Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Iraqi Cleric Is Wild Card for Washington

WASHINGTON - The United States is adamant it wants to hand over political control to Iraqis on July 1. The Iraqis are adamant they want to take control then. The big question is how committed Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani is to that day.

The U.S. insistence on the transition date has given the Iraqi cleric enormous leverage as the United States begins a final push toward Iraqi sovereignty.

The most powerful cleric for Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims, al-Sistani has already stepped into Iraq's political process at three key junctures. Each time, he forced the U.S.-led coalition now running Iraq to revise or delay its plans.

American officials appear leery of challenging him openly, but haven't been able to talk to him directly, either.

The July 1 deadline could be the most critical moment yet. Any significant delay could raise doubts about the U.S. commitment to restoring Iraqi control, possibly fueling anti-American violence. The Bush administration also wants a peaceful transition well before the U.S. presidential election.

With al-Sistani's support, the transition could go smoothly. But it could be derailed if he's dissatisfied.

Al-Sistani may choose to use that leverage carefully. Iraqis want to regain control of their country and al-Sistani, who has proven to be pragmatic and politically astute, may not want to be seen as standing in the way.

U.S. officials say they are not worried about him impeding the handover. But they do recognize his importance.

"He needs to be consulted and that's what we're trying to do," said a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "I wouldn't really put it in the category of a problem. He's one of the people that we know we need to work with."

But working with al-Sistani isn't easy. He refuses to meet with U.S. officials. And he has frustrated Americans by not publicly expressing his views on key issues until after decisions have been made.

Marina Ottaway, a post-conflict reconstruction specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said al-Sistani "is increasing the uncertainty of a process that was uncertain to begin with."

U.S. officials "do not challenge him openly because they are afraid he will issue a fatwa (edict) telling Shiites to resist the occupation," she said.

Some Americans may find it unsettling to watch the United States nervously await the edicts of a reclusive Iranian-born Shiite cleric. It doesn't help that al-Sistani, with his black eyebrows, white beard and black turban, bears a resemblance to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's late revolutionary leader.

But al-Sistani is no Khomeini. He shuns a direct involvement in politics. He has accepted a temporary U.S. occupation as a step toward building a democracy that would likely favor Shiites, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's population.

Al-Sistani "might well be America's biggest ally in Iraq," said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director of the International Crisis Group, a think tank based in Belgium.

"He has held the Shiites at bay," he said. "He has told them not to attack the Americans with arms, or go into violent opposition. He has restrained the Shiites whenever the Shiites were attacked in the suicide bombings.

"Very few Shiite cleric leaders could have done that," Hiltermann said.

Al-Sistani's role in sidetracking U.S. plans has been difficult to characterize.

Danielle Pletka, a Middle East analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said, "Either he is a genuine, religious Iraqi patriot — of Iranian origin — or he is a very shrewd political operator. Or perhaps he's both."

Every time al-Sistani has become involved, Pletka said, "You say to yourself, `Who is this pain?' And in every aftermath you look back and say he really didn't play a pernicious role. It's actually been interesting. He's never pushed too far."

Al-Sistani has met with U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, and U.S. officials hope the United Nations will help form the interim government to run Iraq until elections are held.

Iraqis, though, have not invited Brahimi's team to return. Some Shiites on the Iraqi Governing Council see the team as representing U.S. interests, but Brahimi said Tuesday that al-Sistani has informed the United Nations that he wants it to play a role.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Iraq Constitution Faces Tough Critics

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraq's interim constitution faces powerful critics: two influential ayatollahs, the leader of a Shiite party and other Iraqis who dismiss it as the work of the United States and its Iraqi allies.

The criticism again places post-Saddam Hussein Iraq at a crossroads — whether to allow sectarian politics to prevail and put the nation's unity at risk, or close ranks and continue toward democratic rule.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the most influential cleric for Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, initiated the latest political wrangling. His objections to the interim charter prompted his supporters on the 25-seat Governing Council to refuse to sign it as scheduled March 5.

Citing a pressing need to safeguard national unity and push forward the political process, they signed Monday, but made clear they have reservations about parts of the document and their wish to change them.

Al-Sistani hardened his opposition to the document Monday. On Tuesday, another grand ayatollah, Mohammed Taqi al-Modaresi, warned of civil war or the dismemberment of Iraq because of the charter's adoption of a federal system of government. Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the largest Shiite political party, said the document encroached on the powers of a future parliament.

Many Iraqis appear divided on the constitution, which for the first time guarantees their freedom and human rights. Some have celebrated its adoption, some rejected it, and some said they didn't know its contents.

"I did not understand the interim constitution. Most people don't," said Amir Ali, a university official in Baghdad. "It was America who wrote the constitution. It was America who nominated those to write it."

In a fatwa, or religious edict, issued Monday, al-Sistani said the interim charter would only gain legitimacy if adopted by an elected body. He described the document as an "obstacle" to Iraq's permanent constitution, which will be drafted by a parliament elected by Jan. 31, 2005, and put to a referendum later in the year.

In an unusually blunt statement, al-Modaresi, who lives in the holy city of Karbala, said clauses pertaining to federalism in the charter were "a time bomb that will lead to a civil war in Iraq." Referring to the 14-year-old self-rule enjoyed by Kurds in three northern provinces, he said: "This federalism will end up breaking up Iraq and lead to a civil war."

Al-Hakim, a Governing Council member and leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said Iraqi society was cohesive enough to prevent civil war, but added: "Our main problem lies with the imposition of restrictions set by an unelected body on an elected body.

"No one believes that this document reflects perfection or embodies the ambitions of everyone," he said.

Like fellow Shiite politicians, al-Hakim tried to allay fears that Shiites wanted to use their newfound powers to dominate Iraq after decades of oppression at the hands of the Sunni Arab minority. He and other Shiites on the council, he said, would try to reach a consensus on amending the clauses in question.

Conciliatory rhetoric by Shiite leaders does little to conceal the fierce competition between the nation's three main groups — Kurds, Shiites and Sunni Arabs — to gain leverage ahead of the June 30 transfer of power to Iraqis by the U.S.-led coalition. At stake is the Shiites' cherished dream of political power, the Kurds' desire to formalize self-rule in their areas, and the Sunni Arabs' struggle to stay politically relevant without Saddam's patronage.

There are two clauses in dispute, and both suggest sectarian concerns.

The first stipulates that if two-thirds of voters in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces reject a permanent constitution to be drafted by an elected parliament next year, then the document cannot be adopted, parliament will be dissolved, and a general election will be held. Suggested by the Kurds and supported by the coalition, the clause protects Kurds against any encroachment on their self-rule in a permanent constitution drafted by a parliament dominated by the Shiites.

Sunni Arabs also see it as a safety valve against Shiite domination.

Kurds and Sunni Arabs are believed to make up 30 percent to 40 percent of Iraq's 25 million people; Shiites are widely believed to make up 60 percent.

Shiite politicians say the clause gives 10 percent of Iraqis the power to block the will of the rest and could result in instability if one draft after another are rejected.

The other disputed clause prohibits any changes in the interim constitution without the approval of three-fourths of the elected parliament and the consensus of the proposed president and his two deputies. Shiites view it as an attempt by an unelected body — the Governing Council — to bind an elected assembly, which they are likely to dominate.

Songul Chabook, a Sunni and the only representative of Iraq's ethnic Turks on the Shiite-dominated Governing Council, fueled tensions Tuesday when she cast doubt on the widely held belief that Shiites were a majority in Iraq. She argued that an "honest and clean" census will find that Sunnis — Arabs and Kurds — now make up more than half the population.

"I hope that we will not have a Shiite majority when we have an elected parliament," she said in an interview. "Let us not repeat what we have in the Governing Council. I hope that Iraqis will elect deputies in the next parliament on merit so that its decisions will be respected."

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Attacks Expose Divisions in Pakistan, Iraq

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Attacks on Shiite Muslims in Pakistan and Iraq killed at least 193 people and exposed the deep fissures that have opened in two key battlegrounds in the U.S.-led war on terror.

Tuesday's carnage — while not necessarily linked — apparently was carried out by militants marching to the same anti-American drumbeat and feeding off sectarian tensions that have been around for centuries.

"The terrorist attacks in both these places are by people who follow the same philosophy of religious extremism," said Mehdi Hassan, a political analyst and retired professor from Punjab University in Lahore. "Pakistan and Iraq have one thing in common — and that is the policies of the United States and the resentment of those policies."

There have been no claims of responsibility in either country for the attacks on one of the holiest days on the Shiite calendar, but the killings bore a similar pattern. In the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, three suicide bombers detonated explosives at the Kazimiya shrine, killing 65 and wounding 200. In the holy city of Karbala in southern Iraq, at least one suicide attacker blew himself up and preset explosives detonated, killing 85 and wounding over 200.

Less than two hours later, at least three attackers in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta opened fire and hurled grenades at a procession of Shiite worshippers, then blew themselves up as troops moved in. Two attackers died and the other was in custody in critical condition. At least 43 people were killed, including the attackers.

Tuesday was Ashoura, the climax of the 10-day festival marking the killing of the 7th-century Shiite saint Imam Hussein, which is commemorated across the Muslim world and often sparks bloodshed.

U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, couldn't rule out any connections among the attacks in Iraq and Pakistan, and are looking into what — if any — links there may be. At this point, one official said, there isn't any evidence indicating the attacks were coordinated.

Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said there was no evidence to indicate the Iraq and Pakistan attacks were linked.

But others said the attacks bore the hallmarks of international terror.

"What happened in Quetta, this was a massive operation, and it would have required Arab elements, maybe even al-Qaida," Sen. Nisar Memon of the ruling PML-Q party told The Associated Press. "I think they would like to destabilize the country, particularly President (Pervez) Musharraf."

In Iraq, U.S. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt identified Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an al-Qaida-linked Jordanian militant who trained with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, as a chief suspect in the attacks there, and said the aim was to spark a Sunni-Shiite civil war.

Since ousting President Saddam Hussein, U.S. forces have struggled to put down a fierce insurgency and bring order to Iraq. On Tuesday, many Iraqis took their venom out on American forces, accusing them of orchestrating the bloodshed or at least failing to provide the security to prevent it.

Sectarian violence is nothing new in Pakistan, but the level of attacks on Shiites, minority Christians and foreigners has been striking since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

Though no al-Qaida nexus has been traced to the Quetta attack, past sectarian violence in the restive city has been linked to bin Laden's terror network.

Daud Badini, a leading suspect in a July 2003 attack that killed 50 Shiite worshippers in Quetta, was a brother-in-law of Ramzi Yousef, who is serving a life term in the United States for the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. Badini remains at large, but four other suspects from the outlawed Pakistani Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have been jailed for 2003 killings in Quetta.

Allama Mahdi Najfi, the chief Shiite Muslim cleric in Quetta, blamed pro-Taliban and al-Qaida militants within Pakistan's main Sunni extremist organizations — Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi — for Tuesday's attack.

"We know that pro-Taliban and al-Qaida people were involved in previous terrorist attacks against our people," he told AP. "We are certain that the same people did it today."

Afghan and U.S. officials have also long suspected the ousted Taliban regime of using Quetta as a base for launching attacks inside Afghanistan. U.S., Afghan and Pakistani authorities believe bin Laden and his chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, are likely hiding out along the mountainous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan and have recently stepped up their efforts to find them.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Musharraf has been a staunch ally of the United States. He has also become a prime target of extremist groups, narrowly escaping two assassination attempts in December.

Musharraf's decision to crack down on al-Qaida and turn his back on his former Taliban allies has polarized this Islamic nation of 150 million. Hassan said the president's insistence on toeing the U.S. line is undermining his rule in the eyes of even more moderate Pakistanis.

"American forces have occupied Iraq against the wishes of the Iraqi people, and in Pakistan, the leaders have adopted pro-U.S. policies that are resented," he said. "The government is losing credibility day-by-day."

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