Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Iraq's Jefferson?

Ayatollah Sistani

Put me in the camp that is hopeful but skeptical of Cheney and Rumsfeld's optimism about the direction of Iraq's new political class. I want to be optimistic, but the euphoria of the elections can't hide the fact that Ayatollah Sistani now holds all the cards, and I don't know if he's playing with a full deck.


"Iraq's women are encouraged to vote as they want but, under Sistani's teachings, they won't be able to shake the hand of any man other than a father, brother or husband. (Sistani also forbids music for entertainment, dancing and playing chess.)"

Not exactly Mr. Enlightenment. And then there's the fact that he's not even an Iraqi. He's Iranian. And he couldn't vote in the elections because of his nationality. And the Shi'ite alliance list he put together includes

religious parties who in the past have openly advocated an Islamic state on the Iranian model. Hussein al-Mousawi, who heads the Shiite Council, a secular party, called the leading members on the victorious list "extremist Shiite Islamists who believe in the rule of religious clerics."

Sistani apparently has not met with any Americans, but maintains his power by rising above the competing interests at play, and keeping silent on the key issues, like Sharia, that will shape the future of Iraq. The Iranians know that they want his ear:

Iranians have poured into Shia areas in southern Iraq, and even bought up some of the houses in Sistani's neighborhood, either to be close to him, or to keep an eye on him. Recently the Ahl ul Bait World Assembly, a religious charity closely linked to Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, opened an office in Najaf to promote the doctrine of clerical rule.

So an Iraqi democracy, free of the control of the clerics and the stifling practices of traditional Islam, is no certainty. And the man who has the power to be Iraq's Jefferson isn't talking. Yet.