WASHINGTON, Jan. 22 (UPI) -- More than 100,000 Iraqis, mostly Shiites, took to the streets of five major cities this week to demonstrate in favor of holding elections sooner than the U.S.-led coalition thinks is prudent. They were reflecting the view of Iraq's most respected cleric, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husaini Sistani, the reclusive, 75-year-old mullah who is now throwing a wrench into U.S. plans to hand over the reins in Iraq.
In a message issued Friday, he called them off, encouraging people not to protest until the United Nations renders an opinion on the feasibility of elections.
Despite his influence -- which he periodically uses to contradict the wishes of the United States -- Sistani is regarded as a friend, according to a U.S. government official who spoke to United Press International on condition his name not be used.
"He is on our side. He wants to see democracy flourish," the official said. The demonstrations were "not organized by Sistani, not necessarily organized. There is a correlation, but it is not necessarily cause and effect."
The difference is important to U.S. government officials. Sistani is a critical ally and the main reason southern Iraq has been largely peaceful since the war. Some experts feared the U.S. invasion into the cradle of Shiite Islam would trigger a holy war. Sistani's behavior and pronouncements have -- so far -- set a cooperative tone. If the coalition is not encouraged to stay, it is at least tolerated until it goes. The United States can't afford to alienate the cleric and open up a new religious front in the insurgent war.
But Sistani and the Coalition Provisional Authority find themselves at odds. The debate has cast Sistani and the United States government into a curious juxtaposition: an Iranian-born imam pressuring the world's greatest democracy for the self-determination it ostensibly invaded Iraq to bring.
At issue is the complicated scheme the United States and the Iraqi Governing Council worked out in November to create a new government for Iraq. The ultimate goal is to create a Parliament that will be in place until a constitution is written and ratified in December 2005. But representatives to the "Transitional Assembly" will not be selected by a direct election. Instead, they will be selected by a caucus, which will be created by a two-step process.
Fifteen-member "organizing committees" will be selected in each of the 18 provinces of Iraq. Those organizing committees will then, by a two-thirds majority, vote on membership in a "governate selection caucus." The caucus will then choose members of the transitional national assembly.
The system is complicated and ripe for abuse, especially by the Iraqi Governing Council, which was hand-picked by the United States and is heavily populated by Westernized Iraqi expatriates. The Governing Council can exert a veto on every member of the caucus, if it votes en bloc, Middle East expert Anthony Cordesman said Thursday.
The plan "tends to enshrine the Governing Council and the selections made by the CPA," Cordesman told UPI.
The 24-member Governing Council will appoint five of the 15 organizing committee members in each province. Another five will be appointed from existing provincial councils -- most of which were also handpicked by Paul Bremer's CPA. The remaining five will be appointed from the town council of each province's five largest cities, some of whom were elected.
These committees will appoint the caucus members who will select the Transitional Assembly. However, each of the committee members must be approved by 11 of the 15 organizing committee members. If the five members appointed by the Iraqi Governing Council vote as a block, they can veto the appointment of anyone nominated to the governate selection caucus.
Sistani favors a far more simple solution: a direct election for members of the Transitional Assembly.
"He's looking at the process and saying, 'I don't think this is the democratic process we would like to be,'" said Marine Col. Christopher C. Conlin, who commanded the Marine battalion that patrolled and helped Najaf begin its reconstruction for four months immediately after the war.
Conlin is one of the few Americans to deal directly with Sistani's organization, although he never met with the cleric himself.
"We made some overtures. We asked, 'Would you like to meet, is that a possibility?' and we were very politely and tactfully told the ayatollah prefers not to meet with any political bodies at this time," Conlin told UPI.
When he was looking for support or advice from the leader, Conlin would contact a lower member of Sistani's organization and vice versa. Messages were carried back and forth as the situation dictated.
"Pretty much when they gave us advice we stuck with it. There was never anything that conflicted with what our mission was. Usually we found ourselves all on the same side," Conlin said.
With that experience under his belt, he is sympathetic to Sistani's position.
"If you're Joe Blow from Iraq you're thinking to yourself 'It's nice someone is coming in here to try to help us run this place. But you've been living in America for the last 10 years. I want a guy like me to be in charge.'
"In 1776, the reason the United States came into conflict with England wasn't just taxation without representation. It was that there were people in charge, and we didn't agree with how they were put in charge and what they were doing," Conlin said.
Sistani is trying to head off a similar situation.
"He's using his influence to try to effect change. In American, we call that democracy. He's doing a pretty good job," Conlin said. "If you look at the history of Iraq, it's not one of democratic process. It's where a minority has usually risen to power and controlled everybody else despite several (unsuccessful) attempts by Shiites to passively and to aggressively get proportionate power."
These days, Sistani seems to wield considerable power over the situation in Iraq. On at least two occasions, his edicts have forced the CPA to rewrite its political road map.
Until November, Bremer's plan for Iraqi sovereignty required that a committee of handpicked Iraqis would write a constitution and it would be ratified before elections could be held.
Sistani rejected this plan out of hand in June and issued a binding ruling demanding an elected assembly write the constitution. With characteristic pith and politesse, Sistani sent a note to Bremer last year refusing a meeting to negotiate a compromise, according to the Times of London.
"Mr. Bremer," Sistani wrote, "you are American. I am Iranian. I suggest we leave it to the Iraqis to devise their constitution."
Bremer eventually changed his plans, although not entirely to Sistani's liking. In November, Bremer backed off the "constitution first" requirement and devised the complicated sovereignty-transfer proposal with the Governing Council, which consulted with Sistani during the negotiation.
"It is tactically a good way to go forward. We would have preferred to do it a different way, but it would have taken too long," Bremer told NBC's Today Show in November.
It was not enough. Sistani responded with a new call for an elected Transitional Assembly, and suggested the United Nations be brought in to assess the feasibility of a national election. Bremer and the Governing Council pressed ahead, undeterred.
Unheeded by Baghdad, Sistani issued a strongly worded edict Jan. 11 calling for direct elections, which he believes, can be conducted with an "acceptable level of transparency and credibility."
Washington, this time, took notice -- helped in no small part by a peaceful demonstration of 30,000 in Basra on Jan. 15, chanting in favor of Sistani. It was followed up this week by demonstrations in at least five other cities, including Baghdad.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld Thursday attempted to play down the differences between the United States and Sistani.
"We have always favored elections. The tension was if your goal is to get sovereignty passed to the Iraqis, so that they feel they have a stake in their future, can you do it faster with caucuses or can you do it faster with elections? Ultimately you are going to have elections on a constitution anyway," Rumsfeld said.
"There are a number of Sunni (Muslims) who also believe there should be direct elections. They believe there are far more Sunnis than the current census suggests, and some for the same reasons many Shiites oppose the current selection process," Cordesman said. "Sistani certainly is the symbol, the leading figure, and he's seen as the catalyst. But I suspect the feelings are much stronger among other Shiites and who in some cases are far less willing to compromise and deal with the problems."
Bremer was summoned to the White House Jan. 17 for meetings with President Bush's national security team to figure out a strategy to deal with Sistani. On Monday, Bremer met with U.N. officials to discuss whether they would send a team to see if an election would be possible.
"A third party can be useful. Bremer and the CPA have done what they can," Cordesman continued. "A lot of the problem comes first from Washington, D.C., putting far too much faith in Iraqi exiles (who were installed on the Governing Council). The GC has been at least as much of a problem as a solution."
The United Nations, which has its own issues with the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, on Friday sent a security team to assess whether it is safe for U.N. staff to return to Iraq to discuss elections.
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a Shiite member of the Governing Council with close ties to Sistani and the political leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said Sistani would likely accept whatever conclusion the United Nations reaches.
It doesn't look good: U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Monday there is probably not enough time to pull off a national election before July 1, when the United States intends to return sovereignty to Iraq.
Sistani is largely a mystery to many in the West. He has not appeared publicly since U.S. forces swarmed into Iraq, and he did so only rarely under the reign of Saddam Hussein. Many of the grand ayatollahs in Najaf before him have been assassinated, presumably by Hussein's forces. And in April, the son of the late Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei, one of Sistani's mentors, was hacked to death on the plaza outside the Shrine of Imam Ali.
"Sistani emerged (in influence) because everyone else has been killed," said Hunter.
Monday's meeting at the United Nations, however, confirms Sistani's newfound power.
A Pentagon official told UPI that American intelligence assessments about Sistani's intentions flip flop daily: he's a friend, he's out for his own agenda, he's potential trouble, he's an ally. Much depends on the prism through which he is viewed, the official said.
To many in the U.S. government, Sistani's insistence on direct elections looks like a naked grab for power. The numbers are ostensibly in his favor: 60 percent of Iraq is Shiite.
That would be an easy conclusion to reach if Sistani were a political figure in America. But the view is also informed by a learned distrust of Muslim clerics in far-off places.
The United States' primary experience with Shiism was the searing 1979 revolution in Iran that ousted the shah, an ally, installed a fundamentalist theocracy, and resulted in the humiliating hostage crisis that did not end until 1981. Shiites marching with placards bearing the face of a bearded cleric, as has been seen in Iraq this week, brings back old and distressing memories of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who found refuge in Najaf in the 1960s. The very last thing the Bush administration wants is for Iraq to follow Iran's lead into theocracy.
The government official suggested this is too narrow a view. Iraq's brand of Shiism has hewed to a separation of religion and state, if only because it has always been on the short side of the equation. Separating itself from political debate and keeping a low profile was the best way to avoid the government's frequent wrath.
This behavior has earned Sistani and clerics like him the label "quietist."
But that quiet should not be mistaken for acquiescence, warns Shireen Hunter, an expert on Islam with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"The original Shiite decision not to be involved in politics was a very political decision," Hunter said. "If you go back to the history of Shiism and this whole idea of 'quietism' -- basically, it was the denying of legitimacy of political power (to the government) because they thought they unjustly usurped it from its rightful owners."
By refusing to deal with the government, early Shiite clerics seemed to be going along with it but were in fact treating it as a non-entity.
"Quietism is inherently rebellious," she said.
Ahmed Chalabi, one of the rotating heads of the Iraqi Governing Council, said Friday in Washington that Sistani is not agitating for an Islamic state.
"Sistani is not for an Islamic state. He is for a state in which Islam is respected. He has never said he was for an Islamic state or republic. He is certainly not an advocate of theocracy. ... What he's concerned about is the welfare of his community and that the will of his community is not usurped or distorted."
"Shiites don't have a uniform or automatic majority. They band together when they feel they are being denied the right to participate in politics because they are Shia," Chalabi said.
The government official told UPI there is a growing belief that Sistani may be insisting on direct elections to create a transition assembly because he knows they would slow the process down -- and in this way extend the American occupation.
"I think he is concerned the Shiites are not yet ready to play in the political process. And I don't think he wants us to leave. I think it's his way of keeping us there," the official said.
The logic is counterintuitive, he admits.
"Things are not always as they seem," he said.
He believes Sistani and many others in Iraq think sovereignty on July 1 means the United States will pull out -- and with it would go 130,000 troops, which provide security from enemies within Iraq's borders and outside them, as well as billions of dollars in aid.
Conlin takes a less parochial view of Sistani. Sistani, Conlin points out, is not Iraqi and he's not the grand ayatollah just in Iraq. His flock is spread around the world, and his portfolio extends well beyond the reach of Baghdad. His interest cuts across national boundaries, beyond the doings of any one nation.
Conlin and the government official both say Sistani is presiding over a major shift in the religion. Najaf was historically the center of study, but that role largely shifted to Qom, Iran, in the last decade as Saddam Hussein cracked down on Shiites in his own country.
"This is a historical event in their religion. This is a reawakening for them," Conlin said. "Before, the world's view of Shia was the Ayatollah Khomeini (in Iran) and a theocratic state. That's not necessarily what the majority of Shia in the world would like to see," Conlin said.
Sistani has an opportunity to redefine Shiism in the world's eyes by the careful line he is now walking, and to reestablish Najaf as the center of learning and Islamic scholarship, Conlin believes.
Adding to suspicions about his motivation, Sistani has made no secret of his desire to see Iraq's government built on Islamic law. This is a prospect Bremer has already agreed to, provided it also allows for freedom of worship, freedom of the press and the protection of minority rights.
Rather than taking to public forums to express his will, Sistani communicates his opinion through his writings and through lower-ranking members of the hawza, a network of schools and scholars who study the Koran and Islam in Najaf.
He also communicates through his Web site, sistani.org. Sistani, it turns out, may be the very model of a modern ayatollah.
The Web site is a prime means for Sistani to share his interpretations of Islamic law and practice with Shiites around the world -- most of whom are in India, Pakistan and Iraq, according to Hunter. Some 10 to 15 percent of the world's 1.4 billion Muslims are Shiite, but they are estimated to make up more than half the population of Iraq. No accurate census has been taken recently to back up those numbers.
The Web site posits Sistani as a progressive cleric, one that is learned not just in religious matters but also in science and history and who understands international politics and economics. He often rejects literal interpretations of the Koran, offering instead interpretations that take into account historical conditions at play when the prophet Mohammed was teaching, and adapting those words to modern life. A simple illustration: Mohammed instructed his followers not to eat donkey meat -- a prohibition many continue to observe. Sistani has determined the edict was situational: It was issued during a time of war when the donkeys were needed to ferry arms and supplies to the front lines. As that battle was centuries in the past, the rule no longer applies, Sistani decreed. Contradicting the Prophet? No, interpreting his word for the current time.
Sistani does not shrink from more modern concerns. The Web site is replete with his polite and concise answers to questions from the religious on whether anal intercourse is permissible (yes, but it is "strongly undesirable"), or if oral sex is approved (under certain conditions) and whether masturbation is prohibited (yes, at all times). The less titillating subjects are addressed as well: Why lotteries are not allowed but horse racing is, when both are forms of gambling.
He has also weighed in with a progressive view of women's role in society.
"He said 'Islam has given all the rights to women. She is just like a man, if she is educated and strong, and he thinks she can do all sorts of things. She can be a minister, she can be even a president,'" Raja Habib al-Khazal, doctor and one of only two women on the Iraqi Governing Council told UPI. She met with Sistani in November about the sovereignty plan.
"They told me he wouldn't meet with a woman," she said. "But I met him. He's a very intelligent man and very highly educated. He knows everything that's going on in Iraq -- we discussed the constitution, the drugs coming into Iraq, we discussed security, and women's issues."
Sistani, an academic prodigy who began reading the Koran at age 5, is probably the closet thing to a pope Islam offers. But grand ayatollahs are not selected through a council of cardinals. It is a slowly earned status rewarding scholarly works and teaching, as well as leading prayers. A grand ayatollah's influence evolves by consensus over time.
Sistani himself was born in Mashhad, Iran, but he has spent the last 40 years at the seminary in Najaf, the place where the remains of Ali, the grandfather of Shiism, are interred. Sistani was positioned for prominence in 1992 when his mentor al-Khoei died. Al-Khoei spent the last year of his life under threat of violence by Saddam Hussein, during which he was forced to publicly and repeatedly denounce the disastrous 1991 Shiite uprising.
It was not immediately clear that Sistani would play the central role he now has. Saddam Hussein installed another Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Muhammed Sadeq al-Sadr, in Najaf after al-Khoei's death.
Al-Sadr and two of his sons were subsequently shot to death in 1999 when al-Sadr was suspected of trying to establish a power base of his own. One son, Muqtada, escaped to Qom, in Iran. The young cleric has since returned to Najaf where -- in a sharp counterpoint to Sistani -- he is a firebrand preacher and constant source of irritation to the coalition.