Global Policy Forum

Shiite Cleric Threatens to


By Anthony Shadid and Colum Lynch

Washington Post
March 23, 2004

Iraq's most powerful Shiite Muslim cleric has intensified his opposition to the country's interim constitution, threatening to withhold cooperation with the United Nations during the transition to Iraqi sovereignty if the document is endorsed by the Security Council.

In a letter addressed to Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. envoy to Iraq, the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani said flaws in the constitution "will lead to a dead end and bring the country into an unstable situation and perhaps lead to its partition and division."

The letter, which was released Monday, marked another dramatic attempt by the reclusive, 73-year-old cleric to assert influence over the political system that will be put in place when the U.S. administration of Iraq ends June 30. Though Sistani had already made clear his objections to the interim constitution, the letter was forceful in questioning the charter's legitimacy and in demanding that it be amended.

Iraqi leaders have said they will ask the Security Council to pass a resolution legitimizing the U.S. handover of authority to a provisional government. Sistani said in the letter that he feared U.S. officials would seek to include an endorsement of the constitution in such a resolution. If it were endorsed in any way, Sistani said, he would boycott meetings with U.N. envoys due to arrive in Iraq soon to help craft an interim authority that is to take over from the U.S. administration in June and stay in power until elections in January.

"We warn that any such step will be unacceptable to the majority of Iraqis and will have dangerous consequences," Sistani said.

The interim constitution, known as the Transitional Administrative Law, was signed March 8 and was praised by Iraqi and U.S. leaders as a landmark in Iraq's progress toward becoming a democratic state. But the signing followed days of wrangling prompted by Sistani's objections, and within hours, Shiite members of Iraq's Governing Council insisted that parts of the document had to be revised.

The document calls for nationwide elections to be held by the end of January 2005 to choose a 275-member transitional assembly. That body will serve as a legislature, draft a permanent constitution and choose a president and two deputy presidents. The three-member executive will then choose by unanimous decision a prime minister and cabinet to run the government.

When the constitution was signed, Shiite members of the Governing Council said Sistani objected to two key provisions: a clause that gave Kurds effective veto power over a permanent constitution and another that allowed either of the deputy presidents -- likely a Kurd and a Sunni Arab -- to reject the decisions of a president, almost certainly a Shiite. While most groups in Iraq contest the precise figures, Shiites are believed to make up about 60 percent of the population, with Sunni Arabs and Kurds the largest minorities.

Sistani's letter, which was dated Friday and bore the stamp of his office in the sacred Shiite city of Najaf, specifically mentioned only Sistani's objection to the three-member executive. He said it "lays the foundation for sectarianism in a future political system." Supporters of the arrangement have contended that the veto power of the deputy presidents was the best way to protect the interests of minority Sunnis and Kurds. But it clearly curbs the authority of a Shiite president, and Sistani said he believed it would create deadlock.

U.S. officials in Baghdad had no immediate comment on Sistani's warning. "I have no knowledge of any such letter," said Daniel Senor, a spokesman for L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of Iraq. The U.N.'s chief spokesman, Fred Eckhard, confirmed the authenticity of the Sistani letter but said the world body was not prepared to respond. Eckhard said Sistani's missive would have no impact on Secretary General Kofi Annan's plans to send Brahimi and an electoral team to Iraq.

But U.S. and U.N. officials said Sistani's letter would complicate deliberations over a new Security Council resolution being promoted by the United States and Britain that would define the international community's role in Iraq when the U.S.-led occupation ends.

The need for a new resolution has become more urgent since the government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar was voted out of office in Spain last week. The incoming government has said it will announce plans to withdraw the country's troops from Iraq unless the United Nations is given authority to administer the country.

Brahimi has avoided commenting publicly on the transitional law, saying it is a matter between the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority and the Iraqi Governing Council. U.N. officials said it was unclear whether he would formally respond to the new demands.

But Brahimi and other senior U.N. officials had privately opposed U.S. plans to adopt a detailed interim constitution, warning that the process was insufficiently inclusive and would fuel resistance among groups not involved in drafting the document. "It would have been wiser to have a brief statement of principles, not a full-fledged constitution," said one U.N. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We were clear with the Americans. If they had listened to us, they would not have this problem."

Since the fall of President Saddam Hussein's government last April, the Iranian-born Sistani has intervened repeatedly at key moments in Iraq's political transition. The moves have collided with U.S. ambitions to guide a process that has repeatedly changed course. His supporters say his actions are calculated to empower a Shiite majority that has lacked political clout through Iraq's modern history.

Last year, he insisted that a constitutional convention be elected, forcing the Bush administration to scrap its original transition plan. The compromise that followed in November -- a process to choose a transitional assembly through regional caucuses -- was discarded after Sistani raised objections.

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