Friends in Need

A reclusive Shia cleric reintroduces Washington to the virtues of the U.N.


What the international community and the anti-war movement failed to do, the Shias of Iraq and their reclusive leader seem to be doing — that is, reacquainting the Bush administration with the virtues of the United Nations.

On Monday American, British and Iraqi officials met with Kofi Annan to negotiate a U.N. role in turning over authority over to the Iraqis. The U.N. has not had a presence in Iraq since a deadly bombing attack killed 16 staff members, including the head of the U.N. mission, at their headquarters last fall.

The U.S. plea for help comes as Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has come out against the U.S. plan for a transitional government by way of regional caucuses. Instead, Al-Sistani, and the tens of thousands marching under his banner, argue that direct elections need to be held by early summer. The ayatollah’s representative, Hashem al-Awad, argues that Iraqis deserve the right to plan their own government.

“The sons of the Iraqi people demand a political system based on direct elections and a constitution that realizes justice and equality for everyone…Anything other than that will prompt people to have their own say.”

Although the U.N., at Washington’s request, is preparing to investigate the transition possibilities in Iraq, the New York Times reports that Annan has previously said that holding direct elections by June 30 is probably not viable. Annan fears that instability in the country could lead to unsafe and illegitimate elections. Despite that Al-Sistani has accused Annan of acting under pressure from the U.S., one of his representatives said that the ayatollah would accept the decision of U.N. delegation, which is being dispatched to Iraq to survey the possibilities.

While the Shiites, the largest group in Iraq, are pushing for quick elections, which are likely to favor them, others, namely the minority Kurds and Sunnis, are less enthusiastic. If the U.S. bends to the Shiite demand for early elections, the Kurds and Sunnis are likely to feel alienated. The Kurds are already agitating for an autonomous region in a federal Iraq, and this development might harden them in this resolve.
Jonathan Steele of the Guardian writes that this has become the moment of truth not only for the U.S., but also for the U.N..

“Now the whole thing is in ruins. Ayatollah Al-Sistani refuses to drop his opposition, and people were out on the street in Basra last week to support his line. Protests may spread to other Shia cities. The latest allegations of US and British torture of detainees will only inflame passions. Worst of all for Washington, Al-Sistani has made it clear that no government which is undemocratically appointed will have the right to ask American troops to stay.

Washington is trying to argue that if there are to be direct elections, the transfer of power will have to be delayed. Al-Sistani rejects that. His supporters say the oil-for-food ration-card lists which covered the whole Iraqi population can easily be used in place of the poll cards which Washington says would take at least a year to prepare. Unlike Afghanistan, with its remote villages and months of snow which make polling stations hard to deploy and staff, Iraq’s geography is no obstacle to quick elections.”

But Fareed Zakaria of the Washington Post writes that ultimately this moment is about legitimacy — what Al-Sistani has and what the U.S. never did.

“So the administration has decided that the United Nations has legitimacy after all. Along with its allies on the Governing Council, Washington is asking Kofi Annan to give the United Nations’ blessings to its plan, explain that elections cannot be held precipitously and get involved in the entire political process. Columnist William Safire, who has long ridiculed the need for a U.N. role, is now sheepishly asking whether Annan could do us a favor, please. The foreigners are being invited in. It may be too little, too late.

U.S. policymakers made two grave mistakes after the war. The first was to occupy the country with too few troops, creating a security vacuum. This image of weakness was reinforced when Washington caved to Al-Sistani’s objections last June, junked its original transition plan and sped things up to coincide with the U.S. elections. The second mistake was to dismiss from the start the need for allies and international institutions. As it turns out, Washington now has the worst of both worlds. It has neither enough power nor enough legitimacy.”

    Members like you

    Mother Jones is a nonprofit, and stories like this are made possible by readers like you. or to help fund independent journalism.