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   1. Shiites Organize to Block U.S. Plan (Hassan)


Message: 1
Date: Mon, 29 Mar 2004 07:43:11 -0800 (PST)
From: Hassan <>
Subject: Shiites Organize to Block U.S. Plan
To: CASI newsclippings <>

Shiites Organize to Block U.S. Plan

Spurred by Sistani, Iraqi Clergy Mobilizes Followers
Against Constitution

By Anthony Shadid

Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 29, 2004; Page A01

BAGHDAD -- With the turban of the clergy and the talk
of a politician, Hashem Awadi, a young Shiite Muslim
cleric, thumbed through papers that described the
latest challenge to Washington's political blueprint
for Iraq.

Here, the gaunt, 38-year-old said, was a leaflet that
enumerated the objections of Grand Ayatollah Ali
Sistani, the country's most powerful cleric, to Iraq's
interim constitution. This, he said, was the letter
the ayatollah sent to the United Nations in protest.
And here, displayed proudly, was the petition
denouncing that constitution in what he said amounted
to a "popular referendum."

"We want to make clear the will of the people," said
Awadi, who heads the Ghadir Foundation, a religious
institute in Baghdad that, by his count, has
distributed as many as 10,000 of the petitions. "The
people are burning."

Awadi, whose speech veers from Islamic law to Western
freedoms, is one of the leaders of a vociferous
grass-roots campaign unleashed by the edict published
by Sistani's office March 8 questioning the legitimacy
of the interim constitution.

In the weeks since, the vast network of Shiite Muslim
mosques, religious centers, foundations and community
organizations that make Sistani Iraq's most
influential figure has led a campaign to amend the
constitution or discard it. Posters have gone up at
universities in Baghdad and elsewhere, leaflets have
circulated among prayer-goers and Sistani's cadres --
from young clerics to devoted laymen -- have gathered
tens of thousands of signatures on the petitions.
Demonstrations are next, they warn.

"This is freedom of expression," Awadi said, thumbing
yellow worry beads. "This is freedom of opinion."

The clergy's campaign is steeped in the religious
symbolism that binds much of the country's Shiite
majority, whose political ascendancy is a defining
feature of postwar Iraq. It turns on a term --
legitimacy -- that is far easier to deny than to
bestow. The campaign signals a willingness to confront
U.S. authorities at a moment when time is short, as
the American administration prepares to formally end
the occupation on June 30 and turn over authority to
an interim Iraqi government.

Sistani's edict was never uttered aloud. The
reclusive, 73-year-old cleric did not deliver it
publicly. But the statement -- six lines penned in the
meticulous handwriting of Sistani's son -- was enough
to seriously imperil a document American and Iraqi
leaders have hailed as a model for the Arab world and
the clergy have denounced as the work of an unelected
body unduly pressured by U.S. officials.

Sistani's followers make clear that their campaign is
not simply driven by the hope of altering the
constitution. In a country where pledges of democracy
are not yet supported by representative institutions,
religion is by far the best-organized force. Its
leadership views the constitution as an opportunity to
mobilize the still unfulfilled potential of the
country's Shiite majority.

"For a long time, we had lost our rights," said Saad
Taher, 40, a community activist and municipal worker,
sitting in a tailor's shop in the religiously mixed
neighborhood of New Baghdad. "We're trying to help the
people to take their rights back."

The room, a dingy second-floor workshop that overlooks
a teeming street market of rickety stalls, is the
headquarters of Taher's Committee of Heavenly Books,
one of an abundance of Shiite community groups that
have sprung up since the fall of Saddam Hussein's
government on April 9. Most have names imbued with
religious imagery, like the Committee of Rescue Ships
or Committee of the Followers of Hussein, Shiite
Islam's most beloved saint. Most are long on devotion
and short on money.

"We're from the people," Taher said. "We're the
children of this neighborhood."

With about 400 members, the committee has worked on
the front lines of the constitutional campaign. Taher
and his co-director, Talal Jaafari, a vendor in the
market outside, meet every day in the workshop with
five or 10 of the most committed.

For the past week, they have gone to universities, to
Shiite community centers known as husseiniyas, to
mosques and door to door with the petitions, which
describe the constitution as illegitimate and list
objections that run from the document's liberal
definition of citizenship to the power of an unelected
government to make lasting decisions. So far, the two
men have filled more than 400 petitions, each with 15
signatures, along with a name, address, occupation and
birth date.

Some were reluctant to sign, fearing political
involvement that, until a year ago, was particularly
dangerous, Taher said.

"But we've overcome our fear," he said, smiling.
"Thank God and praise him."

"We've come to the point where others are scared of
us," a friend, Jassem Qureishi, said, drawing laughs
from the group.

"America has a term: the rebuilding of Iraq," Taher
said, sitting along a wall crowded with religious
portraits and a tailor's tools. "We are rebuilding
ourselves. We want to create a new Iraqi personality.
That's our task. That's not the Americans' task."
Asked about the next step the group plans in the
campaign, Taher answered succinctly.

"We take our instructions from Sheik Sahib," he said.

Lieutenant in Baghdad

Sheik Sahib Abdullah Warwar Qureishi is a wakil, or
religious representative. He is one of about 200 in
Baghdad who answer to Sistani, many of them providing
the organizational power behind the campaign's

Unlike many of the wakils, Qureishi is young, his
bushy beard making him appear older than his 34 years.
But he has spent more than a decade as a seminary
student in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, where
Sistani has his headquarters. His words come slowly
and are often unexpectedly cheerful, in the mentoring
tone of a teacher.

"We refuse the constitution in its entirety and its
details," he said, sitting under three shelves full of
law books.

Qureishi is responsible for a sprawling swath of New
Baghdad known as the Gulf neighborhood, which is
majority Shiite. More than 70,000 people live there,
and the area has 10 husseiniyas and 12 mosques.

Qureishi spends half the week in Najaf, where he
visits Sistani's office daily. On his three nights in
Baghdad, he teaches three one-hour courses to about 37
students who, along with the activists of the
Committee of Heavenly Books, have become the foot
soldiers in the petition campaign.

On this night, six stacks of petitions were laid out
in front of him, spread like a feast.

"For 35 years, Najaf could never lift its head. The
people couldn't breathe," he said, as the ceiling fan
blew the scent of burning incense across the room.
"Now we speak as we like, we worship as we like. What
we have now feels like democracy."

Until late in the night, students and activists
streamed into his small brick house, bordered by three
palm trees, with pools of sewage outside. Each carried
a bundle of petitions. Over the past week, he
estimated, he had gathered at least 6,000 petitions
with 90,000 signatures. Every day or so, he has the
documents scanned onto a computer disc and sent to
Sistani's office in Najaf.

"We had more than 1,000, and it wasn't enough," said
one activist, Qassim Hassan, 42, as he entered the

"If you need a billion, I'll give them to you,"
Qureishi told him.

Kadhim Atshan, a member of the committee, said a third
of the people wanted to sign with pens dipped in their
own blood.

Qureishi shook his head. Sistani, he said, "has
refused people doing this. He said it's disgusting,
and he doesn't accept it."

Sitting together on red carpets, their backs against
pillows along the walls, the men talked about what
they considered the constitution's faults.

The campaign already resembles a movement led by
Sistani against a U.S.-devised plan for Iraq's
transition, announced Nov. 15, calling for regional
caucuses that would choose a transitional government.

A month later, Sistani made his reservations to the
plan public. By February, amid popular opposition, the
U.S. administration was looking for an alternative
that has yet to be decided.

In both campaigns, the question was who would decide
Iraq's political future and under what authority.

Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council, which
negotiated and signed the interim constitution on
March 8, "doesn't represent the majority of the
people," Qureishi said. "They must represent
themselves." He turned the discussion to the U.S.
occupation, as the men listened patiently. "The
coalition forces didn't come for your interests or my
interests," he said, wagging his finger, "not at all."

"The solution is for you to vote, for me to vote, for
him to vote," he said, pointing to those gathered.
"That's the solution."

The enthusiasm grew. At one point, electricity was cut
and the lights went out. Most of the men pulled out
lighters. The conversation never missed a beat. Some
of the youngest of the sheik's followers pleaded for
more direct action. "The shortest distance between two
points is a straight line," said Jawad Rumi, 33. "The
shortest distance from Earth to Heaven is jihad."

Over tea and cigarettes, other men spoke up,
addressing the sheik or their colleagues, and nearly
all seemed to have read the law. One pointed out the
constitution's provision for Iraqis to reclaim
citizenship. Several pointed out that the provision
would allow Iraqi Jews who left for Israel in the
1940s and 1950s to return. "It will let the Israelis
do as they like in Iraq," Jaafari said to the nods of

What about Iraqi armed forces remaining under U.S.
control in the interim? one man asked. Why wasn't the
constitution put to a vote? asked another. Others
objected to a three-member presidency that would allow
a vice president, likely a Sunni Arab or Kurd, to
overrule a presumably Shiite president -- a clause
that U.S. officials and some Iraqi leaders describe as
essential for protecting minority rights.

The sheik spoke up again. From a poster embossed with
red and black type on a blue background, he pointed
out what he said was his biggest objection: a
provision that gives Kurds an effective veto over the
permanent constitution to be written next year.
"This decision was imposed on us," Qureishi said.

'They're Ready to Act'

The poster the sheik read from has gone up in many
parts of Baghdad. It bears a picture of Sistani, with
flowing beard and turban, reading from a book. In
large type, it asks, "What do you know about the Iraqi
State Law for the Transitional Phase?" It was
published by the Najaf-based Murtada Foundation which,
like Awadi's Ghadir Foundation, is among the handful
of institutions that are nominally independent but
under the loose supervision of the offices of Sistani
and other senior ayatollahs.

The literature is ubiquitous -- in husseiniyas and
mosques, on the walls of universities and in markets.
Qureishi, the sheik, had foot-high stacks of the
group's leaflets and interviews, piled next to blank
petitions. At a mosque in a nearby neighborhood,
banners along the walls copied the slogans: "Any law
not ratified by a nationally elected group will not be

Jassim Jazairi, a 35-year-old cleric in a black
turban, runs the branch of the Murtada Foundation on
Baghdad's Palestine Street, one of two in the capital.
On his untidy desk were 170 petitions, marked either
with signatures or with the thumbprints of the
illiterate. Alongside them were copies of an interview
with "a source close to" Sistani, reprinted from the
foundation's magazine, Holy Najaf. Next to those was a
red Koran.

"Even now, when we hold forums and we talk about
[Sistani's] reservations, the people almost respond
with violence," Jazairi said. "They're emotional, and
they're ready to act."

Jazairi predicted that protests would come next, to
force amendments to the constitution. He insisted they
would stay nonviolent -- "peaceful resistance," as he
put it. To him, they were another step in the
politicization of the Shiite community, led by the

"We lost so much over 35 years of repression," he
said. "The fear remains, and it still affects Iraq's
people. We want to restore people's confidence in
themselves. We want them to know they can change the
political situation they face."

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