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New York Times July 6, 2003 In Iraq's Disorder, the Ayatollahs May Save the Day By PATRICK E. TYLER http://tinyurl.com/g9cp [......]... So far, though, the Bush administration seems ambivalent about how close to get to some Shiite leaders, particularly clerics who have had ties to Iran. The concept of Shiite rule terrifies some administration officials. But other senior officials are pointing out the differences between Iraq's Shiites and their co-religionists in Iran. Besides the revulsion in Iraq over the excesses of the Iranian revolution, there is also a desire among Iraq's Shiites to reach a condominium with the minority Sunnis, Kurds and Turkmen. A leading administration hawk, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, told a gathering of Shiites that the "tyrannical" portrayal of them, projected by Iran, represents a "false image of Shiites." In a speech in late May, Mr. Wolfowitz recalled that in 1991, when he traveled to the Persian Gulf with James A. Baker III, who was then secretary of state, some people on the plane seemed "to think it would be worse to have a Shiite government in Baghdad than to have Saddam Hussein." Mr. Wolfowitz asserts that he was not among the Shiite bashers, and is not now. Given his remarks, it is hard to imagine that the Bush administration has not considered that an ayatollah might be Iraq's first postwar leader. It could take some getting used to and, Mr. Wolfowitz suggested, the West will have to guard against the bigotry that clouds perceptions of Shiites. A year ago, Bush aides were courting a prominent Shiite leader, Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim; the aim was to unite a diverse Iraqi opposition coalition and help make the case for war against Mr. Hussein. But as soon as the worst of the combat ended in April, Ayatollah Hakim's long exile in Iran put him under suspicion as an agent of Tehran. His Badr Brigade militia had been trained and equipped by Iran, and American generals disarmed it and excluded it from cooperation with allied forces, even as Kurdish militias in northern Iraq were treated as allies. Yet Ayatollah Hakim has been a force of moderation since he returned from exile and encamped at Najaf. There he has aligned himself with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who is Iranian-born and a senior cleric within Shiite Islam. Far from preaching hate or revolution, both clerics have called for a swift democratic transition as the way to end American dominion. Ayatollah Hakim's brother sits on the seven-member leadership council of the former Iraqi opposition, alongside pro-American Kurds and secular Shiites. Two decades ago, the leader of Iran's revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, called for clerical supervision of politics and society. Today, in contrast, Iraq's top clerics say they want only a recognition of Muslim character under a constitution guaranteeing democracy and tolerance. As recently as April, the Shiite political mood wasn't so benign. Shortly after American troops routed Iraqi troops in the south, Sheik Abdel Majid al-Khoei returned from exile to Najaf and was set upon by a mob, and killed. This was seen as an ominous portent that perhaps Iraq's Shiites were not ready for civil society. But it now appears that the attack was carried out by incendiary elements who may have misunderstood the sheik's motives in returning. Are the Shiite leaders sincere? Skeptics point out that Ayatollah Khomeini sounded like a moderate during his exile days in Paris. And for many Shiites, Ayatollah Khomeini's power still inspires a network of young Iraqi firebrands for an Islamic state. For now, Washington remains wary of Shiite rule, and the leading clerics of Iraq remain similarly wary of American and British domination in rebuilding Iraq. Last month, Grand Ayatollah Sistani sent a private message to L. Paul Bremer III, the American occupation administrator, admonishing him that he was making mistakes in how he was treating Shiites, especially in Najaf where the American-appointed governor was accused of running a corrupt and unjust administration. It appears that Mr. Bremer got the message. The governor was arrested last week. But Mr. Bremer also blocked Najaf's attempt to vote the alleged scoundrel out of office, arguing that elections are premature. Premature for whom, some Iraqis ask. Grand Ayatollah Sistani has issued a fatwa, or religious decree, against allowing Mr. Bremer to appoint the Iraqis who will draft a new constitution. Rather, the cleric urged Iraqis to demand general elections to select the constitution's framers. Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi National Congress leader and a secular Shiite contender to lead Iraq, went to see the grand ayatollah last week and seemed to endorse the election plan. Mr. Bremer has resisted on grounds that Iraq won't be ready for elections until it has had a census and an electoral law. But dissent is growing, and is only a symptom of the unease between the occupation authority and the Shiites. The question for President Bush is whether he could ever accept an ayatollah as an ally. He may have to and, in any case, it will be up to the raqis. -- Patrick Tyler, NYT _______________________________________________ Sent via the discussion list of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq. To unsubscribe, visit http://lists.casi.org.uk/mailman/listinfo/casi-discuss To contact the list manager, email email@example.com All postings are archived on CASI's website: http://www.casi.org.uk