Saturday, July 05, 2003

Trial balloon on Iraqi ayatollah

Yep, maybe we can use the moderate Shiites as a shovel to dig ourselves out of a jam. Patrick Tyler of the Times writes:

Mr. Wolfowitz asserts that he was not among the Shiite bashers, and is not now. Given his remarks, it is hard to imagine that the Bush administration has not considered that an ayatollah might be Iraq's first postwar leader.

Last month, Grand Ayatollah Sistani sent a private message to L. Paul Bremer III, the American occupation administrator, admonishing him that he was making mistakes in how he was treating Shiites, especially in Najaf where the American-appointed governor was accused of running a corrupt and unjust administration. It appears that Mr. Bremer got the message. The governor was arrested last week. But Mr. Bremer also blocked Najaf's attempt to vote the alleged scoundrel out of office, arguing that elections are premature.

Premature for whom, some Iraqis ask. Grand Ayatollah Sistani has issued a fatwa, or religious decree, against allowing Mr. Bremer to appoint the Iraqis who will draft a new constitution. Rather, the cleric urged Iraqis to demand general elections to select the constitution's framers. Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi National Congress leader and a secular Shiite contender to lead Iraq, went to see the grand ayatollah last week and seemed to endorse the election plan.

Mr. Bremer has resisted on grounds that Iraq won't be ready for elections until it has had a census and an electoral law. But dissent is growing, and is only a symptom of the unease between the occupation authority and the Shiites.

The question for President Bush is whether he could ever accept an ayatollah as an ally. He may have to and, in any case, it will be up to the Iraqis.

Well, it was going to come to this sooner or later, wasn't it? Facts on the ground...