Published on Thursday, November 27, 2003 by the New York Times
U.S. Plan in Iraq to Shift Control Hits Major Snag
by Joel Brinkley and Ian Fisher
AGHDAD, Iraq, Nov. 26 — The American plan to turn over power in Iraq more quickly was thrown into disarray on Wednesday when the country's most powerful cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, made public his opposition to a proposal for indirect elections.
"All of us are groping around right now," an administration official said in Washington, acknowledging that the plan worked out earlier this month by the Iraqi Governing Council and L. Paul Bremer III, the American administrator of Iraq, would have to be revised.
Spokesmen for Ayatollah Sistani, who exercises strong influence over Iraq's majority Shiites, said he insisted that the election, planned for June, be a direct ballot and not the caucus-style vote called for in the American plan. He also insists that the new Iraqi government have a more overtly Islamic character.
"The people should have a basic role in issues concerning the destiny of their country," Abdul Aziz al- Hakim, a Shiite cleric and politician, said in an interview. Mr. Hakim said he discussed the American proposal with Ayatollah Sistani on Tuesday.
Shiites account for about 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people and so could benefit from a direct vote.
Under the current plan, which has been fraying almost since it was approved by both sides on Nov. 15, council members and local governments are to choose a transitional assembly — several hundred Iraqis from every region and social sector. That assembly is to choose an interim government in June, and that indirectly elected interim government is supposed to draft a constitution.
On Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Hakim also spoke at a news conference in Najaf, Ayatollah Sistani's home, and said the ayatollah "expressed concern about real gaps that must be dealt with, or the plan will lack the ability to meet the hopes of the Iraqi people."
In Washington, administration officials said a plan establishing Iraqi self-rule by June 30 would have to at least partly accommodate the ayatollah's insistence on a popular vote.
Such a ballot in the next several months is widely seen as impractical, however. Instead, administration officials said, a system of provincial and local elections, town meetings and caucuses of civic leaders throughout Iraq might be acceptable to Ayatollah Sistani.
"The nub of this is, how do we get to enough elections in enough places to satisfy the ayatollah's insistence on elections," one official said. "We should be able to do it."
Mr. Hakim is a leading member of the Governing Council, which was appointed by the United States to help run Iraq, and recent experience has shown that the council is unwilling to act against Ayatollah Sistani.
Ayatollah Sistani's objections were a further blow to a plan that had already begun to unravel. Earlier this week, leaders of the Governing Council said they would like to back away from their agreement to dissolve the council as soon as elections are held in June, and instead to preserve it as a second legislative body, a kind of senate.
But there were signs on Wednesday that other members of the council were still backing the original plan, in part because Ayatollah Sistani's call for direct elections could mean the new Iraqi government would be dominated by Shiites, a fear among many Sunni Arabs and Kurds.
On Wednesday evening, Kubad Talabani, a senior aide to Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who is serving this month as president of the Governing Council, said the council and American authorities "are going to great lengths to meet Sistani's request for an Iraqi constitution by direct elections."
"I do not see any reason for concern from His Eminence Sistani or anyone else about the process we have," he added.
American officials left room for compromise.
"We have said all along that this was a framework, and we would have to work out the details, and that is what we are going to do going forward," said Dan Senor, a spokesman for Mr. Bremer.
Earlier this year, objections from Ayatollah Sistani forced the Governing Council to abandon its original plan, pushed by Washington, to write a constitution and then hold elections. Ayatollah Sistani issued a religious edict in June saying a constitution must be drafted by an assembly directly elected by the Iraqis. Twelve of the council's 24 members are Shiites, and many refused to go along with a plan that Ayatollah Sistani did not endorse.
That same edict, it appears, is behind the objections made public Wednesday. Yet Ayatollah Sistani was silent earlier this month when the plan to install an Iraqi government by June was announced.
When the Governing Council announced the plan 11 days ago, its leaders said the council had reached unanimous agreement — including Mr. Hakim and others close to Ayatollah Sistani. At the time, Shiite leaders seemed to be saying Ayatollah Sistani supported it, but he issued no direct statement.
A senior Shiite leader said Ayatollah Sistani did not make his objections known before because the plan "was misrepresented by whoever saw him," and until recently he did not have an Arabic version of it.
"He has been following the subject," Mr. Hakim said in a telephone interview. "When the draft was submitted to him, he wrote several notes on it. But when I saw him yesterday, he discussed with me the objections that he had."
Communications between official Iraqis and official Americans have been difficult from the start of the occupation in May. On Wednesday, for example, Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the first American administrator, acknowledged in an interview with the BBC that his office had made a "bad job" of communicating with Iraqis.
American officials have insisted that a direct election cannot be held now because there are no voter rolls. A census must be taken first, and that cannot be completed until late next year at the earliest.
But a senior Shiite leader on Wednesday pushed a United Nations proposal to use its food-rations registry as a voter list so elections could be held next spring.
Both American and Iraqi officials have said they believe the real motivation for insisting on direct elections is that the clerics hope the nation's Shiite majority will empower religious leaders to form an Islamic government, an idea the United States opposes.
Mr. Hakim himself said one of Ayatollah Sistani's objections was that "there is no emphasis on the role of Islam and the identity of the Muslim people."
"There should have been a stipulation which prevents legislating anything that contradicts Islam in the new Iraq," Mr. Hakim added, summarizing the ayatollah's views.
In their statement Nov. 15 announcing the agreement, the Governing Council proclaimed that the new Iraqi state would respect "freedom of religion and religious practices." But it added that the government would also "respect the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people."
Unlike some other Shiite clerics, Ayatollah Sistani has been tolerant of the United States occupation and has refrained from openly criticizing the occupation authorities. But on Wednesday his aides took cautious steps in that direction.
"Some Iraqis perceive the process as being too rushed to fit the American presidential elections," said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a member of the Governing Council who is close to Ayatollah Sistani. "We don't mind helping our partners. We understand their requirements. And we will consider helping them."
The view that the United States elections play a major role in shaping Iraq's political future is widely held among council members.
Ahmad Chalabi, another council member, said: "The whole thing was set up so President Bush could come to the airport in October for a ceremony to congratulate the new Iraqi government. When you work backwards from that, you understand the dates the Americans were insisting on." American officials deny that electoral concerns played a role in their planning.
The Bremer plan, hastily put together with Iraqi leaders after his rushed meeting with President Bush in early November, also called for the Governing Council to set up a kind of bill of rights — including religious freedom and free speech, women's rights and civilian control of the military — by Feb. 28.
That part is unlikely to be changed, administration officials said.
Steven R. Weisman contributed reporting for this article from Washington.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company