The New Iraq Desperately Needs Federalism The troublesome, vote-loving ayatollah: America is getting more international help in its quest to build a peaceful, democratic Iraq but, ironically, its plans are under threat because the spiritual leader of the country’s Shia majority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is demanding fully democratic elections.
Iraq could do a lot worse — much worse — than modeling itself after the United States. A federation with dual sovereignty shared between states, or provinces, and a central government would go a long way towards protecting the different sects within Iraq. A Constitution that guarantees equal protection of the law — regardless of province — and provides standard rules for commerce across provinces would likewise bind them together by commerce.

That’s why having elections right away could be a problem. The Shiites are in the majority and have been oppressed for decades. They could easily try to impose their version of Islam on the whole of Iraq, all done in the name of “democracy”. I suppose this would an improvement over Saddam’s rule, but it would still be tyranny, just tyranny of the majority. We should be aiming higher, especially if Iraq is to be a model for the Middle East.

AMERICA’S proconsul in Iraq, Paul Bremer, was due to meet President George Bush in Washington on Friday January 16th, to try to salvage their plan to give Iraqis their sovereignty back by the end of June. The plan is in danger of collapse because Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shia Muslim cleric, insists there should be proper elections to choose the members of an interim national assembly that will select a new, provisional government. America insists it would be impossible to organise such a nationwide vote without delaying the handover of power. Instead it proposes that assembly members be chosen by local “caucuses”, in each Iraqi province. The caucuses’ members would in turn largely be selected by the Governing Council, a group of Iraqis appointed by America, who have already been given some restricted powers.

Considering Mr Bush’s avowed desire to build a strong democracy in Iraq that would set a positive example for the rest of the Middle East, he ought to have been heart-warmed at the sight of tens of thousands of Shias chanting “Yes, yes to elections!” as they protested in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Thursday. But they were also chanting “No to America!”, and their demonstration was a manifestation of Mr Sistani’s power to whip up strong opposition among Shias — who are an estimated 60% of Iraq’s 25m population. Though he is Iranian-born and speaks Arabic with a heavy Persian accent, Mr Sistani commands strong support from Iraqi Shias and could cause serious trouble if his demands are not met.

Mr Sistani and his people fear that the caucuses will be rigged to try to exclude the Shias from power, as they were under Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Muslim regime. This week, the ayatollah issued a fatwa (religious decree) that “every Iraqi must have the right to vote”. His aides say that unless direct elections are held, he may issue another, tougher decree which would turn the Shias — hitherto largely supporters of the American-led invasion — into opponents, resisting America’s presence alongside the remnants of Saddam’s forces. If so, hopes for an orderly handover of power would be shattered. The ayatollah has refused to meet Mr Bremer so he has been relying on the Governing Council to try to talk the cleric into a compromise.


In the meantime, it remains unclear if Iraq can hold together and become a peaceful, liberal democracy in which no group subjugates any other. Long the outpost of one empire or another, the country had little chance to develop a sense of nationhood before Saddam came along. During his long and brutal dictatorship the Shias were suppressed and the Kurds brutalised, and the country’s nascent political institutions were destroyed.

This is the wreckage upon which America now proposes to erect a beacon of hope for the Arab world. It will be a very tough, though not impossible, task.

We have a very large and delicate task in front of us. The only comfort in all of this is that we are the only nation capable of this task.

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