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Iraq: Shi’a Groups Flex Muscles As They Gain In Polls

Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is closely linked to the United Iraqi Alliance The vote counting is far from over in Iraq more than a week after the elections for the National Assembly. But with many results in from Shi’a-populated areas of southern Iraq, it increasingly appears that one of the strongest groupings to emerge from the vote will be the United Iraqi Alliance, endorsed by pre-eminent Shi’a cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Some top Shi’a clerics are now making it clear they want to see the Shi’a religious parties that make up much of the alliance use their position to assure that Islamic law gets a prominent place in the new Iraqi constitution.

Prague, 7 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In one early sign of increasing confidence that the alliance is poised to take numerous or even a majority of the seats in the National Assembly, Shi’a religious leaders in recent days have begun speaking publicly about priorities they want the new Iraqi forum to address.

A representative of one of Iraq's top Shi'a clerics -- Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayd -- said yesterday that he wants Islamic law to get a prominent place in Iraq's permanent constitution due to be written this year.

Sheikh Ibrahim Ibrahimi said the Shi'a religious establishment wants "the National Assembly to make Islam the source of legislation in the permanent constitution and to reject any law that is contrary to Islam."

The French news agency AFP today quoted an unidentified source in al-Sistani's camp as saying al-Sistani backs the demand. However, al-Sistani's representatives have made no such public statement.

As some Shi'a religious leaders stress what they want to see from the National Assembly, U.S. leaders are mostly reserving comment.

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney told a U.S. television network yesterday that the National Assembly is a democratic institution that must find its own way.
"The Shi'a in Iraq are Iraqis. They're not Iranians. And the idea that they're going to end up with a government like Iran...I think is unlikely." -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld

"They will [build the Iraqi political system] in accordance with their culture and their history and their beliefs and whatever role they decide they want to have for religion in their society," Cheney said. "And that's as it should be. We need to step back a bit now since this is not just an appointed government. This is the first democratically elected government in Iraq in a very long time. It's now up to Iraqis to take the next step."

The National Assembly will have the power to choose Iraq's next interim government and oversee the writing of the country's permanent constitution.

Still, any sign that the Shi'a religious establishment intends to have a strong voice in Iraq's political affairs worries many in Washington.

That is because of fears that Iraq's Shi'a leadership might be tempted to push for an Islamic government like that in neighboring Iran, where Shi'a clerics control the political process.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged those concerns yesterday. But he called the prospect of clerical rule in Iraq "unlikely."

"The Shi'a in Iraq are Iraqis. They're not Iranians," Rumsfeld said. "And the idea that they're going to end up with a government like Iran, with a handful of mullahs controlling much of the country, I think is unlikely."

So far, it is unclear exactly what specific demands the Shi'a religious parties might include in any drive to make Islam the centerpiece of Iraq's constitution.

But some hints may be provided by conflicts between religious parties and secular members of the former Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) when it wrote the Transitional Administrative Law last year. That law now serves as Iraq's temporary constitution.

The religious parties -- both Shi'a and Sunni -- pressed hard for citing Islam in the temporary constitution as the sole source of the country's laws. But they later compromised with wording describing it as one source among others.

In another instance, the religious parties pushed a bill through the IGC to make it possible to apply Islamic law instead of civil statutes in domestic cases such as divorce and inheritance.

Under Islamic law, women enjoy fewer rights than men. For example, daughters inherit only half as much as sons.

But the bill was fiercely opposed by many Iraqi professional women organizations and was n-o-t signed into law by the U.S. civil administrator of Iraq at the time, L. Paul Bremer.

Analysts say it is too early to predict whether the religious parties will launch new drives in the National Assembly over these same issues. But many observers say that if the religious parties do so, they are no more assured of success now than they were before despite their strong showing in the polls.

Ammar al-Shahbander, a regional expert with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, says that to dominate the assembly the Shi'a religious parties would likely have to make coalitions with additional parties outside of the United Iraqi Alliance.

But if they press too hard for Islamic issues, they might face difficulties both in finding new allies and in retaining support from their current coalition partners. The United Iraqi Alliance includes the major Shi'a religious parties -- the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and Dawa -- plus the party of secular Shi'a politician Ahmad Chalabi and numerous other independent Shi'a and non-Shi'a candidates.

Al-Shahbander says the realities of multiparty politics could limit the religious parties to negotiating details of Iraq's legal system rather than pushing through sweeping changes to it. Iraq's current legal system reflects both Islamic and Western sources.

He says early goals for the Shi'a religious parties could be to adjust some of the legal provisions already inspired by Islamic law to better fit Shi'a -- rather than Sunni -- interpretations of the Koran.

"[Much of] the current Iraqi law is really based on Shari'a," al-Shahbander says. "However, Shi'ite interpretations of Shari'a are quite different than Sunni interpretations of Shari'a. Shi'ites believe in replacing laws like chopping off hands and whipping people. They don't really implement this type of punishments."

However, the full potential of the religious parties will only be known once all of the votes are counted and the members of the new National Assembly seated.

Then, the coalition building will begin in earnest, and the true strengths of Iraq's various rival political camps will emerge.