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[casi] NYT: Ayatollahs May 'Save the Day'?

New York Times  July 6, 2003
In Iraq's Disorder, the Ayatollahs May Save the Day

[......]... 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

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

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

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

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

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

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