for Iran an elected
Iraqi government at least would have a chance to provide
some stability, unlike Iyad Allawi's. The problem is
Sunnis immediately identified this as Iranian meddling -
with some moderates even throwing Iraqi Shi'ites,
Iranians and the US in the same boat. There is only one
player that benefits from this amalgamation: the Sunni Iraqi
Our Baghdad sources say that in
Sunni mosques all over Iraq, the recurrent theme is the
denunciation of Shi'ite clerics who have "sold out"
Islam. Compare it with Karbala provincial Governor Sa'ad
Safouk al-Masoudi, who recently said Fallujah was "a
punishment from God" because the locals helped Saddam's
armies destroy the Shi'ite uprising in Karbala in 1991.
Al-Masoudi explicitly said that "the election doesn't
depend on the Sunnis".
It certainly does not: it
depends on Sistani. Sistani and his circle have learned
key lessons from history. When Iraq was fighting British
colonialism in 1920, the vanguard of the armed
resistance was Shi'ite. So the British installed the
Sunnis in power - where they have remained ever since.
Now the Shi'ites know that the best course of action is
to co-exist with the occupier/invader, form a powerful
political coalition in weeks of private negotiations
uniting radicals and moderates, get their hands on
power, and then tell the invader to leave. This explains
Sistani's silence over Fallujah, and the Shi'ite zeal on
holding elections by all means. But definitely this does
not mean that Sistani is a collaborator.
immediate future of Iraq, as crucial as the
Sunni-Shi'ite power play will be the interaction between
Iraqi nationalists on both sides. Sunnis were very much
aware that Muqtada denounced the Fallujah offensive, and
Sistani did not - or did, very mildly, and too late.
Armchair planners dreaming of Balkanization tend to
forget that Iraqi nationalism is much more powerful than
a sectarian Sunni-Shi'ite division.
an American gulag According to the International
Organization on Migration, at least 210,600 Fallujans -
more than 35,000 families - have been turned into
refugees. Now the doomed city - reduced to a pile of
rubble, but still closed by the Americans, with the
resistance controlling at least 60% of it - is about to
be turned into a concentration camp.
Pentagon-sponsored initiative will see Fallujans herded
to "citizen processing centers", subjected to DNA
testing and retina scans, and forced to wear badges with
their home addresses at all times. Cars will be banned
from the city: after all, they are the suicide bombers'
weapon of choice. Male Fallujah civilians will be
regimented in "military-style battalions" and, depending
"on their skills" will "be assigned jobs in
construction, waterworks or rubble-clearing platoons" -
in other words, chain gangs. Moderate Sunni Arabs in
Baghdad are enraged beyond belief: they correctly
identify this US-enforced gulag as the "model
city" in an ideal neo-conservative Middle East. Now
what's that got to do with elections?