Sistani rules*, ok

A few days ago, I argued that of the (generally unattractive) outcomes that could arise in Iraq, the one with the best chance was a two-state solution, in which a Shiite majority ruled Iraq as a whole, while the Kurds maintained the effective autonomy they have now.

Now that Ayatollah Sistani has spoken, I think the probability of this outcome is very high. The announcement that power will be handed to an Iraqi government on a set date (July next year) has created a dynamic over which they have no control, and which naturally leads in the direction of a majority vote rather than the convoluted system of caucuses proposed by the occupying authorities. The latter is typical of what an absolute ruler comes up with when seeking to provide a democratic facade while maintaining control over the outcome, and has rarely worked. Either the process is carried through, but has zero credibility, or it leads to genuine democratisation and the overthrow of the ruler (the French revolution provides the template).

In the case of Iraq, it’s clear that all Sistani has to do from now is hold his ground. The caucuses can’t go ahead with substantial Shiite opposition and the occupiers can’t sustain for long a position in which they are arguing for rigged elections and against democracy. Hence, I foresee an outcome in which Shiite parties win something close to an outright majority and in which Islam is enshrined as the official religion.

* As I understand things (I’m drawing on Juan Cole here), it won’t be an Iran-style theocracy, because Sistani doesn’t favor the idea of clerics exercising political power directly.

How will all this turn out? Obviously, there are a lot of problems. First, if the government overreaches itself in terms of monopolising power or avenging past injuries, things could really bad. Second, even assuming good sense on the part of the government, it’s difficult to run a country well when the capital and the administrative class are strongly hostile, which is bound to be the case. Third, the guerilla war will only intensify, and the counterinsurgency measures adopted by an Iraqi government are bound to be more brutal (but probably more effective) than those of the Americans. Fourth, there could be problems with the Kurds, though these are likely to be less with a government whose support base is among southern Shiites (who, I imagine, don’t care that much about the distribution of power in the north) than with a more broad-based coalition, Finally, there will be a lot of pressure on both sides for a quick US pullout. In particular, the neocons will, I imagine, lose interest in the whole project once it becomes clear that the nation they are building is, at best, a more moderate version of Iran.

Despite all these problems, this is the approach that has the best chance of producing a stable, and at least partially democratic, Iraq, and of permitting the withdrawal of most US troops without a descent into chaos. In response to the objection that the odds are not what we might want, I can only paraphrase the Irish farmer in the story “In that case, we shouldn’t be starting from here”.

Update 1/12 The dynamic is working even more rapidly than I expected. Judging by this report from the NYT, the caucus plan is already dead.

Further update 4/12The occupation authority isn’t doing itself or the cause of democracy any good with dishonest evasions about the impracticality of a proper democratic elections. These claims were false and both Iraqis and Americans have known it for some time. Any government “elected” under the caucus system will have the same credibility as the current Governing Council, less six months more erosion caused by the inevitable unpopularity of occupation. That comes to less than zero in my judgement.

If Bremer thinks Iraqis are not ready for democracy (and it’s obvious he does think that) he’d be better off imposing a constitution with undemocratic safeguards such as a nominated upper house or a requirement for predetermined ethnic power-sharing than going ahead with the charade he has proposed. And if Bush doesn’t agree with Bremer why is he still there? Jay Garner was sacked after one month, and that was about the best month the occupation forces have had.

Yet further update 5/12 After asking his readers Are you sitting down?, Thomas Friedman restates most of the argument of the original post above.

2 thoughts on “Sistani rules*, ok

  1. The Sistani option
    I’m going to try hard from now on to avoid debating whether the war with Iraq was a mistake, and to focus on the question of what should be done from here onwards. I’ve argued for some months that the…

  2. Sistani rules, OK ?
    As the pointless bloodbath in Najaf drags on, Ayatollah Sistani has finally returned from hospital treatment in London, and looks likely to be the only person to come out of this disaster with any credit1. His march on Najaf will,…

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