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Panic Room

AMERICA’S ROOM TO maneuver in Iraq seems to be narrowing by the day. In the latest unraveling of expectations, the Bush team’s plans for postwar Iraq have been hijacked by a cleric who hasn’t left his house in six years. Emissaries of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani made clear last week that Iraq’s senior Shia cleric has no use for the phased transition to Iraqi self-rule envisioned by the Bush administration, preferring direct elections instead. And, in Washington, which had planned for caucuses controlled by the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Iraqi Governing Council, the spectacle of thousands of angry Shia in the streets has concentrated the mind. President Bush last week summoned L. Paul Bremer back to the United States, administration officials who once dreamed of marginalizing the United Nations implored Kofi Annan to rescue them, and the Bush team let it be known that nearly every facet of its transition plan was open to negotiation.

Some of the White House’s pragmatic instincts are correct. The priority in Iraq should be creating an electoral system--whatever form it takes—that enjoys legitimacy with most Iraqis while also protecting minority rights. Unfortunately, because it doesn’t want Iraq’s elections to interfere with America’s elections, the White House refuses to renegotiate the one part of the transition plan—the June deadline for transferring sovereignty—that it must in order to provide Iraq with a democratic future.

For the U.S. enterprise in Iraq, Sistani’s challenge may turn out to be the gravest. The cleric’s words amount to law for many Shia, who comprise 60 percent of the country’s population. He wishes to make Iraq an Islamic state--not a theocracy in the image of neighboring Iran, but not a liberal democracy, either. Some admiring American officials have divined “moderation” in his past and present proclamations. And it is true that Sistani has admonished his supporters to refrain from further demonstrations, at least for the time being. It is also true that his lieutenants claim that, if the United Nations declares elections unfeasible in the short term, he will abide by their verdict. But the fact is, the United States knows little about this reclusive cleric.

We do know, however, that he has a valid complaint. Sistani’s demand for direct elections is at least partly rooted in the justifiable fear that Iraq’s long-disenfranchised Shia will be disenfranchised yet again, this time at the hands of the United States. Indeed, administration officials concede that one of the purposes of their original transition plan was to preserve the influence of Washington’s handpicked Iraqi politicians. So the White House may have to consider making concessions. After all, the argument over elections versus caucuses is not an argument over first principles. Washington shouldn’t insist on a particular form of voting but rather that Iraqis gain a constitution that contains a bill of rights, the outlines of a federal governing structure, mechanisms to ensure Iraq’s first election is not its last, and protections for minorities. Local referenda rather than caucuses, extended deadlines, the U.N.’s assessment on the feasibility of elections now--all these measures could bridge the gap between Sistani and Washington. Thwarting the principle of consent in the face of an aggrieved majority, however, carries great risks.

But considering direct elections does not mean holding elections by June. Bremer himself has said that it would be impossible to organize elections by then, and other administration officials have admitted that even holding caucuses may be unfeasible. Still, the White House is unwilling to budge from its June fetish. Some administration officials have long believed, against all evidence, that Iraq could quickly govern itself, and the administration’s hopelessly rosy prewar planning stemmed partly from this fiction. Thus the insufficient numbers of troops left behind in Iraq, America’s inability to quash violence in the Sunni triangle, and, consequently, the diminishment of U.S. authority. All these things have cleared the way for the challenge from the ayatollah.

Now, the imperatives of 2004 dovetail with the Bush team’s long-held beliefs: The United States must transfer sovereignty to Iraqis well before November’s presidential elections. As for Sistani, he has said that, if the United Nations decides elections cannot be held as early as June, he would wait.We should, too. Ignoring the will of a restive majority could lead to the kind of civil strife that would make last week’s Baghdad demonstrations look like a peace march. 

This article appeared in the February 9, 2004 issue of the magazine.