December 15, 2003


A Difficult Marriage: How Iraqi Shiites could save the presidency of George W. Bush. (Reuel Marc Gerecht, 12/22/2003, Weely Standard)

EVER SINCE 1979, Shiite Muslim clerics have scared Americans. The trepidation is, of course, understandable. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini energized a generation of Islamic radicals. His theocratic revolution in Iran held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. His disciples directed and incited lethal attacks against the United States. The slaughter of U.S. soldiers in Beirut in 1983 and at Khobar in Saudi Arabia in 1996 were inspirational for Osama bin Laden and other Sunni holy warriors who have promised victory through terrorism.

Far more often than their Sunni Muslim counterparts, Shiite clerics are charismatic. Their long, arduous legal education, which builds a self-confident, serious elite, and their historic position between ruler and ruled have often earned them the respect of common man and king. Shiite clerics have been powers to be reckoned with--complimented, appeased, or squashed--in great part because their authority has been popularly based. In an autocratic Muslim world, they have, more often than not, been defenders of decency. The greatest strength of the Muslim community has always been its secure and ordered home, and the clergy has been its redoubtable guardian. Even the most irreligious Shiites can revere these men because they are vivid, stubborn repositories of the wisdom, vicissitudes, and pride of an often abused and maligned community.

Shiism teaches that individual men, through their determination, sacrifice, and suffering, shape history. The Prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein, the father of all Muslim martyrs, did not flee certain death on the plains of Karbala in southern Iraq because his cause was just. His end, even more than the unlucky life of his father, the Caliph Ali, has become the baptismal font of the Shiite identity. Like Christians, Shiites are pretty sure that redemption will not come in this life. Their clerics often see themselves in a continuing passion play of good versus evil. They have stood between tyrants and the oppressed, between domineering Sunnis and belittled Shiites, and, not infrequently, between threatening foreigners and besieged Muslims. Though in modern times the Shiite clergy have become a diverse lot--progressives, traditionalists, revolutionaries, and reactionaries--they are similar in their continuing firm belief that the clergy has a historic duty to defend the flock. Guided by the Holy Law, nationalism, Marx, or John Locke, they see themselves as a vanguard for and against change. [...]

Hand-picked provincial officials and self-selecting local "notables" can't possibly have the traction of would-be politicians constantly pressing the flesh. Don't we want the Iraqis to get excited about determining their own destiny? Don't we want this sooner, not later? Shouldn't we find out sooner, not later, whether the Arab Sunnis as a group want to participate in a democratic process? Ditto for the Kurds? Does the administration really think that six months down the road the violence in the Sunni belt is going to diminish? That holding peaceful elections will indeed be any easier then than now? Are we going to allow Sunni reactionaries and foreign jihadists to hold hostage national elections?

And suppose the Sunni insurgents take the war south into the Shiite zone. Remember the bombs of August when Washington and Baghdad panicked, fearing the two-front nightmare scenario had arrived? Isn't it a better idea to have the Shiites fully on board, committed to participatory democracy? Do we want to see bombs going off in Najaf, Karbala, or Hilla and an increasing number of Shiites arguing that the Americans, who deny them democracy, also deny them security? Shouldn't we assume a worst-case scenario, that we've got an incipient Sunni insurrection on our hands? Don't we want to see whether the Sunnis will go to the ballot booth? If they do, won't they be more inclined to join us in the arduous and ugly counterinsurgency campaign to root out the guerrillas-cum-terrorists? Don't we want the Shiites and the Kurds to back us and themselves morally through the ballot box for the difficult and bloody campaign that may lie ahead?

At present, we still have Ali Sistani on our side. The old man is a product of the most politically skeptical and cautious grand ayatollahs of the last 50 years, Sayyid Abu'l-Qasim Kho'i and Hajj Hosayn Borujerdi. Sistani's fatwas on elections and his pithy commentary on the role of Islam in society have been consistently moderate. The absence of Islamically loaded language in his political commentary is indeed striking. And grand ayatollahs are as they appear: They are not masters of deception (as are others in the Shiite tradition). Their minds and manners evolve openly over decades.

Does this moderation mean that Sistani believes in a secular society, with a firm wall between religion and state? Certainly not. But he and his clerical lieutenants clearly understand how combustible Iraq is. They know that Shiites, let alone Arab Sunnis and Kurds, are a variegated lot. Sistani's followers have been explicit in their disapproval of the clerical dictatorship in neighboring Iran. They don't like clerics intertwined with politics. Sistani and his men have so far made it clear that they believe the commonweal, not a cleric interpreting the holy law, holds ultimate political power. The Sistani crowd is certainly more moderate than the Shiites of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa party, whom the Coalition Provisional Authority has grown too fond of. (That SCIRI and Dawa representatives serve as important channels for the CPA to Sistani is bizarre.) And the grand ayatollah has so far shown great sensitivity toward Sunni fears of Shiite predominance. He has not allowed his dispossessed followers to take back the mosques that were stolen from them after the '91 rebellion. To put it succinctly: We are enormously lucky to have Sistani in post-Saddam Iraq. If the old cleric were to die, our position among the Shiites might collapse overnight. Our objective with the grand ayatollah thus ought to be to cooperate (and preempt), not confront.

If the Bush administration is wise, it will change its provisional-government plans and allow for direct elections as soon as feasible. If it refuses to change, and Sistani and the Shiites force it to abort the plan later, we will be left weaker than if we change now. We ought not dissipate our strength so profligately. There will undoubtedly be moments where we will need to intimidate. Dealing with Muslim clerics has, understandably, never been an American strong suit. Though many in the CPA and the administration may want to wish Sistani away, fortunately they can't. He is America's most powerful democratic weapon in Iraq, even if we don't know how to wield him. If President Bush is reelected in 2004, however, Grand Ayatollah Sistani will have certainly done his part.

This is a perfectly sensible essay, pointing out that the Shi'ite iteration of Islam seems rather well suited to eventual democracy of some variety or another. In fact, looking at Iran, Mr. Gerecht might go further and argue that even an authoritarian Islamic republic would not last long, because it's antithetical to Shi'ism. But where'd the sub-head come from? "save the presidency of George W. Bush"? Bill Kristol really needs to get out more.

In Iraq's south, democracy buds: US administrator Paul Bremer wants to spread the 'Muthanna model.' (Nicholas Blanford, 12/16/03, CS Monitor)

With a provincial council and four city councils already formed in the province of Muthanna, this is the first of seven town council selections to be held over the next three weeks. It is an anxious moment for the CPA representatives and the team from the Research Triangle Institute (RTI), a US-based nonprofit, who organized the selection process. They are aware that CPA headquarters in Baghdad will be closely watching the selection process, the first practical demonstration of the new democracy being ushered into the rural heartland of Iraq.

While the weekend capture of Saddam Hussein has received worldwide attention, it is here in Muthanna that a true success story is in the making.

Muthanna is the second-largest province in Iraq and almost certainly the poorest. Its predominantly Shiite inhabitants were brutally repressed under Mr. Hussein's regime, its infrastructure underfunded, its economy based on low-scale agriculture.

During the war to oust Hussein, American troops were warmly welcomed by the Shiite population when they advanced into Samawa, Muthanna's capital. The province remains calm, with no attacks against coalition troops and almost no support for the mainly Sunni guerrillas operating further north.

"We have a seven-month timetable and we would like to keep them friendly until we turn off the lights and go home," says one foreign official, referring to July 1, when the US has said it will turn the country over to Iraqi control.

The peaceful atmosphere has helped the coalition press ahead with establishing local administrations, outstripping other provinces and winning praise from the CPA in Baghdad.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 15, 2003 7:39 PM

No matter how much Shia dislike Sunni, they dislike Christians more. Forget that at your peril.

This guy sounds like he's channeling Kissinger. Bet the farm on an aging autocrat.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 15, 2003 10:34 PM

So what? The point isn't for them to like us, but for them to build a decent society. If hating other peoples was a bar to the latter there would be none.

Posted by: oj at December 15, 2003 11:12 PM

Trust Sistani as far as you can throw him.

Posted by: Sandy P. at December 16, 2003 12:59 AM

Sandy P.,

All depends on Sistani's current rental fee and what basing agreements he will sign. Do you think that he would be tougher to pitch out than Hussein? If we are basing a division and an air wing there?

Iraq is a US protectorate for the forseeable future. We're there and we aren't leaving - put that first in your political calcs and rest assured that the "future Iraqi leaders" are doing the same.

Posted by: RDB at December 16, 2003 1:09 AM

What I meant is that Sunni and Shia will happily murder each other, but when presented with an infidel enemy will league against him -- that is, us.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 16, 2003 2:55 AM


You apparently believe that the Sunni and the Shia (i.e., all Muslims) are so irrational that they will commit suicide raging against the sole superpower (i.e., us). Why do you think they are this stupid?

Perhaps because you believe that any theist is ignorant and irrational?

Posted by: jd watson at December 16, 2003 3:29 AM

Shame/pride is a volatile mix that does funny things to people.

Sort of like pills and alcohol.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at December 16, 2003 7:06 AM

There are fundamental cultural reasons why, over the last 1300 years, the Shi'ites normally can't get their act together enough to come out on top in power struggles with the Sunnis. It would be nice to think that that fundamental Shi'ite deficiency in self-organization suddenly changed somehow under Saddam's civil-society crushing rule, but what evidence is there for it?

Posted by: Steve Sailer at December 16, 2003 1:33 PM

They aren't self-organizing, we organized them.

Posted by: OJ at December 16, 2003 1:37 PM

I sure believe they are irrational, and their religion plays to that, but I think the irrationality came first, generally.

Trudy Rubin, a third-tier nitwit pundit at the Phila. Inquirer, had a column today that is certainly going to make it hard for Orrin to contend that Iraq is ready for prime time.

She says she met some time back with "four English professors" -- she means professors of English -- "in offices that had been looted . . .

"These women spoke fluent English [ed. note, surprise!] and held doctorates, but they -- like many, many Iraqis -- thought America's failure to catch Hussein [ed.note, she means Saddam] was part of a deliberate plot. The devious Americans wanted to keep Iraqi [ed. note, ?] weak so U.S. troops could stay forever and control Iraqi oil.

" 'We know you trained the looters who wrecked our buildings,' one professor told me. 'We heard you trained them in Belgium. [ed. note, surprise!]. It was essential for America to cause this anarchy in order to control our country.' Another professor asked whether Saddam was being hidden in the United States.

"Sound nuts?"

In a word, yeah.

Friedman made the same comment about 6 months ago, that, he estimated, 70-80% of Arabs are cuckoo.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 16, 2003 8:23 PM


Howard Dean Madeleine Albright, Jim McDermott, etc, agree with such theories. Stupidity is human, not Iraqi.

Posted by: oj at December 16, 2003 8:31 PM

Stupidity becomes a political liability when it reaches critical mass. As that profound philosopher, Frank Zappa, said (quoting from memory): Some people say hydrogen is the most abundant thing in the Universe. Stupidity is.

Besides, I don't think Iraqis (and Arabs and Muslims more generally) are excessively stupid. They subscribe to a belief system that keeps them excessively ignorant and, therefore, gullible.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 18, 2003 2:32 PM