At the height of the shortage of petrol in Baghdad a month ago people queued in their cars for as long as 18 hours outside petrol stations. One reason for the lack of petrol was that much of it was being stolen by black marketeers.
One day Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the 73-year-old clerical leader of the Iraqi Shiah who has not left his modest house in the holy city of Najaf for a year, sent out an instruction that Shi’ites should not be involved in the petrol black market.
“It shows the enormous influence of Sistani that you could see his edict having an immediate effect on the black market in petrol,” a Shi’ite friend told me, though he added ruefully that Sistani’’s success showed that most of the black market must be controlled by Shi’ites.
In the last two weeks the Shi’ites, some 60 per cent of the Iraqi population, have started to express their frustrations on the street. Tens of thousands of people have marched through the centre of Basra and Baghdad to demand fair elections to select a new Iraqi assembly and government. A yellow flag with a Shi’ite slogan on it now hangs from the top of the monument which replaced the statue of Saddam Hussein famously toppled in Baghdad last year.
It is a critical moment for the US and British venture in Iraq and perhaps their last chance to conclude it without a political disaster. The US had promised under an agreement signed last 15 November with the Iraqi Governing Council, whose members were appointed by the US, to hand over sovereignty to a new Iraqi government on 1 July.
But the indirect elections through 18 regional caucuses for the new Iraqi assembly are a recipe for fraud and manipulation by the Governing Council and the US-run Coalition Provisional Authority. So far debate had focused on the practicality of Ayatollah Sistani’s demand for direct one-man, one- vote election being arranged in time. This has clouded the simple fact that the caucus system–overseen by committees of US appointed officials and politicians long in exile — is so blatantly undemocratic that it is very unlikely to produce a government deemed legitimate by the majority of Iraqis.
Tony Blair’’s office said yesterday that holding direct elections before July would be ‘difficult’ for technical reasons. By this stage it may well be true largely because the US has taken no measures to organise direct elections. The July deadline cannot be moved because it is four months before the US presidential election. The administration wants to give the impression to the voters at home that the American mission in Iraq is near completion.
The US position in Iraq is very much at the mercy of the Grand Ayatollah. If he issues a Fatwa denouncing the caucuses and the assembly they select as illegitimate then no government they choose will last very long. He has also made clear that only a properly elected government will have the authority to negotiate an agreement with the US on how long its troops stay in Iraq.
The Iraqi Shia feel their day has come. Sistani and the clerical establishment have said their ancestors made a mistake in supporting the revolt against the British in 1920. As a result the Sunni Arab community, only some 15 to – 20 per cent of Iraqis, was able to control the country right up to the fall of Saddam Hussein.
This is not quite as menacing to the US as it sounds. Sistani and most of the Shi’ite clergy in Iraq has traditionally disapproved of the attempt to create theocratic state in Iran. They argue that the clergy should not directly participate in politics. Sistani has not denounced the US occupation, though he himself has refused to meet Paul Bremer, the head of the CPA. He has told his followers to talk to the Americans but ‘end every conversation by asking the Americans when they are leaving.’
Part of Sistani’’s influence comes from the fact he is the most influential leader of the largest community in Iraq. But it is also because his views reflect those of so many Iraqis. They were glad to see the back of Saddam Hussein but do not like the American occupation, regardless of whether or not it is exercised directly or through a puppet government.
For a country with such a large army in Iraq the US is in a surprisingly weak position. The guerrilla war in Sunni Muslim areas is not diminishing despite the capture of Saddam Hussein in December. US commanders say the number of incidents is down. This shows they are a little out of touch since American soldiers on the ground quietly admit that they don’t report many of the attacks on them unless they suffer casualties.
Sistani has helped the US so far by ensuring that the guerrilla war does not spread to Shiite areas. He does not want a confrontation with the Americans, but he does intend to influence them. Demonstrations in favor of elections were called off in Najaf and other Shiite cities this week because Sistani felt he had shown the strength of his resolve.
The irony of the present situation is that the US and British governments should be moving heaven and earth hold democratic elections. This would produce an Iraqi assembly and government with real legitimacy with whom they could deal.
Tony Blair and his government should be in the forefront in pushing for what Ali Sistani is demanding. The original justification for Britain going to war was that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them. This belief has now been thoroughly discredited.
A second justification for war was that it was to overthrow the evil monster Saddam Hussein and replace him with a democracy. If the US and Britain now press ahead with manifestly fraudulent indirect elections then the second justification for war will turn out to be as much of a fake as the first.