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THE ROVING EYE
The grand elector Sistani
By Pepe Escobar

The Iraqi elections won't happen on January 30 because the Bush administration wants them: they will happen because Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani wants them. The Shi'ite leader knows it's now or never for the Shi'ite majority in the country to take power. The majority of Sunnis - because of the Fallujah offensive - won't vote: Sunnis comprise from 20% to 30% of Iraq's population. The elections will have no effect on the Sunni Iraqi resistance against the occupation. Secular Sunnis in Baghdad are already saying post-election Iraq will not resemble a democracy, but a Shi'ite "elective oligarchy".

Iraqis will elect 275 members of a national assembly, which will then choose a prime minister and cabinet. The most likely prime minister is Ibrahim al-Jafaari, of the Islamic Da'wa Party, arguably the most popular politician in Iraq at the moment. The assembly will write a permanent constitution, which will have to be ratified by a second general election at the end of 2005. Sistani's profound influence means that the next Iraqi government will be strongly Islamic. But there's no evidence yet to affirm it will be subordinated to strict Sharia law.

Who gets the oil?
The Sistani-brokered Shi'ite green (the color of Islam) electoral list, called the United Iraqi Congress, is finally out. Every major Shi'ite party is included - from Da'wa to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), from Iraqi Hezbollah (the marsh Arabs) to Muqtada al-Sadr's movement, from independents to the Iraqi National Congress of former Pentagon darling Ahmad Chalabi. Half of the list includes Shi'ite tribal chiefs who had to endure Saddam Hussein's rule on site and are not linked to any of the expatriate-infested parties. A smattering of Sunnis (such as the chief of the crucial Sunni Shamar tribe), Shi'ite Kurds and Turkmen are also on the list.

According to Naim al-Qaabi, one of Muqtada's lieutenants in Sadr City in Baghdad, "We will participate in the elections in a discreet fashion. Not publicly." Muqtada's movement will have 28% of the seats in the united list, the lion's share. Their official position is that "we could have had more, but we accepted to preserve the unity of Shi'ites". Our contacts, though, say that Muqtada's bargain with Sistani included the number of seats in the joint list. The three Da'wa parties - the product of a series of splits - have 10%, 8% and 4% of the seats. The SCIRI received 12%.

Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, the top Kurdish leaders, have also announced their own Kurdish list. The Turkmens have refused to be part of it. At this point there's also no evidence of any Sunni Arabs being included.

Many secular Shi'ites are furious with the fact that 40% of the seats in Sistani's list were allotted to religious parties, believers in velayat al-faqih - the theory of Iran's ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of the primacy of theology over jurisprudence. Thirty-eight small secular parties threatened to abandon the list - but in the end didn't. All 50 women on the list must wear the Islamic veil: this basically means they were selected because they are conservative Shi'ites.

Whatever happens, disaster looms. The Sunni Iraqi resistance's ultimate political aim is to cut off the majority of Sunnis from the US-imposed political calendar. They are succeeding because Sunnis have realized the elections will take place - whatever their complaints about their legitimacy. Iraq cannot possibly have a meaningful permanent constitution without Sunni input. For instance, if there's only one chamber in parliament, Shi'ites will always have the majority. There's also the crucial question of who gets Kirkuk and its oilfields: Sunni Arabs or Kurds? The consequences of the majority of Sunnis boycotting the election and thus being under-represented in parliament spells only one thing: civil war.

Balkanization
The alternative to civil war is Balkanization. Six hundred Shi'ite delegates from the Middle Euphrates met in Najaf with plans to carve a large Shi'ite province. Iraq remains with 18 provinces - but everybody now seems to want their own province, not only the Middle Euphrates Shi'ites: the Kurds want a major Kurdish province out of six that already exist, and the Shi'ites of the deep south also want their own. Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, former national security adviser, wanted Iraq divided into five provinces: one Kurdish, two Sunnis and two Shi'ites. If this plan were ever to be carried out, the Turkmen and the Christians would also want their own provinces.

A "federal", Balkanized Iraq is central to the Bush-neo-conservative project for the whole Middle East. It was discussed in Jordan in 2002, before the invasion. It would certainly create even more chaos. This is the same old British Empire "divide and rule" logic - remnant of the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 which carved up the Arab nation.

Northern Iraq is already a de facto separate state. Corrupt warlords such as Talabani and Barzani already have their Kurdistan: they just had to support the invasion and occupation, and never say a word to infuriate the Turks. If Kurdistan ever became a state, Turkey would have to do something lest Kurds in its own territory got similar ideas.

The Americans would only tolerate a Shi'ite south split into small provinces: a major province could become an Iranian satellite. Central Iraq would in theory be a Sunni province. But any way one looks at it, it's practically impossible to carve up Iraq. In greater Baghdad there are Sunni neighborhoods, Shi'ite neighborhoods and a lot of mixed neighborhoods. The 2 million-plus Shi'ite Sadr City would be a state in itself. Arabs and Kurds would fight to their deaths for the oilfields of Kirkuk. Thanks to Saddam's Arabization policy, Kirkuk's population of roughly a million is more or less distributed among Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens. The Kurds want Kirkuk as part of Kurdistan.

Sunni anger, Shi'ite cunning
Key Sunni cleric Abdul Salam al-Kubaysi, of the powerful Association of Muslim Scholars - which has called for a boycott of the elections - told al-Jazeera television no election can be legitimate under foreign occupation. Sheikh Muhsin al-Shamari told the London-based newspaper al-Hayat that 90% of Arab sheikhs of the key Iraqi tribes want the elections to be postponed because of lack of security.

Compare this with Mohammad Khatami, Iran's president, who is in favor of elections "as soon as possible". It's very important to note that Khatami has also framed the whole Iraqi equation in terms of security: this means that for Iran an elected Iraqi government at least would have a chance to provide some stability, unlike Iyad Allawi's. The problem is Sunnis immediately identified this as Iranian meddling - with some moderates even throwing Iraqi Shi'ites, Iranians and the US in the same boat. There is only one player that benefits from this amalgamation: the Sunni Iraqi resistance.

Our Baghdad sources say that in Sunni mosques all over Iraq, the recurrent theme is the denunciation of Shi'ite clerics who have "sold out" Islam. Compare it with Karbala provincial Governor Sa'ad Safouk al-Masoudi, who recently said Fallujah was "a punishment from God" because the locals helped Saddam's armies destroy the Shi'ite uprising in Karbala in 1991. Al-Masoudi explicitly said that "the election doesn't depend on the Sunnis".

It certainly does not: it depends on Sistani. Sistani and his circle have learned key lessons from history. When Iraq was fighting British colonialism in 1920, the vanguard of the armed resistance was Shi'ite. So the British installed the Sunnis in power - where they have remained ever since. Now the Shi'ites know that the best course of action is to co-exist with the occupier/invader, form a powerful political coalition in weeks of private negotiations uniting radicals and moderates, get their hands on power, and then tell the invader to leave. This explains Sistani's silence over Fallujah, and the Shi'ite zeal on holding elections by all means. But definitely this does not mean that Sistani is a collaborator.

For the immediate future of Iraq, as crucial as the Sunni-Shi'ite power play will be the interaction between Iraqi nationalists on both sides. Sunnis were very much aware that Muqtada denounced the Fallujah offensive, and Sistani did not - or did, very mildly, and too late. Armchair planners dreaming of Balkanization tend to forget that Iraqi nationalism is much more powerful than a sectarian Sunni-Shi'ite division.

Fallujah, an American gulag
According to the International Organization on Migration, at least 210,600 Fallujans - more than 35,000 families - have been turned into refugees. Now the doomed city - reduced to a pile of rubble, but still closed by the Americans, with the resistance controlling at least 60% of it - is about to be turned into a concentration camp.

This Pentagon-sponsored initiative will see Fallujans herded to "citizen processing centers", subjected to DNA testing and retina scans, and forced to wear badges with their home addresses at all times. Cars will be banned from the city: after all, they are the suicide bombers' weapon of choice. Male Fallujah civilians will be regimented in "military-style battalions" and, depending "on their skills" will "be assigned jobs in construction, waterworks or rubble-clearing platoons" - in other words, chain gangs. Moderate Sunni Arabs in Baghdad are enraged beyond belief: they correctly identify this US-enforced gulag as the "model city" in an ideal neo-conservative Middle East. Now what's that got to do with elections?

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Dec 10, 2004
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