Op-Ed

Have Iraqis Voted for a Dictatorship?

Muqtedar Khan

The Bush administration is under the false impression that the elections in Iraq have heralded the era of democracy in Iraq and thus justify the Bush pre-emption doctrine. What, it seems, they cannot see is that the US has just facilitated a major transfer of power in the Arab World—from Sunnis to Shiites. Thanks to the US the Arab Shiites will now control Baghdad—the jewel in the Islamic crown—after a millennium. They did not rule over Baghdad even under the glorious Fatimid dynasty (909-1171) that governed Egypt, North Africa and Syria but had only a tenuous hold over Baghdad, briefly under the Buwayhid tribal confederation, before the Turkic Seljuks invaded and captured the city with help from the Abbasids.

The Iraqi elections, according to most analysts today, are a triumph for the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, since an estimated 60 percent of the potential 14 million voters voted on January 30. The large turnout, in spite of escalated violence by the insurgency which took hundreds of lives in the run up and 44 lives on the day of the elections itself, is being interpreted as indicative of the Iraqi people’s desire for democracy and free society. The elections were marred by violence and boycott by the Sunni minority, the very fact however of a “free election” being held in Iraq in more than half a century is being touted as a significant step towards democracy.

But this talk about “free” elections in the context of Iraq is really stretching the truth—sort of like the claims that Iraq had large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and was on the verge of attacking the US and Israel in 2001. Iraq is currently under occupation by foreign powers that have over 170,000 troops in the country. There is an extremely violent and vigorous on-going insurgency in the country that puts a cloud on the free-ness of the elections. The leadership of the Sunni community that constitutes about 20 percent of the population had announced a boycott of the elections and the extraordinarily low turnout in Sunni areas clearly undermines the legitimacy of the vote. It is wrong, therefore, to call this anything but a highly problematic political exercise.

We must not forget that until Ayatollah Sistani insisted on early nationwide elections, the US was determined to form a government based on handpicked community representatives. It was only after the US agreed to a nationwide elections to install a transitional government that will also write the new constitution that the Shiite community decided to cooperate with the occupation forces and the incipient Shiite insurgency—led primarily by Moqtada Sadr in Najaf and other places—fizzled out at the intervention of Ayatollah Sistani who returned from Britain, on August 25, 2004, to placate the growing anger among Iraqi Shiites.

Ayatollah Sistani is manipulating the US occupation and the lack of a post-conquest plan at the Pentagon to orchestrate a Shiite revolution. It is possible that when the history of the world is rewritten, Ali Sistani will be considered the most Machiavellian and the most astute political strategist ever. He seems to have seen the future. The ‘democratic’ Iraq will be essentially a Shiite Iraq run by surrogates who will win elections with his blessings and rule on his behalf. In principle and on record Ayatollah Sistani does not believe in rule by the clerics. However, his conduct since the US invasion of Iraq clearly suggests that he has no qualms about controlling, directing and manipulating politics from behind the scenes.

Ayotollah Sistani and his clerical brigade will not participate in the government as his friends and colleagues in Iran do. They will delegate the menial aspects of governance to the ‘secular’ elected leaders but the key elements—such as writing the constitution, developing the new legal codes, determining the role of Islam in the polity [especially which interpretations of Islam] and the philosophical foundations of foreign policy, particularly relations with the Arab world and with the West—will be determined by the grand ayatollah and his coterie.

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The election should not be read as indicative of a desperate desire for democracy by Iraqis who came out to vote. It should be seen as a manifestation of power that Ali Sistani wields on the Shiite population of Iraq. It was his decree making it a religious obligation for Shiite Muslims to vote that is responsible for the huge turnout. The Shiites recognise, by and large, that the US occupation has presented them a historic opportunity. If they are disciplined and patient and follow the ayotallah, they will rule Iraq. They will not only just gain power but their principal opponents will be quashed by the US itself.

While the Sunnis of Iraq are fighting a violent jihad against US occupation and opposing democratisation to prevent Shiite hegemony over Iraq, the Shiites are engaged in their own silent jihad. The US-led invasion of Iraq may have replaced an overt and brutal dictatorship by Saddam Hussein with a covert and subtle dictatorship buy the Marja-e-Taqleed, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani—the highest-ranking Shiite authority on the planet.

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