America is getting more international help in its quest to build a peaceful, democratic Iraq but, ironically, its plans are under threat because the spiritual leader of the country’s Shia majority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is demanding fully democratic elections
America's proconsul in Iraq, Paul Bremer, met the United Nations' secretary-general, Kofi Annan, on Monday January 19th, to plead for the UN's help in salvaging America's plan to give Iraqis their sovereignty back by the end of June. The plan is in danger of collapse because Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shia Muslim cleric, insists there should be proper elections to choose the members of an interim national assembly that will select a new, provisional government. America insists it would be impossible to organise such a nationwide vote without delaying the handover of power. Instead it proposes that assembly members be chosen by local “caucuses”, in each Iraqi province. The caucuses’ members would in turn largely be selected by the Governing Council, a group of Iraqis appointed by America, who have already been given some restricted powers.
The Coalition Provisional Authority gives Mr Bremer's statements and outlines plans for governing Iraq. See also the US State Department's information on Iraq and the UN's Iraq section. The US Defence Department and US Central Command report on the security situation.
Mr Bremer, accompanied by members of the Governing Council, pressed Mr Annan to send a mission to Baghdad to assess whether or not direct elections would be feasible in the next few months. A Governing Council member allied to Mr Sistani said that if such a team of UN advisers were sent and decided that elections were not feasible, then the ayatollah would accept this. Mr Annan said further talks were needed before he could decide whether to send the mission, but diplomats said they expected a positive response.
Considering President George Bush’s avowed desire to build a strong democracy in Iraq that would set a positive example for the rest of the Middle East, he ought to have been heart-warmed at the sight of tens of thousands of Shias chanting “Yes, yes to elections!” as they protested in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Thursday and again in the capital, Baghdad, on Monday. But the demonstrations were manifestations of Mr Sistani’s power to whip up strong opposition among Shias—who are an estimated 60% of Iraq’s 25m population. Though he is Iranian-born and speaks Arabic with a heavy Persian accent, Mr Sistani commands strong support from Iraqi Shias and could cause serious trouble if his demands are not met.
Mr Sistani and his people fear that the caucuses will be rigged to try to exclude the Shias from power, as they were under Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Muslim regime. Last week, the ayatollah issued a fatwa (religious decree) that “every Iraqi must have the right to vote”. His aides say that unless direct elections are held, he may issue another, tougher decree which would turn the Shias—hitherto largely supporters of the American-led invasion—into opponents, resisting America's presence alongside the remnants of Saddam’s forces. If so, hopes for an orderly handover of power would be shattered. The ayatollah has refused to meet Mr Bremer so he has been relying on the Governing Council to try to talk the cleric into a compromise.
America believes there is not enough time to produce the new electoral register that would be needed for direct elections. Mr Sistani argues, however, that the ration cards used for the UN's oil-for-food programme (which have just been reissued, without many hitches) could be used as voters’ registration cards. In a last-ditch bid to persuade the ayatollah to accept the caucuses, Mr Bremer is looking at ways to make them more open. But time is short: he has only until the end of February to pass a law on how the transitional assembly should be chosen.