Iraq Election: Sistani’s Triumph

by , February 01, 2005

The man most responsible for Iraq’s election didn’t vote because he wasn’t eligible.

No, not George W. Bush – I mean the Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al-Sistani, the man who single-handedly faced down the Americans, demanded direct elections rather than the “caucus” system the occupation authorities wanted to impose, and called his people out into the streets when the Coalition Provisional Authority refused to give way. Here’s a good timeline with pertinent details.

The original Bush plan was to install a puppet regime with the Americans holding the leash while a constitution was being written by a couple of policy wonks over at AEI and their best Iraqi pal, Ahmed “Hero in Error” Chalabi. But the Ayatollah quashed that without firing a shot: instead, he fired off a fatwa – the Muslim equivalent of a papal encyclical – that condemned the American plan as “fundamentally unacceptable” and demanded that the writing of Iraq’s constitution be turned over to an elected assembly of Iraqis.

“There is no guarantee that the council would create a constitution conforming with the greater interests of the Iraqi people and expressing the national identity,” thundered the Ayatollah, “whose basis is Islam, and its noble social values.”

Having gotten his way, Sistani then set about cobbling together a pro-Shi’ite list of candidates, one that even included such ostensibly secular figures as Chalabi and some Sadrists, as well as the mainstream Shi’ite parties, SCIRI and Dawa. Sunday’s election will mark the triumph of the Ayatollah’s vision: all indications point to a victory for the Sistani list, made all the more overwhelming by a Sunni participation rate that looks (as of this moment: 2:52 PST on Sunday) to be somewhere very close to single digits.

That’s some pretty successful hardball politics for an Ayatollah widely described as belonging to the nonpolitical “quietist” wing of Shi’ite Islam.

Sistani made it a religious duty to vote, but didn’t do so himself because he’s a citizen of Iran, having been born there, in the holy city of Mashad in 1930. More than once during the campaign, Iyad Allawi’s National Accord party denounced the Sistani-approved coalition as “the Iranian list,” with Defense Minister Hazim Shaalan practically issuing a declaration of war as he pronounced Tehran the “most dangerous enemy of Iraq.” Not Zarqawi, not the Ba’athists, but Iran – that‘s the big danger, and President Bush seemed to echo (or is it the other way around?) this fear of Iranian interference in the days leading up to the election. At a joint news conference with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, he said:

“We will continue to make it clear, to both Syria and Iran that, as will other nations in our coalition … that meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq is not in their interests. We expect people to work with the Iraqi interim government to enforce the border to stop the flow of people and money that aim to help these terrorists.”

Is Bush accusing the Iranians of arming and funding the Sunni-Ba’athist insurgents? This hardly seems likely. More probably, Bush was warning them to stop funding their Iraqi proxies. The top candidate on Sistani’s list is the former leader of the military wing of the SCIRI, the leading fundamentalist Shi’ite party that was headquartered in Tehran during Saddam’s reign. He was armed and succored by the Iranian government for all those years, and there is no reason to believe that the relationship has ended, only that it is a little more discreet. The Dawa party has a similar history: given shelter by the Iranians during the years of Ba’athist rule, these groups never accepted American aid or direction and refused to gather under the Chalabi-led umbrella group of Iraqi exiles.

The bizarre aspect of all this is that it now looks like Chalabi was an Iranian agent all along, and is going to pop up as a high official in the new government, perhaps interior minister or even president. This latter post is largely ceremonial, but it does have one major perk: the new president will get a vote, along with his two vice presidents, to decide who gets to be prime minister, an office with sweeping powers, including the title of commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Although results are not in, and won’t be for at least 24 hours, preliminary figures indicate a turnout of anywhere from half to 60 percent of registered voters, especially heavy in Shi’ite and Kurdish regions. The voter registration list consisted of nearly 14 million names in the food-ration public-distribution database, and the implication that if you didn’t vote you didn’t get your ration card renewed was less than subtle. As Khalid, a young Iraqi blogger, related:

“[T]he way the voting happened, is that you go to the voting center, and you go to the man that is your ration dealer, the one that you take the ration from him every month, so you tell him that you are gonna vote, he marks your name on his list, and then you vote!!!
that way the goverment will know exactly who voted and who didnt, two dealers said that the next years’ card won’t be given to those who didnt vote..”

That so many registered voters didn’t show up at the polls, in spite of this sort of intimidation, should tell us something about the depth of the split that sunders Iraqi society. The nonvoters – in this context, the complete rejectionists – polled more than any single party. This result should dampen the oddly artificial triumphalism of the moment and let us give thought to what this election portends.

The high turnout in Shi’ite areas puts the Sistani-blessed United Iraqi Alliance in the lead and ensures the influence of minorities such as the Kurdish groups and the Iraqi Communist Party will be disproportionately felt in the National Assembly. I have seen polls that give Allawi’s party as little as under 10 percent of the vote, and in any case Iraqis seem to blame him for the current mess. Part of the reason for his declining popularity is because Iraqis identify him with the occupation – perhaps because he was flown around in an American military aircraft on the campaign trail. I wouldn’t be surprised if Allawi is marginalized by these elections and the U.S. puts its chips on their old partner-in-crime, Ahmed Chalabi. American officials are already starting to “reach out” to Chalabi, as New York Times reporter Judith Miller put it on MSNBC’s Hardball, offering him all sorts of plum positions in the new Iraqi Cabinet.

While the War Party hails these elections as a triumph of Bush’s inaugural exhortations to export “democracy” to every corner of the globe, Brent Scowcroft wisely worries that this election could lead to civil war. Scowcroft is right to be worried: there is a sense in which the election results have to be seen as a choosing up of sides, a measure of the balance of forces in post-Ba’athist Iraq. We are arrived at the moment when two fighters meet for the first time in the ring and size each other up. In one corner, we have the Shi’ite majority that wants an “Islamic republic” roughly drawn up along Iranian lines, and in the other corner we have everyone else. Who will throw the first punch?

Given the long-standing grudge matches that have pitted the various ethnic and religious groupings in Iraq against each other, I wouldn’t rule out a few slugfests in the National Assembly as it decides such sensitive issues as the nature and degree of Kurdish autonomy. The postelection wrangling and backroom deal-making have already begun, and it won’t be long now before accusations of fraud, vote-buying, and ballot-box stuffing are heard. (I wonder about the relatively large number of absentee votes from Iran, as opposed to the U.S., England, and Australia, as shown in this graph.)

However, as long as they’re just duking it out in the Green Zone, or wherever sessions of the National Assembly are held, and not shooting it out in the streets of Iraq’s cities, this administration can take credit for orchestrating what seemed to be an impossible task, which was holding the election at all.

Now they need to follow up on that success – because it may prove as ephemeral as all the rest of those “mission accomplished” moments. Just as the imagery of the statue of Saddam being pulled down masked the real question of what to do with Iraq once we had conquered it, so the many photo opportunities afforded by this election mask the harsh realities of America’s role as a colonial power in the Middle East.

There is a tragic nobility in the determination of so many Iraqis to defy threats of terrorism and bravely show up to cast their votes, clearly and visibly inspired by Western ideals and the desire to live normal, decent lives in spite of everything. The tragedy is that they are being manipulated by cynical politicians and their foreign paymasters, who are conspiring to dismantle the Iraqi nation – and with the fragments kindle another war.

Seen from the perspective of the Iranians and the disparate secessionist movements, including the Kurdish parties, that threaten the integrity of the Iraqi state, the invasion and occupation of Iraq is a golden opportunity they cannot allow to pass without grasping what they can, while they can. It was only natural that, like predators who quickly fall upon a wounded or dead rival, the neighboring states and rebellious minorities within would grab a bite out of the Iraqi carcass while it’s still fresh. All the diners at the feast have their seat at the table, now, as Iraq’s National Assembly meets and decides the nation’s fate.

The elements of an emerging conflict are there, not least of all the emergence of a Shi’ite regime in the heart of a country with a long tradition of secularism and rule by the Sunni minority elite. The Sunnis’ boycott and majority support for the insurgency, in the face of the consolidation of a Shi’ite-dominated government, means a civil war along religious lines: one that could easily draw in Iraq’s neighbors, including Saudi Arabia as well as Iran and Syria. These centrifugal forces, combined with the rising demand for Kurdish independence, threaten to tear Iraq’s nascent democracy apart. Yet it is the democratic process itself that makes the collision of interests leading to civil war all too probable.

Democracy in Iraq means majority rule: there is no concept of constitutionally limited government. The Kurds, for example, want veto power over legislation that impinges on their autonomy, and this was enshrined in the “interim constitution” written by the Americans. But Sistani objected to this quite vehemently, and, given the projected make-up of the new government, he is likely to have his way.

The administration can rightly claim success in creating, if only for a day, the security conditions that made the election possible. But they can’t keep Iraq in lockdown forever. After the three-day lockdown, the roads will be opened, the border controls will be relaxed, the insurgency will continue to take its deadly toll – and the momentum for a political settlement will begin. Pressure for a negotiated settlement with some of the insurgent groups is bound to come from within the elected government, and this is the beginning of an exit strategy for the U.S. and Great Britain. If the elected government can act as a mediator between some elements in the insurgency and the occupiers, and come up with a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops, that would give the Bush administration the chance to follow this success with another – by beginning to talk about when the Americans are going to start coming home.

This president will come to Congress with his hand out, asking for $80 billion-plus for “nation-building,” and many Republicans are asking: where and when does it end? As American casualties mount, and the War Party whoops it up for a bigger and more expensive military machine, George W. Bush has an opportunity to gracefully exit the Iraqi stage. Saddam is vanquished: Iraq has an elected government. Let the militias of the parties that form the new government merge to form a new national army; let the Badr Corps, now the Badr Organization, which was trained by the Iranians, become the core of the new national army – we’ll save a lot of money on that deal. Let them make a deal with Sunni resistance, or, short of that, let them fight it out on their own.

Why should one more American soldier die for the “Islamic Republic of Iraq”? The only alternative to withdrawal is a 10-year long battle against an intractable insurgency and the threat of a wider war. It’s high time we declared victory and brought our troops home. If the Iraqi people are going to have democracy, or their version of it anyway, then they must be willing to fight and die for it. We’ve done more than our share.

Read more by Justin Raimondo