Odds on a Shiite Clerical-Dominated Regime Rising in Baghdad

“It is the duty of every Muslim believer to vote in an election under any circumstances.”

This religious decree was published this week by two authoritative Shiite Muslim figures: Ayatollah Qazem Khiary of the Iranian spiritual center of Qom and Ayatollah Sadeq Shirazi of the Iraqi holy town of Najef. It enjoins the Shiite faithful to cast their ballots even if the voting station is in a war zone or, more typically in Iraq, targeted for terrorist attack.

This decree supports the strategy employed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to bring out the Shiite masses for the January general election and so seize a majority in the Iraqi National Assembly.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Shiite experts describe Ayatollah Khiary as the primary religious guide of the Iraqi radical cleric Moqtada Sadr. His edict is therefore tantamount to a directive to Sadr and his followers to go out and vote.

A massive Shiite turnout in the forthcoming general election will have five important results:

  1. The government elected in Baghdad will be dominated by a Shiite power center – and not necessarily the party led by interim prime minister Iyad Allawi who is a Shiite but a secular one.

  2. Sunni Arabs and Kurds will try and diminish their dependence on a central Shiite-dominated administration and may go all the way to complete disengagement.

  3. Iraq will become the second largest Middle East country after Iran to be ruled by Shiites. Its emergence would have the potential for sparking major political and security upheavals in regional countries with large Shiite minorities like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Lebanon.

  4. A Shiite-dominated regime in Baghdad will provide Washington with a corridor for indirect dialogue – or confrontation – with the hardline rulers of Tehran through the ayatollahs of Najef and Qom.

  5. A similar window will open for US interchanges with the Lebanese Hizballah in Lebanon, which relies on Sheikh Hassan Fadlallah for spiritual guidance. Fadlallah is an ardent follower of Sistani and the leading ayatollahs of Najef and Karbala.

By setting up a large Shiite umbrella bloc, Sistani places prime minister Allawi and the Shiite members of his cabinet in a quandary. They can hardly campaign against the Sistani bloc at the head of competing lists and may be forced to seek integration in the bloc’s local slates. For placement at the top, the ayatollahs will certainly exact a high political price.

The Kurds of northern Iraq are trying to counter the Shiite initiative in the south by creating a broad Sunni-Kurdish alliance together with seven small Sunni parties. They hope that the Sunni clerics who ordered their followers to boycott the lections will decide after all to block the Shiite ascent by telling them to cast their votes indirectly and gain a presence in the new legislature through their support for the Kurdish-Sunni bloc.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iraqi sources report that this maneuver has run into the major obstacle of a serious dispute in Kirkuk; the Sunni dwellers Saddam Hussein transplanted in the town are being driven out by the Kurds they displaced.

Members of the two leading Kurdish factions led by Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani are beginning to push for an outright Kurdish boycott of the general election. They claim that the Shiites are anyway assured of sweeping the elections and winning a majority in parliament by sheer numbers. The Kurds would therefore be more usefully employed in building up their own ruling and parliamentary institutions and moving farther on the road from partial autonomy to full independence.

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