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A Shiite challenge divides Iraqis

US backs elections by March 2005; a key Shiite wants them by July 2004.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 3, 2003


The pace - and nature - of a democratic reform plan announced just two weeks ago is being challenged by arguably the most powerful figure in Iraq today.

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Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a key leader of the country's Muslim Shiite community, wants direct national elections to create a provisional government.

The US-appointed Governing Council of top Iraqi officials is divided over whether to oppose the cleric or finesse his demand with partial local elections.

The dispute highlights the emerging contours of a power struggle between the majority Shiite population and other Iraqi factions. The outcome of the latest challenge could determine how soon elected representatives will take charge of Iraq, and whether it will happen before next year's US presidential elections.

Mr. Sistani's chief criticism of a plan signed Nov. 15 between the Governing Council and the US-run Coalition Provisional Authority is that it fails to allow the Iraqi people to elect representatives to a Transitional National Assembly which is to be created by the end of June and will enjoy full sovereign powers.

"In principle, no one objects to elections but we can't have them now," says Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish member of the Governing Council. "We need to have a census, better security, the return of those who were forced to leave Iraq under the old regime. An election needs to be legal, which it cannot be while we are under occupation."

The Nov. 15 agreement provides for a Fundamental Law to be in place by February which will serve as an interim constitution.

Then a series of meetings in each of Iraq's 18 provinces will appoint 250 members to the assembly. Once the new assembly is in place, the Governing Council and the CPA will dissolve. Full nationwide elections must be held no later than March 15, 2005.

Ibrahim al-Jafaari, a Shiite who is considered Ayatollah Sistani's representative on the council, says that elections can and should be held before next July.

"Any elections are better than none at all," he says.

Sistani recommended basing elections on the food rationing cards handed out to Iraqis in the 1990s when sanctions were imposed on Iraq.

Opponents of swift elections argue that not all Iraqis possess rationing cards. Some lost their cards as punishment by Hussein's regime. The Kurds in their near- autonomous enclave in the north did not need them. And there were the thousands of Iraqi exiles who lived abroad during the 1990s.

"You can shoot holes in the idea," says Mowafak al-Rubaie, a British educated former member of the Shiite Dawa party, "but it's better to have an election, even if its quick and dirty, than to have no election at all. If we have another body, this time the Transitional National Assembly, and it does not have the legitimacy of public support, then we might as well continue with the Governing Council."

Many Sunnis oppose a nationwide election which could result in an assembly dominated by Shiites, who make up 60 percent of the population.

"The [mainly Sunni] Kurds do not have much concern. But the Arab Sunnis are really worried about an enlarged role of the Shiites. That needs to be taken into consideration," Mr. Othman says. "We should reach a formula that doesn't threaten anybody."