Tuesday, December 07, 2004

What will the Shia do? 

That's the big question of Iraq 2005, isn't it?

So far, Grand Ayatollah Sistani has proved himself to be a consummate politician. He and the Shia establishment seem to understand very well that the best way to make the Americans leave Iraq is not to fight them but to have a democratic election. Hence, Sistani has tacitly allowed the Americans and the Iraqi authorities to crush the Al Sadr uprising, thus eliminating the uncontrollable upstart opposition to Sistani's authority and a potential source of disruption in the run-up to the election. There was also no repeat of the shows of solidarity between the Shias and the Sunnis we have witnessed during the first major flare-up of violence back in April. This time, the Shias stood back in silence as the Coalition moved against Fallujah. Since the end of the Al Sadr uprising, the south of the country remains relatively peaceful and troubles-free.

The Shias constitute 60% of the population of Iraq. The arithmetic alone suggests they are likely to play the dominant role in any democratically elected government. In the recent months, Sistani has been able to oversee the formation of an
electoral alliance between the two largest Shia parties the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and Daawa, as well as some Kurdish and Sunni parties. By all accounts it should be a formidable electoral force.

So what will happen should the Shia parties win the majority in the National Assembly? Sistani is a proponent of the
"quietist" school, which in contrast to Khomeini-style mullahocracy, doesn't seek direct religious control of the political sphere. Still, can the Shias work within a pluralistic, democratic environment in which the minorities are protected from the tyranny of the majority? Will the Iraqi Shias, after centuries of oppression and domination by the minority Sunnis, be tempted to exact revenge once in power? And will the Sunnis peacefully accept a Shia-dominated government, even if it shows restraint towards them?

A few days ago, some
600 leaders from five Shia provinces in south-central Iraq met in Najaf to discuss the push for greater local autonomy. In this, and similar other meetings that have been taking place throughout Iraq in the past year or so, might lie the roots of the best possible scenario for the post-election future of Iraq: robust federalism.

Hardly anyone would want to see Iraq disintegrate as a state, but most would like to see the country's ethnic and religious mosaic accommodated in some sort of an arrangement that doesn't leave anyone too aggrieved and unhappy. Having a central government in Baghdad with a narrow range of responsibilities (largely foreign relations and defense), complimented by a considerable degree of autonomy within the three main regions of the country (Kurd, Sunni and Shia), including taxation and provision of public services, would arguably create a political climate of national unity, without any group feeling oppressed and controlled by the others.

Federalism has worked to various degrees of success in the United States, Australia, Canada, and Germany. It could work in Iraq too, where the local conditions make it an even more important than in any advanced Western democracy.


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