Shiite Unity Challenges
US Plan In Iraq
By Dahr Jamail
Originally published at
BAGHDAD, Iraq - In a body later estimated at over 100,000 strong, Shiite Muslims marched three miles through a portion of Baghdad, culminating at the University of al-Mustansariyah today, demanding democratic elections in Iraq. By far the most powerful Shiite leader in the country, 75 year-old Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, who called for todayís demonstration, is said to wield the powerful force of millions of dedicated Iraqi Shiite people.
It appears Al-Sistani and his followers are stepping up their demand for direct elections for an Iraqi legislature.
Throngs of protesters marched beneath a pedestrian overpass where loudspeakers echoed the booming voice of a representative of al-Sistani. The demonstration, which started at 8am, was going strong at 1pm with crowds of men filling the street as far as the eye could see.
Groups of men waving flags and carrying banners chanted Yes, yes to unification!" and "Yes, yes to voting!"
The echoes of thousands of voices chanting in unison resounded off nearby houses and buildings, fists thrust into the air behind words.
Men marched by holding banners that read, "We refuse any constitution that is not elected by the Iraqi People."
Another sign displayed Sistaniís name written with drops of blood running from the letters, symbolizing that his followers will die for their leader and their country.
A middle aged man protesting in the demonstration said to me, "You are the media? Tell America to give us what they promised! They promised us democracy, so let us have our elections!"
The echoes of thousands of voices chanting in unison resounded off nearby houses and buildings, fists thrust into the air behind words.
The timing is obvious, as on the same day in New York, L. Paul Bremer, the senior US administrator in Baghdad, and an Iraqi delegation, are meeting with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to discuss the transition process.
Al-Sistani rejects the US plan to transfer power through a provisional legislature selected by 18 regional caucuses.. The US proposal to transfer power via this "provisional legislature" means that a transitional government would be appointed to take over from the US-led coalition on July 1, and full elections would not take place until 2005, at the earliest. The caucuses proposed by the US would be comprised of "notables" in each province of Iraq who would appoint an assembly. The assembly would then select a government.
Al-Sistani insists that only popular democratic elections will lead to legitimately elected representatives in Iraq. Representatives who gain power under any other circumstances, including the proposed US plan, are still, in his view, appointed. Some believe that under the US proposal, Sunni fundamentalists, and even perhaps Baathists could do well.
In what seemed intended to send a clear message to Bremer at his meeting in New York, Hashem al-Awad, a representative of al-Sistani, gave a speech demanding free elections within three months, and called for popular elections and a constitution. To this the crowd began chanting, "Yes, yes to elections! No, no to occupation!"
Many men carried signs which read, "Real democracy means real elections."
By Al-Sistaniís plan, a democratically elected legislature would decide if coalition troops will remain in Iraq after the transfer of power from the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) to the elected legislature.
Bremer has repeatedly stated that elections cannot be organized by the deadline of June 30, due to the ongoing violence in Iraq and lack of voter registration.
Another banner carried by protestors read, "If you cannot protect the election, you are not our government and we do not acknowledge you!"
As for voter registration, Iraq remains on the food ration program set up under Saddam Hussein. The head of each household is registered with the government under this program, and holds a computer generated identification paper printed every year.
Many demonstrators carried large pictures of al-Sistani, along with banners reading, "We are all soldiers for Sistani."
Mustafa Muhammad, a 35 year-old demonstrator, said, "Shia people are against killing members of the coalition. But we will do whatever al-Sistani asks us to do. I know many women who are prepared to pick up guns if they are asked to do so."
Another demonstrator, Hussein Ali, said, "If America wonít give us the democracy they promised, we will make it for ourselves."
In the background the booming voice over the loudspeaker chanted, "We are ready to be killed for our country!"
Two observation helicopters of the US military circled the huge demonstration as it made its way down the street, but otherwise no US troops were to be seen.
The Shia of Iraq, who dwell mostly in the South of the country, are struggling to emerge from the long oppression under the regime of Saddam Hussein. They are notably suspicious since the widely acknowledged betrayal by the United States of a previous independence movement shortly after the first Gulf War in 1991.
Observers here in Baghdad widely agree it appears as though al-Sistani has become adamant about his demands for true elections out of a concern of the Shia becoming cut from political power in Iraq once again.
Al-Sistani believes the US wants to retain control over the government of Iraq. He claims he has no intention of running for high office; instead he simply wants an elected government. With estimates suggesting the Shia comprise 60% of the population of Iraq, any fully democratic election would certainly favor them as a group.
Meanwhile, last night AFP reported that guerrillas bombed an area in the center of the Shiite holy city Karbala, which injured 13 people.
The Bush Administration is pushing towards decreasing the number of troops in Iraq, as well as handing over power to an interim Iraqi government by July 1. Kofi Annan has backed this proposal as well.
The question remains as to how this will be accomplished in a way that satisfies the now unwavering al-Sistani and Iraqís Shiite majority as well as the Sunni population and all the other religious sects and political factions in Iraq.


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