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Iraq: Shia Leadership Criticizes U.S. Plan To Transfer Power

Iraq's influential Shi'a religious leadership has criticized a U.S.-backed plan to transfer power to Iraqis as incomplete and for not paying enough attention to the role of Islam. Resistance from top clerics may harm the smooth implementation of the plan and could even scuttle it altogether.

Prague, 27 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A leader of the Iraqi Shi'a, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has criticized a U.S.-backed plan to speed up the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqi.

He did not speak directly, but through Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, a leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and a member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. Speaking yesterday after meeting the cleric in the Iraqi city of Al-Najaf, Hakim said, "Discussions centered during the meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on the project proposed to the Governing Council, where he was informed about the draft paper of [the U.S.-backed plan for transferring power]. He expressed extreme concern about the existing gaps, which need to be dealt with, otherwise the project is short of meeting the aspirations of the Iraqi people."

Hakim said the ayatollah said the draft did not "assure the Islamic identity" of a future Iraq. He also said al-Sistani disagreed with the plan's call for elections only in 2005 and not before.

Analysts say al-Sistani's doubts about the plan could lead to its rejection by many of the country's Shi'a Muslims, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's population.

The plan to transfer power, signed this month by U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer and the current head of the Governing Council, Jalal Talabani, calls for a transitional national assembly to be chosen next year in regional caucuses. The caucuses would be attended by politicians and select scholars, professionals, tribal chiefs, and legal experts.

The assembly in turn would elect a provisional government to take power by 1 July. This new administration would run the country until general elections can be held and a new constitution adopted before the end of 2005.

Analyst Neil Partrick, an editor with the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, says that at the moment influential Shi'a clerics do not seem to have major objections to the plan, but do have problems with the details and with the pace of the transition.

"They (the Shiite clerics) would be concerned that the dual elements are being brought along in the process. I mean on the one hand, a number of influential parties, including a number of Shi'a clerics, do want to see clear lines towards a sovereign government and removal of the U.S.-led coalition forces. On the other hand, they do not want much of a rush. In a sense, it makes it difficult to satisfy both of those elements."

One of the areas of concern to the Shi'a community in Iraq is a balance of power and their fair representation after decades of Sunni domination of the country's political arena.

"It may be [a questions of] the number of figures within the Governing Council who'd be seen to be playing a leading role. And that may be not adequate enough representation for all strands of Shi'a opinion. I think this would concern Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani," Partrick says.

Another area of concern is the drafting of the future constitution of Iraq. Many analysts believe the final version of the Iraqi constitution that is scheduled to be accepted by the end of 2005 would reflect many ideas introduced by the United States. Partrick says some of the ideas might be seen as problematic by the Shi'a religious elite.

"I don't think that moving quickly is 'per se' a problem," Patrick said. "It's really on what basis it is done. And, of course, moving quickly when the constitutional arrangements -- which causes a key concern of Shi'a clerics -- have not been ironed out and are not seen to be accountable to Iraqis -- and are not seen to be reflective enough of their concern as Shi'a clerical leaders -- that obviously can be a problem as well."

Analysts say that without support from al-Sistani and other senior Shi'a clerics, it is unlikely that any political program could win broad public acceptance. But they say there is still time to amend the process to resolve these problems.