Top Shiite Muslim cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani repeated his call for early elections before the United States cedes control over Iraq to the U.S. coalition-appointed Governing Council.
The power struggle between the secular, pro-western exiles from the Sunni and Shiite coalition, the religious Muslim Shiite, and the Kurds of northern Iraq is just beginning. Iraqi coalition authority already aware of each group feeling out the empty political landscape in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s capture, starting with the largest party, the Iranian-influenced Shia religious headed by Sistani. Whether or not, there will be increased violence due to a quick transfer remains to be seen. What is apparent in Paul Bremer’s style of governance, persuasion and empathy, is that eventually he will have to deliver what has been promised (to the Iraqi Governing Council and Congress).
For Presidential Envoy Paul Bremer, not only did he take a professional risk in taking the role of a lifetime, running a provisional foreign government in post-wartime, but enormous, future political risk if his performance isn’t deemed acceptable by the American public and Congress.
With the capture of Saddam and at least, a good working reputation between the U.S. army, foreign contractors, and local Iraqi political leaders, Bremer’s future in a possible second Bush administration seems almost assured, particularly with the expected departure of Secretary of State Colin Powell at the end of President Bush’s first time next January (if Bush is re-elected).
But, beyond the chaos of everyday life in the Sunni Triangle, which includes Baghdad, and now infamous Fallujah, Paul Bremer must quickly face the Grand Ayatollah whose forward political and professional aspirations may lie.
Ali Sistani, the Shiite Muslim leader who has initially cooperative with the U.S. coalition, desires early elections giving his party a great advantage to take power from rival opposition parties, whose size and organization do not nearly match his own. Playing to his own brand of muscle and negotiation, Sistani quickly rose to the political stage, after Iraqi exile Ayatollah al-Hakim was assassinated after the fall of Baghdad.
The socially conservative Grand Ayatollah using his authority to carry out orders of his own, regulating trade, crime, and the role of women at work or in the home, his religious sect capitalizing on the long, banned edits of open, declared worship amongst Iraqis. As illustrated in the secular-religious conflict over oil in the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam’s Baath Party sighted such activities as "potential threats" to Party rule.
And while the Bush administration may publicly advocate free elections and representative democracy, the growing power of the repressed Shiite majority in the hands of Ali Sistani (whose followers advocate an Iranian-style theocracy) cannot be tolerated by President Bush, whose motives for fighting Saddam Hussein has shifted from “weapons of mass destruction” to “freedom from a brutal dictatorship,” and the neoconservative argument of using Iraq as a “warning” to Iran, North Korea, and Syria against the continued support and sale of weapons to terror groups, like Hamas and Hezbollah.
And in the short term, possibly Sistani.
For the Bush administration facing increasing justification for funding post-war Iraq operations, nothing short of an elected, stable democracy can satisfy administration foreign policy allies, and silence critics.
Unfortunately for Bush and Bremer, Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s demand for elections is worrisome because the Shiite majority would have representative control over any new Iraq. Badly repressed by Saddam after the first Gulf War, while Hussein’s minority Sunni Muslims were in control, many Shiites were poor and already dependent on the United Nation’s Aid for Food programs during Hussein’s regime. Not surprisingly, the process of coalition reconstruction has been slow to take hold in areas outside of Baghdad and Basra, while the death of the Baath Party has given way to the election or “self-appointments” of hundreds of civil leaders in the South under the direction of Shiite Muslim clerics.
President Bush’s controversial foreign policy of pre-emptive war leaves the process of temporary occupation a key component which demands American troop strength to be at near fighting levels to quell any possible resistance over the foreseeable future.
This also means that Paul Bremer’s role as a Presidential Envoy comes with a handshake and promise not only get Iraqi coalition allies into leadership positions, but quietly weed out the agitators and repatriated exiles which have little support from the Iraqi public.
Unlike Bush’s touted demeanor on Mideast issues, Bremer will have to exercise discretion and patience for results.
So will the American people.
Tommy Ates is a writer living in Cincinnati, Ohio. His columns have appeared in several publications, such as The Houston Chronicle, Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, The Wichita Eagle, The Macon Telegraph, and Global Black News, among others. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright © 2003 Tommy Ates. All Rights Reserved.