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Iraq: Shi'a Group Says No Need To Fear Majority Rule

An influential Shi'a politician says he only supports the direct election of a provisional Iraqi government and insists the Sh'ia should have a major role in a future democratic Iraq.

Al-Najaf, Iraq; 26 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Sheikh Ayatollah Muhammad Al-Yaqubi is one of the leaders of the influential Shi'a organization called Al-Hawzah Al-Ilmia, headed by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Al-Hawzah -- based in Al-Najaf -- is an international network of Shi'a universities. Its elders are regarded as the final authority on religious and political matters for Shi'a worldwide.

Al-Yaqubi says Al-Hawzah fully supports the idea of putting in place a provisional Iraqi government but says the plan agreed on by the U.S. and the Iraqi Governing Council is faulty. As part of that plan, provincial caucuses are expected to choose a transitional assembly by the end of May. The transitional assembly would elect a sovereign government by the end of June.

Al-Yaqubi says Al-Hawzah does not support a provisional government that is appointed or selected. He says there are no reasons why the provisional bodies should not be directly elected. He notes that some 80 percent of the country is stable.

"Probably 80 percent of Iraq is stable, and we can go ahead with the elections with the agreement of the Ministry of Planning and the Ministry of Education, as we had it in the past," Al-Yaqubi said.

He says polling stations could be established at schools. The balloting would be supervised by teachers and other members of local communities.

"We are organizing more difficult and sophisticated things, for example pilgrimages to Najaf," Al-Yaqubi says. "On the other hand, even in the United States of America, they never have 100 percent participation."

He says the agreed plan will not be successful because many local councils are in the hands of previously unknown officials who wield little authority:

"For example, in Al-Najaf city. I don't know what is the situation in other councils, how they were formed in other places, but the town council in Najaf was formed in a very unknown way," Al-Yaqubi said.

Al-Yaqubi says a provisional government that is not directly elected will face the same problems as the Iraqi Governing Council.

"Then we will come back to the same problem that exists in the Governing Council -- namely, how the Governing Council was formed," he says. "After several months, we have discovered that the Governing Council needs to be improved. A provisional government is likely to be in power for two years, and we do not need to discover after some short period of time that it [lacks legitimacy]."

Direct elections in Iraq -- whenever they occur -- are likely to give much more power to the Shi'a than they have ever enjoyed. Shi'a Arabs make up more than 60 percent of Iraq's population, but the Sunni minority has always ruled the country. Under the plan agreed to by the Governing Council, a fully democratic government is expected to be in place in Iraq by the end of 2005.

Al-Yaqubi says Shi'a rule in Iraq would be the rule of the majority and that there is nothing for either the Arab world or the West to fear.

"If the Shi'a are the majority, what's wrong with that?" says Al-Yaqubi. He continues: "I don't know why they are scared that a Shi'a government will be like the one in Iran. No, [elections] won't lead to that because we will have a parliamentary government, but not the vilayat al-faqikh [the rule of a senior cleric] practiced in Iran."

"I don't know why there is some sensitivity about this in the Arab world, why they are annoyed by the Shi'a having their own government," says Al-Yaqubi.

Al-Yaqubi says Al-Hawzah opposes a weak federal state consisting of Kurdish, Shi'a, and Sunni entities.

"From a political point of view," he says, "we support a strong central government without autonomous governments. Any talk of federalism will lead to a division of Iraq."

Commenting on reports that U.S. troops might stay in Iraq even after the country's sovereignty is fully restored, Al-Yaqubi says: "It is expected that the coalition forces will stay in Iraq. They won't pull out. They didn't come all this way just for Iraqi democracy. They have some interests here. But with God's help, with dialogue, after we have a constitutional government in place, we will resolve these issues."

However, Al-Yaqubi says the U.S. should respect Shi'a interests and the role of the Shi'a in the country. Otherwise, he says, the U.S. could encounter an uprising: "The Shi'a are calm because they hope they will have their rights [guaranteed] peacefully in a dialogue. But if they feel something is wrong, maybe they will have another say in it."

Al-Yaqubi says the people could rise up against the coalition without a specific fatwa, or religious ruling, if they feel they have been deceived.