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February 19, 2005

A Shi'ite Iraq Emerges

by Juan Cole

Muhammad Husain Adili, the Iranian ambassador to the United Kingdom, said Thursday that his government had lent substantial help to the United States in fostering a "calm atmosphere" for the holding of elections on Jan. 30 in Iraq. He revealed that Iran had contacted Sunni Arab groups with which it had influence and attempted to convince them that the elections were in Iraq's best interest. He offered Iran's help in future, as well, in helping establish security in the Middle East, where Iranian and US interests coincide. [Al-Hayat]

As I predicted, the United Iraqi Alliance not only has 51 percent of seats on its own, but has already made a coalition [Arabic link] with some smaller parties. The three representatives of the Cadres and Chosen Party that is close to Muqtada al-Sadr will join the large coalition, as will the three deputies of the Turkmen National Front and a few independents. Only twelve lists were seated in parliament in the end, and most of them have joined the Shi'ite fundamentalist coalition. If the UIA can come to an agreement with the Kurds, it can easily form a government and then rule parliament.

In a startling development to which the Western press is paying little attention, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq has won the provincial governments in 8 of the 18 provinces in the country, including Baghdad. Over-all Shi'ite lists won 11 of the 18. Sadrists won Wasit and Maysam, and perhaps one other. Dawa doesn't appear to have run well at the provincial level. The Kurds won several of the northern provinces, including Ta'mim (where Kirkuk is) and Ninevah. The Iraqi Islamic Party won Anbar province, even though it withdrew from the elections. (It couldn't properly withdraw because the ballots had already been printed.) But only 2 percent of the residents of Anbar voted, so the IIP victory doesn't mean much.

The UIA is looking to given Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, former national security adviser, an important post. It will definitely sack interim Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan, who is vehemently anti-Iranian.

Tony Karon of Time profiles Ibrahim Jaafari, who will most likely be the new prime minister of Iraq. He says

"...Jaafari is a 'Shi'ite modernist,' according to an AFP profile carried in the Tehran Times. He has signaled a moderate Islamist position on questions of religion and the state, advocating that Islam be constitutionally recognized as Iraq's official religion and a source (but not the sole source) of legislation, and that no laws will be passed that contradict Islamic values. At the same time, he favors protection of minority religious and ethnic groups, and insists that the first priority of a new government is not only to be as inclusive as possible of those who participated in the election, but also to draw in those who stayed away – almost half the eligible population (42 percent), including the vast majority of Sunnis ... The U.S. is now faced with negotiating a relationship with a new government that reflects limited U.S. influence, and whose leaders enjoy historic ties with Iran."

The AFP profile notes,

"When talks were under way last February over the drafting the fundamental law which serves as Iraq's interim constitution, Jaafari was among those champions who favored Islam as the only source of legislation. But he has distanced himself from a hard line. 'Secularism originally meant opposing God and religion. Now it is not the same. Islam has changed too. It is different from country to country,' he said earlier this month. 'It is true that some countries stop women from attending schools and others do not let women drive. For me that would be a problem...' Despite having been one of the first to organize demonstrations opposing the presence of U.S.-led troops on Iraqi soil, earlier this month he admitted their necessity – for the time being. 'Despite their presence here in Iraq, terrorism exists,' Jaafari said. 'Can you imagine what will happen if we ask them to leave? This could mean the beginning of a civil war.'"

Phillip Kennicott of the Washington Post does one of the best Western press profiles of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani yet. It is a judicious exploration of Sistani's thought on matters of religious law and social mores.

"While American leaders emphasize that Sistani isn't like the clerics of Iran, others point out that the Shi'ite tradition leaves Sistani little wiggle room on fundamental topics, including women's rights. 'It is important to keep in mind that there are certain issues in the Shi'ite community about which no ayatollah, however progressive, can afford to deviate in his deliberations and final ruling,' Abdulaziz A. Sachedina writes in an e-mail from Iran. A professor of Islamic studies at the University of Virginia, Sachedina met with Sistani several times in the 1990s, and on one occasion Sistani criticized his writings and issued a ruling against Sachedina's public comments on matters of faith. Sachedina was undaunted and says he carries 'no grudge' against Sistani. Nonetheless, Sachedina's inside view of Sistani and Sistani's organization lead him to consider the ayatollah more conservative than do other observers. Sistani's views on women 'are restrictive and in his personal communication to me in 1998 he made it very clear that he abides by the age-old opinions regarding women's inequality with men, and that he regards their testimony, as extrapolated from the Qu'ran, half of a man's testimony in value,' the scholar writes."

The only thing I would add is that this profile of Sistani seems to me insufficiently appreciative of the ways in which he has incorporated notions of popular sovereignty and parliamentary elections as a means for the people to express their will into Shi'ite law.

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    Juan Cole is Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Visit his blog.


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