Don't Panic! February 19 2004

Your war questions answered

Who is Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and why is he important?

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is Iraq's pre-eminent Shi'ite religious leader and by some accounts the second most highly regarded leader in the entire Shi'ite world. Islam doesn't have the rigid hierarchical structure of the Catholic church, so ranking Shi'ite leaders is about as precise as saying that LSU had a better football team last year than USC did. Sistani was born in Mashad, Iran, but lives in Najaf, Iraq. He's so beloved in Najaf that, I swear to Allah this is true, vendors there sell commemorative plates with his image on them. If Iraq's commemorative plate industry is anything like ours, that means that Sistani has achieved a level of celebrity that puts him on par with Elvis, Princess Diana, and No. 3 himself, the late Dale Earnhardt.

To find his house next time you're in Najaf, look for a heavily guarded alleyway lined with advice-seeking Muslims. The Western press portrays Sistani as a recluse because he doesn't do interviews nor will he meet with U.S. authorities. But it's not really fair to call a man as a recluse when he in fact offers spiritual guidance to up to 100 people each day (hence the line in the alley).

About Sistani's title — an ayatollah is simply someone who is especially learned in Shi'a Islam and a high-ranking cleric. I'm not exactly sure what makes him a grand ayatollah though. Supposedly, there are only five grand ayatollahs in the world. It probably just means that he's high-ranking — an ayatollah's an ayatollah. Who knows though? Maybe it's just a nickname. Maybe "grand ayatollah" is just a way of saying that Mrs. Sistani is a very lucky woman, if you get my drift.

You can read about Sistani's religious background on his website, www.sistani.org. A lot of it is in English, including a Q&A where the grand ayatollah answers questions about whether it's OK for Muslims to play the lottery, eat caviar, or have anal sex. Just to save you some time, the answers are no, no, and, who'd have guessed it, yes.

Mr. Sistani is currently causing the U.S. a headache because he insists that any Iraqi government should be picked by direct elections. What's the problem with that? Isn't democracy one of the reasons we went into Iraq? Well, yes, but our man in Iraq Paul Bremer wants the first post-U.S. Iraqi government to be selected using a regional caucus system. Sistani, representing a popular Shi'ite viewpoint, is worried that a caucus-style vote might just be a sneaky mechanism to deprive Shi'ites of the majority rule that they've been waiting for since approximately forever. Unlike many people in this country, Iraqi Shi'ites haven't forgotten that the current administration is filled with people such as Cheney and Rumsfeld who've screwed them in the past — supporting Saddam as he kills Shi'ites by the tens of thousands.

Keeping Sistani happy is very important. Thus far, he has instructed his followers to cooperate with the U.S. occupation. If he tells his followers to stop cooperating, the predominantly Sunni resistance that's claiming one U.S. soldier per day could explode into a full-blown Shi'ite and Sunni rebellion against a colonial occupier.

Here's why Sistani's call for direct elections is a problem for us: Bush wants to hand over power to an Iraqi government by June 30 so that Iraq interferes as little as possible with his own re-election campaign. However, Iraqi direct elections would be nearly impossible to organize by June 30. Getting voter rolls together would be hard and guaranteeing security would be even harder. Polling places would be ideal targets for terrorist-style attacks.

This is another example of how alienating the international community and the U.N. is coming back to bite us in the ass. There's a legitimate argument for not having direct elections just yet, but since we're the only ones making it, it leaves us open to a very legitimate criticism — that we're dictating to Iraqis based on our domestic political needs. A true international coalition would not be vulnerable to that charge. Our poor planning has left our soldiers vulnerable to an ayatollah who won't even take our phone calls.


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