The United States is still haunted by the memory of how the newly-established Islamic Republic of Iran under its revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini interfered in the 1980 US presidential election – and effectively cost Jimmy Carter a second term – by delaying the release of US hostages seized in the American embassy in Tehran until Ronald Reagan’s inauguration.
Today, a public debate is bedeviling the Bush administration over whether the current occupant of the White House helped establish another fundamentalist Shiite regime in the Middle East, this time by fostering Iraq’s first free elections.
America has stumbled before in rushing to promote regime change in a troubled region. The Taliban was fostered to boot the Red Army out of Afghanistan. Later, these fundamentalists became a key factor in al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attacks in New York in Washington and were subsequently booted out themselves in a second regime change in Kabul.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington, new secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, before taking off for Europe and the Middle East last week, instructed aides to commission briefs from academic experts in the United States, Europe and Israel, evaluating the prospects of Iraq turning into a fundamentalist Shiite republic.
On her return to Foggy Bottom, she will find their consensus on at least one issue: there is no chance of a Shiite takeover in Iraq that might generate an alliance with Iran and Syria and threaten Middle East peace and the Sunni Muslim hegemony in the region. They all warn, however, that the situation is in flux and the months or years ahead may hold change.
The experts expanded on several other points, many of which home in on the commonly-held prime factor in all their equations, 75-year-old Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric in Iraq today.
Islam, yes; theocracy, no
They do not see Iraq becoming a theocracy. Still, while Sistani is no Khomeini Mark 2, his perception of the separation of religion and state is far removed from the Western model.
He sees the country’s constitution being framed by representatives of the grand ayatollahs to ascertain Iraq’s Islamic identity. The men of religion will bar secular laws contradicting the Sharia – Islamic law, and make sure religious tradition supercedes personal status provisions such as women’s rights and the division of family property.
This is arguably the end stage of the master plan Sistani set in motion after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. He vocally demanded speedy national elections, egging his followers on to hold mass protests whenever Bush shied away. He accurately predicted a sweeping victory given the Shiite community’s numerical preponderance in the population. Sistani also accurately sized up the political rewards he would reap by pacifying firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. All that was left was to drive home to every Shiite that it was his religious duty to cast his ballot.
He will be just as proactive in keeping his brand of Islam strong in Iraq, even to riding roughshod over rival Sunni and Kurdish ethnic-religious groups who are just as anxious to preserve their respective traditions and conflicting interests.
Backed by America, the Kurds have enjoyed almost full autonomy in northern Iraq since 1991 when after the first Gulf War Saddam Hussein brutally crushed their rebellion.
An agreement in principle signed with the Shiites early last year gave the Kurds near-veto power over Iraq’s key basic laws. The Shiites are constrained from declaring an independent state in Iraq partly by the knowledge that the Kurds would immediately follow suit.
The battle over the constitution has just begun
Therefore, in their reports to Rice, the experts urge Washington in the interests of checks and balance to make sure that the new Iraqi constitution guards the rights of all Iraqi minorities, including the Sunnis, Christians and Kurds, to offset the Shiites numerical weight. They also call for an effort to draft a constitution clearly separating religion and state although this task faces many difficulties.
Sistani will fight for a constitutional measure giving religious law preeminence over secular legislation. Should the Sharia be set aside, Sadr’s radical following stands ready to renew its rebellion.
The academic experts’ evaluations for the US secretary of state point to the “irony of history” in Washington taking advantage of Kurdish or even Sunni voting power to put a damper on Shiite hopes of establishing a quasi-Shiite government in Iraq. At the same time, Iraqi Shiites are not nearly as fervent or radical in their approach to Islam as the hardline ayatollahs of Tehran. And while most Shiites respect Sistani, and some follow Sadr, the average Shiite does not want Iraq to be an Islamic Republic.
But there is still a long way to go to stability and communal equilibrium in Iraq.
A sizeable Saddam loyalist underground will remain active in the months and years ahead to undermine the American presence and US allies in Baghdad. The Kurds may overstep agreed bounds on their autonomy and provoke a backlash from Sunni rivals and Shiite subversives. The followers of Sadr, who want to see the rise of an Islamic republic in Baghdad, carry a pamphlet penned by Sadr’s mentor, Ayatollah Khadim Hussein al-Haeri which scarcely bodes still waters:
“The infidel coalition forces want to build a constitution for our dear Iraq and carry out their infidel agenda through the incumbent government. This is the most dangerous thing for Iraq and Islam. They want to change our identity, habits, morals and Islamic way of life.”
Sistani has apparently been made aware of the recommendations Rice received from the experts her office consulted and the ongoing debate in Washington on Iraq’s future. Tuesday, February 8, he issued a reassuringly moderate statement, saying: “The ayatollah believes the constitution should respect the Islamic cultural identity of the Iraqi people.”