Sunday, August 27, 2006

Iraq and the Role of Sistani

The politically moderate Ayatollah Sistani, the most revered cleric among the majority Shiites in Iraq may be losing influence. That does not bode well for democracy in Iraq since the more influence Sistani loses, the more the extremists in Iraq may benefit.

Scott Johnson of Newsweek has an article on Sistani:
The plea late last week from the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was an unusually modest one. With thousands of American troops sweeping through the streets of Baghdad to prevent an escalation of civil war, and Sunni and Shiite militias continuing to murder civilians every night, Sistani—Iraq's leading Shiite religious authority— had a simple request. "Desist from traveling abroad," he cautioned his country's politicians in a statement issued through a spokesman, "Come down to the streets and be in touch with the people, to feel their suffering."

It seemed a reasonable enough request. But Sistani's appeal was also striking in its limited ambition. For months, calming statements from the ayatollah held Shiites back from retaliating for killings by Sunni insurgents. But three years of insurgency, sectarian tensions and miserable living conditions have shrunk the space for temperance and given extremists plenty of room to operate. "[Sistani] doesn't have the same degree of influence," says Joost Hilterman, director of the International Crisis Group's Iraq program, based in Jordan. "He may be saying the same things, but fewer people are listening to him." As much as anything, the battle now is about which voices will shape the future of Iraq.

I'm always uneasy about articles like this that appear in major news outlets. My first question these days is this: is this a straightforward news story or is this story derived from someone in the Bush Administration trying to shape opinion about Sistani and Iraq? I don't know the answer. However, secular and now even religious moderates are not doing well in Iraq these days and so it's something of a given that Sistani's influence may be less than it was. An analogy, admittedly a flawed one perhaps, is to think of the Pope who has enormous influence among Catholics (and even beyond) but who can't stop a war he is opposed to. Sistani may not have much ability to stop a civil war, somewhat low-level though it may be at the moment.

But Juan Cole of Informed Comment noticed this about Sistani:
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has called on Iraqi politicians to please stay in Iraq and take care of business. Ever since the elections of January, 2005, it has often been the case that much of the cabinet and many parliamentarians were actually in London or elsewhere abroad for much of the time. Sistani must fear that this absenteeism is part of the problem with governance in the country, which threatens everything he has worked for.

Cole also mentions that one of Sistani's spokespersons urged Iraqi politicians to get outside the Green Zone more. I don't know what the purpose of these statements are, but certainly they can't be regarded as anything more than mild calls for action and they don't particularly address any number of larger issues. If nothing else, Sistani could be biding his time, while giving the Iraqi government time to get its act together. It should be noted, however, that his criticism of the Iraqi government also applies to Americans and could be regarded as a mild criticism, if there's anyone around to notice.

Even now, it's not out of the question that Sistani knows a great deal more of what's going on in Iraq, particularly in the Shiite areas, than anyone in the Green Zone. When Americans first arrived in Iraq, the Bush Administration spent the first six months pursuing privatization opportunities far more than democracy (for those who have forgotten, there was an insane gold rush at the time with Republican cronies and even a number of administration figures quitting their jobs to reap the benefits). From the beginning, Sistani pushed for an early start to democracy, which in his view meant voting, but Americans kept postponing a vote in the hopes of installing what they hoped would be a compliant secular moderate. Sistani also warned that Iraq would probably deteriorate without such a vote. He was right.

There are some who are arguing that the Bush Administration is deliberately exploiting the growing chaos in Iraq for its own purposes. That would not surprise me since almost every blunder by the Bush Administration is quickly reframed as an 'opportunity' and Bush keeps rolling the dice on reckless double or nothing bets, losing far more often than he wins. Bush still has enormous power at his disposal (and considerable opportunity to show further incompetence) but I doubt very much that Bush and his advisers have a clear idea what they're trying to accomplish at this late date except to stay in the game (no doubt, in their usually clumsy manner) without having to admit what a dismal failure their Iraq policy is.

But I wouldn't rule out Sistani's remaining influence. He has sent us politely worded warning after warning about conditions in Iraq (as far as I can tell, they don't appear to have been threats but simply observations of what was likely to happen if certain steps weren't taken; but accurate messengers are never popular with people like Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld); we have ignored some of Sistani's warnings and paid attention to some. The point is that Sistani has at times being very accurate about conditions in Iraq. Someone who can read Iraq accurately may still have something to say about its future.

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