Talisman Gate

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A Lost Round

December 21, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >

A Lost Round

December 21, 2005

URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/24807

Iraq did not hold an election last week - it held a census. Shias voted for a "Shia" list, Sunnis for a "Sunni" list, and Kurds turned out for a "Kurdish" list. The margin for non-sectarian lists - all encompassing, issues-specific "Iraqi" lists - has thinned out since the elections last January. Almost three years after liberation and probably midway through a harrowing insurgency, Iraq's various communities are closing ranks unto themselves in anticipation of even more difficult times ahead, thus, the very act of voting has became an allegory for inter-communal civil strife.

The Shia community did not vote as a confident majority of the population: they followed the voting pattern of a ghettoized minority still scarred from many years of dictatorship. Rather than think for themselves and exercise their individual right to choose, they have abdicated this responsibility in favor of their behemoth communal shepherd: Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

And the Iran-leaning Shia Islamists running on the United Iraqi Alliance list seized the day, and did some very irreligious things such as lying, cheating, bullying, stealing and probably violating a couple more commandments in their drive to grab the majority of seats in the new parliament just in case Sistani's hint and wink didn't do the trick.

First, there was a religious directive from Najaf, which is slightly less binding than a full-blown edict, or fatwa. It was first reported in this column three weeks ago, and it was the doing of Muhammad Ridha Sistani, the grand ayatollah's very ambitious son. Through mosque sermons and catchy jingles, the Shia faithful got the message that voting against "Haydar's Candle" would be a vote against their own Shia identity; Haydar is an alternate name for their patron saint, Imam Ali, while the ballot symbol of the UIA list was a candle. Out in the rural countryside, things got even more surreal: women were told that their marriages to their husbands would be nullified in the eyes of God should their spouses vote for any rival lists.

Shia-Sunni tensions are at historical highs, and Shia voters still feel vulnerable and insecure as to their political future, so they voted UIA to spite the Sunni terrorists who have been waging a low-level campaign of extermination against Shias in mixed areas. Iraqi Shias were unconcerned with deteriorating basic services under Jaafari as they headed to the polls; they could live with little electricity and less water, but they can't go on looking over their shoulders for a suicide bomber whenever they do grocery shopping.

But what really clinched the outcome took place in the 48 hours before the election opened. An anti-liberation Iraqi commentator called Fadhil Al-Rubaiee appeared on one of Al Jazeera's most controversial shows and said nasty things about Sistani. This did plenty to bolster the impression that Shias are under attack and needed to close ranks behind their grand ayatollah and his "blessed" list, the UIA, even though it prompted every Tom, Dick, and Harry of Iraqi politics to jump at the opportunity of expressing fealty to the Uber Ayatollah. Even the "secular" Ayad Allawi sent a telegram of indignation at the incident and eternal adoration to Sistani.

Al-Rubaiee's outburst allowed Muhammad Ridha Sistani and Iranian intelligence to orchestrate massive demonstrations across Baghdad and southern Iraq that came out denouncing Al Jazeera, supporting the UIA, and burning and tearing down all rival election posters and related paraphernalia. This was the clearest and most timely opportunity afforded to Sistani's camp to strongly suggest the existence of an opaque endorsement of the Islamists from the grand ayatollah.

And just in case Sistani and the threat of ethnic cleansing don't do the trick, Iranian intelligence came out swinging to systematize the electoral victory of their patsies in the UIA by stuffing ballots, intimidating rivals, rumor-mongering and conducting other massive violations of electoral law. The Iranians showed how weak the institutions of the Iraqi state really are; the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq was feckless in the face of flagrant and multiple abuses. Farid Ayar, the commission's chairman, keeps telling foreign journalists that he can't wait until this is all over "so that I can go back to my garden in London." Ayar is clearly not going to hassle the gun-toting fundamentalist militias, especially if the Americans and the Brits seem unwilling for a confrontation.

Now, after the results come into further focus, we can see that all the people Iran has been cultivating for decades are going to be the soon-to-be-crowned heads of the Shia community. It should be understood that these political factions were not elected on their own merit, but rather on Sistani's recommendation. They will have to do business with the soon-to-be-crowned heads of the Sunni community, who are loathed by ordinary Shias. Adnan Al-Dulaimi, the head of the largest Sunni block "The Consensus," was elected by a strictly sectarian bias; Sunnis did not listen to him or his allies in the Islamic Party when they called for voting "yes" on the constitution back in October. So, Al-Dulaimi is hobbled by the fact that his constituency controls him rather than the other way around, and thus he must stand as a hardliner against policies such as de-Ba'athification. That will further aggravate the Shia. The Consensus list speaks for the Sunnis, but cannot decide for them; it does not have the mandate to strike deals, and should the politicians err, the insurgents would have no trouble making their qualms known.

Iran's mullahs, who are increasingly getting belligerent across the board, pulled off a coup in Baghdad right under the very noses of the United States. But will Iraq's triumphant mullahs, who fought tooth and nail to nail this vote, allow free and unfettered elections in four years? Will they be wise enough to realize that there is more to running a state than penning ringing sermons and folding a turban? Will they extend a hand to political rivals with the managerial wherewithal to do something about this mess of a government? Will the Sunni leaders deliver some compromises and actually lead their community to a civil peace, or will they cower in the face of brash Ba'athists who are still intoxicated by the prospects of returning to power through violence and may even be toying with civil war as a conduit? Will the Iranians come to their senses and realize that what doesn't work for Iran will probably not work for a far more complicated and nuanced society like Iraq's?

So much about Iraq is up in the air, and much has already been abdicated to Iran's benefit. Liberal democrats, America's friends, are not on par with Iran's acolytes when it comes to fighting dirty. But the reality is that none of the Islamists would have had any chance of seeing Iraq again had it not been for America's determination to unseat Saddam. Are they grateful and friendly, and who do they answer to at the end of the day? The fact that so many American lives have been given, and so much American credibility and treasure are on the line, should not be lost on all players on Iraq's stage. America should behave like the superpower it is, and tell Iran to back off: this round was lost, but the showdown will not end in the establishment of a sister Islamic Republic in Iraq.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at nibraska@yahoo.com

December 21, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >