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Published in the 1-15 Feb 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Bush meets his nemesis in Iraq’s Sistani
By Karamatullah K. Ghori

George W. Bush has unabashedly moved from one devious and treacherous track on Iraq to another. Just as his reason for invading Iraq without any provocation went from one bald-headed lie to another—from the ‘pressing need’ to destroy Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and terror to regime change—his current ‘mission’ to bless Iraq with democracy is also undergoing massive detours and redrawing of blueprints.

Understandably, Bush’s nefarious democracy- for -Iraq ploy is as disingenuous and deceptive as all his previous plans for the first, prized and coveted, trophy in his aggressive imperialistic outreach. However, this democracy charade is a bluff which is now being called by a man who has nothing in common with, and everything different from, Bush except for their common reference of Iraq.

Grand Ayotallah Ali Hussain Sistani, merjaa ( the sole spokesman and arbiter ) to Iraq’s majority Shiias, is almost a hermit who hardly ever ventures out of his abode in Najaf, in the heart of Iraq’s Shiia south. Sistani lay low in the early months of the American occupation of Iraq, prompting inspired comments from establishment media gurus in U.S. that he was implicitly condoning the occupation.

There is no doubt that Sistani’s religious aura, and the clout he commands among Iraq’s Shiia population, did keep Iraq’s Shiia-dominated south relatively calm and controlled whilst the so-called Sunni Triangle in the middle and northwest of Iraq imploded into massive defiance and resistance against the Americans.

Sistani had good reason for keeping his people from joining the fray against the Americans at the scale of central and northern Iraq. His most valid reason for giving a long rope to the Americans was that they were cued in on destroying every vestige of the oppressive Saddam regime in Iraq, which had persecuted the Iraqi Shiias brutally and consistently denied them the political rights they deserved on the basis of their being 60 to 65 per cent of the Iraqi population. It was a classical re-play of ‘the- enemy- of- my enemy- is- my- best friend’.

But while grudgingly tolerating the American presence in Iraq, Sistani maintained a total quarantine on his contacts with the occupiers of his land. To date, he has denied Bush’s pro-consul, Paul Bremer, any opportunity for a face-to-face meeting despite repeated requests from the viceroy. Understandably, Sistani would be loath to lend any kind of legitimacy to an occupation which is illegal and continues to defy the world public opinion against it.

Sistani began voicing his disagreement with the disingenuous Bush scheme to foist a controlled democracy on Iraq—in which all the levers of powers would be exercised by Washington’s neo con mafia through its Iraqi proxies—as soon as the contours of it surfaced late last year. Sistani’s resistance to the diabolical Bush blueprint to conjure up a chimera of democracy in Iraq—which the Texan Sheriff has so loudly boasted from his roof-top as a model worth replicating in other Arab countries—began soon after the November 15 accord between the American hand-picked, puppet, Iraqi Governing Council ( IGC ) and the Bush viceroy Paul Bremer.

The accord was a product of belated awakening on part of the Bush neo cons that they couldn’t keep the lid on the Iraqi fervour to get rid of them for too long. But they still contrived to work out the blueprints of a sham democracy which would be used as a ploy to satisfy the Iraqi urge for freedom and yet give very little away as far as the core American interests in Iraq were concerned.

So the Bremer-IGC agreement called for the ‘selection’ of an interim constituent assembly, by the end of February, to draft an interim constitution for Iraq. The selection will be done jointly by the Americans and IGC ( which translates as an entirely American exercise of choosing only such Iraqis whose loyalty to Washington will not be suspect ). The interim constitution will incorporate basic principles, currently being written by the occupation authority, and include what Bremer boasted as a ‘replica’ of the American Bill of Rights.

The same hand-maiden assembly will also name a provisional government to take over sovereignty from the Americans on June 30. A compulsory obligation for the client government thus composed would be to sign an agreement with Washington to allow a hundred thousand American troops to remain stationed, for several years ( in fact, for as long as Washington may deem necessary ) in Iraq to safeguard American interests. These American troops on the Iraqi soil will not be subjected to Iraqi laws or authority and will act only at the whims of their commanders.

The bottom line of this elaborate con-game is that the Bush imperialists would perpetrate their grand thievery and plunder of Iraq and its abundant natural resources behind the façade of a tightly controlled and tailor-made ‘democracy’ at the beck and call of Washington.
However, all this meticulous and machiavellian planning is in imminent danger of coming unstuck because Sistani is ready to call Bush’s bluff. He is not inclined to let Bush eat his cake and have it,too.

Sistani’s declaration that he will not settle for anything less than a direct vote to elect a constituent assembly has taken all the wind out of the neo con sails. Their carefully arranged apple cart for an Iraq whose resources they desperately covet is being upset by a man who doesn’t control an army, or armada, but whose influence transcends all those barriers that the Washington imperialists would want to erect in the way of Iraq becoming a genuine democracy.

Bush’s dilemma is that he cannot dismiss Sistani’s very legitimate demand as excessive or exorbitant. What the Grand Ayotallah is demanding is the very basics of democracy as universally understood. He simply wants the Iraqi people—all Iraqis, not just the Shiias of Iraq—to be allowed to exercise their right of adult franchise. And that is something which Bush can neither refute nor shoot down with his missiles or helicopter gun-ships.

Constrained for a better excuse to ward it off, Bush has taken the untenable stand that elections cannot be organised in Iraq in time before the deadline of June 30 for transfer of power to the Iraqis. But that is an excuse which is not only flimsy but also makes no sense to the Iraqis.

It is flimsy and spurious because Sistani is not talking of any deadline. The deadline of June 30 is entirely of American making and is there only for Bush’s convenience. Bush, whose bald-headed lies are now being regularly unmasked before the American people, is desperate that he should face the American electorate only after everything has been neatly tucked and sown in place in Iraq. So the deadline of June 30 is sacrosanct to Bush and his minions only because it provides them a flimsy foil for all their lies and hypocrisies in relation to Iraq. To Sistani, the only thing that matters is the Iraqis not cheated out of their fundamental democratic right of a free vote, something they didn’t enjoy in all those dreadful decades of Saddam’s brutal oppression of them.

Not knowing how to deflect or roll back Sistani’s advocacy of the Iraqi people’s democratic right, Bush has gone to the much-reviled ( by him and his minions ) UN to bail him out of his predicament.
It is a terrible irony to see Bush on his knees before the UN, beseeching it to throw him a life-line. The world’s memory is not all that short so as not to remember that until not too long ago Bush was arrogantly taunting the UN to either prove itself relevant by joining his diabolical invasion of Iraq or fade into ignominy. Now the boot is on the other leg and Bush wants UN to pull his chestnut out of the Iraqi fire.

Secretary General Kofi Annan is not a man to take bold or imaginative decisions. A civil servant by nature and training, he has a knack for taking decisions which are never radical or forthright. So in response to Bush imploring him to enter the Iraqi fray, once again, Annan has agreed, half-heartedly, to send a small mission to Iraq to determine if direct elections could be feasible or not within the limited time between now and June. But Annan, bitten many a times before by the Bush neo cons’ treachery and arrogance, must know that bending to Bush’s diktat would be like drinking a poisoned chalice.

Paul Bremer in Iraq is trying to fend off and subvert Sistani’s thoroughly legitimate demand on technical and logistical grounds. He claims that electoral rolls are not up to date and ready to organise polls at such short notice in Iraq. But his logic is as flawed as it is devious and dishonest. Iraq, under Saddam, held five elections between 1980 and 2000. Indeed those elections were neither fair nor honest; they were regimented and tightly controlled. However, the electoral lists of those elections, last updated in 2000, are complete and fairly recent. They can be adequate to hold elections on the basis of one man-one vote.

Moreover, these lists and rolls can still be supplemented with the help of those very elaborate and meticulous rolls compiled under Saddam’s highly efficient rationing system which won ungrudging praise and accolades from the UN humanitarian programme in Iraq, between 1996 and 2002. Saddam’s rationing lists were so comprehensive and elaborate that not a single Iraqi was left out of them.

Sistani knows well that Bush has no desire to bring genuine democracy to Iraq because that is not part of the imperialist strategy in which Iraq was supposed to be just the opening gambit in a grand scheme to colonise the entire Middle East in the name of converting it to democracy. Therefore, by calling this bluff Sistani is putting to test not only Bush’s intentions but also exposing his real designs on Iraq and the region.

Another dilemma for Bush, vis-à-vis Sistani’s stand on the side of genuine democracy for Iraq is that he cannot be blamed, or faulted, for acting on someone else’s behalf. Certainly Iran cannot be singled out as prodding or pumping Sistani to throw a gauntlet to Bush.

President Khatami had the farsight of seeing through Bush’s treachery much earlier than Sistani. So he tactfully endorsed the agreement, last November, between Bremer and IGC and said he accepted the Iraqi puppet machinery as representing the Iraqi people. His pre-emptive move robbed Bush to point any finger in Iran’s direction for allegedly fomenting trouble inside Iraq, or goading its people or leaders against Washington. In fact, in the current impasse, Sistani can be deemed to be at cross purpose with Iran by not consecrating IGC with any legitimacy or accepting it as spokesmen of the Iraqi people.

So Bush finds himself, literally, on the horns of a dilemma. The challenge that Sistani has hurled at him is too sensitive to be disregarded or ignored. Sistani may not command the mightiest military force in the world like Bush but his clout is so pervasive and effective with his people that he can bring out tens of thousands of them, as already demonstrated in major cities of Iraq, at hours’ notice on the street. The bitter moral of Bush’s costly occupation of Iraq is that he cannot subjugate all the people, all the time, or make fools of them.

It is not hard to understand why Sistani is so insistent on playing the game of democracy in Iraq, by which Bush has been laying so much store for so long, by its universally recognised rules. The majority Shiias of Iraq were bitten badly by the Americans, under Papa Bush, at the end of the Gulf War in 1991. They were, then, prompted to rise in revolt against Saddam’s oppressive rule but were abandoned in the heat of the uprising and left to be devoured by Saddam’s wolves. Sistani has taken that moral to his heart. He is not ready, at all, to be bitten and cheated by Bush Jr. too.
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