Theocracy Now: What Will the Shia Parties Want Once They Have Power in Iraq? Exactly What America Doesn't Want

By Cole, Juan | The American Prospect, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Theocracy Now: What Will the Shia Parties Want Once They Have Power in Iraq? Exactly What America Doesn't Want


Cole, Juan, The American Prospect


NOT SINCE THE ISLAMIC REVOLUTION OF 1979 has the Middle East witnessed a political upheaval of the magnitude of the Iraqi election held on January 30. The Shia majority has now come decisively to power in the new parliament, and it may make the Kurds its junior partner. The core of the new government consists of two old-time revolutionary Shia parties now somewhat mellowed, the Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which will pursue the "Islamization" of formerly secular Iraq (they have not mellowed that much).

The U.S. media coverage concentrated on the magical moment in which Iraqis braved mortar shells and car bombs to vote. But few Americans realized that, in fact, the Bush administration had tried hard to avoid having anything like one-person, one-vote elections in Iraq. It had tried handing the country over to expatriate politicians with little local support, installing an American administrator to rule by fiat, and persuading Iraqis to allow U.S.-installed provincial council members to elect the parliament.

Instead, the demand for free elections was led by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq's 16 million Shiites. When the White House initially rejected his demand, al-Sistani brought tens of thousands of protesters into the streets in January of 2004, convincing the Bush administration to acquiesce in general elections, though it managed to postpone them until the following year. In the meantime, al-Sistani--a native of Iran who had come to Najaf in 1951--and his advisers looked at the electoral system installed by the Americans and saw that if they could create a united coalition of the Shia religious parties, they might dominate the parliament. Shia comprise 65 percent of the Iraqi population, and most venerate al-Sistani. He appointed a six-man committee to negotiate with parties such as the Dawa and the SCIRI. In the end, 11 such parties agreed to run together on a single list, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA). Most of these religious parties favor political Islam. The grand ayatollah openly "blessed" the UIA, lending his vast moral authority to this list, which used his image in its campaign advertisements.

FOR MANY AMERICAN COMMENTATORS, THE ELECTIONS were a vindication of Bush administration policies and a demonstration that Iraqis wanted U.S. tutelage on democracy. In fact, many Iraqi Shia said they voted in large part because of their fear of the hellfire with which their clergymen threatened them if they did not come out to the polls. Other voters were convinced that only an elected government would have the legitimacy to demand that U.S. troops depart the country. A Zogby International opinion poll, taken days before the election, showed that 69 percent of Shia and 82 percent of Sunni Arabs favored either an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces or a withdrawal soon after the elections. The Iraqi public not only objects to being militarily occupied as a matter of principle but also entertains real fears that a continued U.S. presence will bring them to ruin. Only the Kurdish minority begs to differ. That the poll predicted voting behavior so well lends credence to the undertone of strident anti-Americanism it found in Iraq. Somehow, a figure of 72-percent turnout was circulated to the U.S. press, despite the obvious fact that on election day, the electoral commission could have had no idea what the turnout was. The commission quickly revised the estimated turnout down to more like 57 percent.

Early analysis of election returns suggested that the VIA might receive as many as half the seats in the 275-member parliament. The first task of the new parliament will be to elect a president and two vice presidents, which will require a two-thirds majority. The UIA can block any attempt to form a government without it, assuming its constituent parties stand together. The Shia religious coalition will, however, also need at least one partner in the parliament to form a government. …

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