Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Enter Sistani

NAJAF, Iraq (AP) - Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric returned from Britain on Wednesday and his aides called for a nationwide march to Najaf to end nearly three weeks of fierce fighting between U.S. forces and Shiite militants in this holy city.

If this was the plan all along (and some thing it was), it's brilliant. The U.S. Army in Najaf, with its Iraqi allies, has been learning to fight in the traditional Arab way: a grand charge, then pull back, but always end up with more ground than when you began. The noose around al-Sadr is drawn tight.

So finish him off? Perhaps, but there's a risk in that, even if it's Kurdish Shi'ites who storm the mosque. Better, probably, to let Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani be the deus ex machina who saves the day.

Even if al-Sadr lives -- and every breath he draws is a small victory for him -- his reputation is shot. There never was much of it beyond a certain segment of the Shi'ites.

More important is that the Shi'ite population remains committed to its senior leaders, and that those leaders remain committed to the cause of a free, secular, democratic Iraq.

It's been noted that they have the most to gain, in terms of proportional representation, under such a system. But there's another reason. There's a sound theological reason that the Shi'ites are the key to secular, democratic rule in the Muslim world. America's 25-year conflict with Shi'ite Iran somewhat obscures the fact that Shi'ites, more than Sunnis, are receptive to a non-religious representative democracy.

It springs from the concept of the imam, which in Arabic means roughly "leader," and in the usual Sunni sense would mean "leader of daily prayers in a mosque" or even "religious scholar." But it has a much deeper meaning to the Shi'ites, something like "person of intrinsic spiritual power, perfect interpreter of prophetic revelation, intermediary between man and God."

There were only 12 of them (in the main branch of Shi'ism), and all were descendants of the Prophet. They were hounded and assassinated by the caliphs, who rightly saw them as a threat to their political authority, and the last one vanished in the 10th century C.E. The Shi'ites say that, like King Arthur in some British legends, the last Imam is not dead but in hiding, still in the world, directing affairs unseen. And he will return at the end as the Mahdi (hence the4 name of al-Sadr's army).

But until then, he can't be consulted, and with the Imam in "occlusion," the world is left in an imperfect state. Every form of government is necessarily imperfect, since the imperfection of people is reflected in their institutions. The political position of the Shi'ites, then, is a search for the least imperfect form of government.

Historically, the Shi'ites generally do not look to the "caliphate" as the legitimate Muslim political authority, though they often have supported it as a matter of accepting the prevailing political situation. They have been monarchists in the past, and democrats in the present. And they could set an example in Iraq that the rest of the Middle East, in spite of political prejudice, will come to envy and emulate.