Saturday, November 29, 2003

# Posted 7:32 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WHO IS AYATOLLAH SISTANI? Both Thursday's lead story in the NYT and a front page news analysis column from today focus on the tension between American plans for installing a semi-elected government and the Shi'ite cleric's preference for a full-fledged democratic process.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, there is a glaring omission in all these stories about the Shi'ite vote. We hear again and again that Ayatollah Sistani wants the new Iraqi state to have "a clear role for Islam" and that he wants to translate the Shi'ites demographic dominance into political power.

But what does Sistani believe about democracy as a political system? Will he endorse democracy as a way of life rather than a transitional process?

Another problem with these articles is their constant repetition of the American argument that elections are impossible before a census is taken. Is that just a stalling point designed throw off Sistani, or do Bremer and the White House really believe what they're saying?

Frankly, I'm suspicious. El Salvador climbed out of its own civil war by holding its first free elections before a census could be taken. The Reagan administration backed that effort enthusiastically and the result was validated by impartial monitors. There were some charges of corruption, but they were directed at the officials responsible for tabulating the votes by computer, not at the problem of having unidentified voters.

At the moment, it seems rather hypocritical for the US to be resisting Shi'ite demands for real elections -- provided that they are sincere. Memo to Bill Keller: Get your correspondents to find out what Sistani believes, instead of assuming that they know.
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