Global Policy Forum

Top Shiite Cleric Is Said to Fear Voting in Iraq May Be Delayed


By Dexter Filkins

New York Times
September 23, 2004

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the nation's most powerful Shiite leader, is growing increasingly concerned that nationwide elections could be delayed, his aides said, and has even threatened to withdraw his support for the elections unless changes are made to increase the representation of Shiites, according to one Iraqi source close to him.

Aides to Ayatollah Sistani contacted Lakhdar Brahimi of Algeria, the United Nations adviser who brokered the agreement to hold the elections, planned for January, to express concern that they would be delayed, according to Hamid Khaffaf, one of Ayatollah Sistani's top aides. Another source close to the electoral negotiations said Ayatollah Sistani had asked Mr. Brahimi to return to Iraq to try to address his concerns. Mr. Khaffaf declined to discuss details of the conversation.

In New York, Mr. Brahimi's aides said only that he had not spoken recently to Ayatollah Sistani. The United Nations special representative to Iraq, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi of Pakistan, could not be reached for comment. According to people with knowledge of the talks, Ayatollah Sistani is concerned that the nascent democratic process here is falling under the control of a handful of the largest political parties, which cooperated with the American occupation and are comprised largely of exiles.

In particular, these sources say, Ayatollah Sistani is worried about discussions now under way among those parties to form a single ticket for the elections, thus limiting the choices of voters and smothering smaller political parties. Ayatollah Sistani, who earlier this year sent tens of thousands of Iraqis into the streets to demand early elections, is said to be worried that a "consensus list" of candidates from the larger political parties would artificially limit the power of the Shiites, who form a majority in the country.

Under an agreement reached among exile groups in the early 1990's, the Shiites were said to make up about 55 percent of the population. Ayatollah Sistani, the sources say, believes the Shiite population has swelled since then and therefore would be underrepresented on any list based on a 55 percent figure. Ayatollah Sistani also expressed concerns that the Iraqi government, possibly under American pressure, would postpone the elections on the pretext that the anarchical conditions that prevail over parts of the country would make the results illegitimate, the sources said. According to an Iraqi close to Ayatollah Sistani who spoke at length with him last weekend, the ayatollah is so upset about the prospect that the Shiites might be underrepresented that he is prepared to withdraw his support for the elections if his concerns are not addressed. It is unclear, however, what specific demands he has made. "If he sees that what this is leading to is unfair and unfree elections, then he will not take part in it,'' the Iraqi said. "He will declare the elections to be illegitimate."

The activity by Ayatollah Sistani represents a reassertion of his efforts to ensure that the country's long-suppressed Shiite Arabs translate their majority status into political power. In the months since the Americans toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Sistani has largely stayed away from engaging in the minutiae of partisan politics, but he has aggressively pushed the Americans, the United Nations and the Iraqi government to hold democratic elections as soon as possible. The prospect of a boycott by Ayatollah Sistani could have severe consequences. The grand ayatollah, the senior cleric among the Shiite religious hierarchy, commands vast respect among ordinary Iraqis, many of whom could be counted on to give serious consideration to a pronouncement by him about the elections. An association of Sunni clerics has already announced that they will boycott the election.

Ayatollah Sistani's concerns also reflect a certain ambivalence regarding the presence of foreign forces in the country and the influence of international organizations like the United Nations. In the months since the Americans toppled Mr. Hussein, Ayatollah Sistani has declared a wish to end the American presence, but he has not told Iraqis to oppose it aggressively.

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