November 09, 2004

Shia rules

Since it looks like highly religious Shiite parties are all set to dominate the January elections in Iraq, and since secular parties like Allawi's Iraqi National Accord are on their way out, it's worth asking what steps the U.S. needs to take to make the forthcoming negotiations over the constitution work. As Marina Ottaway pointed out yesterday, it does no good to try for us to manipulate elections and enthrone Allawi in his permanent "state of emergency." But Ottaway perhaps underestimates (and I've gotten this sense from talking to her as well) just how dangerous the Shiite parties may be for the future of Iraq. After all, they want a strong centralized government that makes sharia the law of the land, they all (rightly) feel like they've been martyred for generations, and they're not going to be very sympathetic to Kurdish claims for independence or Sunni claims for enfranchisement. So what then?

The obvious step, I think, is to get the UN involved in constitutional negotiations. Have a neutral broker—Lakhdar Brahimi, anyone?—help facilitate discussion among all the different groups, so that the Sunnis feel empowered, the Kurds don't feel threatened, and the Shiites are relatively happy. Now the only way to get the UN in is to convince the Shiites that we have no long-term designs on Iraq, and that the UN really is an honest broker. John Kerry was willing and able to do this. Will Bush? Can Bush? One hopes so. Is this a realistic option? I think so. Ultimately, Ayatollah Ali Sistani will be the guy who needs to invite the UN in. Some might say that he would never permit international oversight, especially when the Shiites are finally getting their big chance at ruling. But I disagree. Surely Sistani can be made to realize that no Shiite-dominated government will ever defend itself against both the Sunni insurgency (which will presumably still be around in January) and the Kurdish peshmerga. If the UN can get involved as a genuine "honest broker", I think Sistani would have to bite.

Now would these negotiations be successful? Maybe. It's worth noting that the Shiite parties might be far more tolerant and flexible than I give them credit for. Obviously some hardliners like Moqtada al-Sadr are demanding that a faqih (or jurist) be put in charge of the country, as is the case in Iran, which would clearly be unpalatable to both the Kurds and secular Arabs (for obvious reasons) as well as the Sunnis (who have, shall we say, quite different ideas of jurisprudence—imagine putting Roy Moore in charge of California). But I was reading up on the major Shiite parties the other day, and came across this encouraging recent quote from a senior al-Dawaa official:
"[al-Dawaa] shall accept everything that the public will accept. Even if they choose a perfectly non-Islamic regime. If they do not choose Islam, this means that they are not prepared for it. If Islam is imposed, it will become an Islamic dictatorship and this would alienate the public."
That, I think, is promising. Of course, Dawaa is on balance considerably more flexible than the other Shiite parties—probably because they've had so many major defections over the years—but still, it's a good sign. On the other hand, Dawaa is also notoriously fractious, and it's far from clear that their "vision" of Iraq would ever become the dominant one. (On the other other hand, they are led by the most popular Shiite politician in the country, Ibrahim al-Jafaari, so maybe that counts for something.)
-- Brad Plumer 1:13 AM || ||