Shiites in Iraq Say Government Will Be Secular

Posted in Iraq | 24-Jan-05 | Author: Dexter Filkins| Source: The New York Times

Iraqis put up an election banner supporting the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, in Baghdad on Sunday.

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Jan. 21 - With the Shiites on the brink of capturing power here for the first time, their political leaders say they have decided to put a secular face on the new Iraqi government they plan to form, relegating Islam to a supporting role.

The senior leaders of the United Iraqi Alliance, the coalition of mostly Shiite groups that is poised to capture the most votes in the election next Sunday, have agreed that the Iraqi whom they nominate to be the country's next prime minister would be a lay person, not an Islamic cleric.

The Shiite leaders say there is a similar but less formal agreement that clerics will also be excluded from running the government ministries.

"There will be no turbans in the government," said Adnan Ali, a senior leader of the Dawa Party, one of the largest Shiite parties. "Everyone agrees on that."

The decision appears to formalize the growing dominance of secular leaders among the Shiite political leadership, and it also reflects an inclination by the country's powerful religious hierarchy to stay out of the day-to-day governing of the country. Among the Shiite coalition's 228 candidates for the national assembly, fewer than a half dozen are clerics, according to the group's leaders.

The decision to exclude clerics from the government appears to mean that Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a cleric who is the chief of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the scion of a prominent religious family and an oft-mentioned candidate for prime minister, would be relegated to the background. The five Shiites most likely to be picked as prime minister are well-known secular figures.

Shiite leaders say their decision to move away from an Islamist government was largely shaped by the presumption that the Iraqi people would reject such a model. But they concede that it also reflects certain political realities - American officials, who wield vast influence here, would be troubled by an overtly Islamist government. So would the Kurds, who Iraqi and American officials worry might be tempted to break with the Iraqi state.

The emerging policies appear to be a rejection of an Iranian-style theocracy. Iran has given both moral and material support to the country's two largest Shiite parties, Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

The conviction that the Iranian model should be avoided in Iraq is apparently shared by the Iranians themselves. One Iraqi Shiite leader, who recently traveled to Tehran, the Iranian capital, said he was warned by the Iranians themselves against putting clerics in the government.

"They said it caused too many problems," the Iraqi said.

The secular tilt comes as Shiite leaders prepare for what they regard as a historic moment: after decades of official repression, the country's largest group now seems likely to take the helm of the Iraqi state. Mindful of that opportunity, and of previous opportunities missed, the Shiite leaders running for office say they are determined to exercise power in a moderate way, which would include bringing Sunnis into the government and ignoring some powerful voices in their own ranks that advocate a stronger role for Islam in the new constitution.

Still, for all the expressions of unity, just how much consensus exists within the coalition is unclear, as is the coalition's very survival beyond the elections. The Shiite leaders, and the rank and file in the Iraqi electorate, represent a wide array of political visions, and those blocs could rise or fall in influence over time.

Important Shiite clerics like Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani already exert considerable influence in the background, although his brand of Islam is thought to be relatively moderate. Shiite leaders like Mr. Hakim will probably continue to use their power behind the scenes; his views are thought to be more conservative.

During the drafting of the country's interim constitution last year, Mr. Hakim and others pushed for an expansive role for Islam in the new state, as well as restrictions on the rights of women.

Some Iraqis expressed concern that the more radical Shiites, notably the followers of Moktada al-Sadr, would be difficult to control once the election is over.

Mr. Sadr, a young firebrand who led a series of revolts against American forces in the spring and summer, has been silenced for now, and 14 of his followers are candidates in the Shiite coalition. But in mosques and in more private communications, Mr. Sadr and his supporters continue to express support for armed rebellion and for a boycott of the election.

The challenge, the Shiite leaders say, will be holding their coalition together after Jan. 30, when the jockeying for power, in what is likely to be a coalition government, begins.

"It was very difficult to bring the coalition together," said Ali Faisal, a leader of Iraqi Hezbollah, a Shiite party that is part of the group. "There is a good chance that it will fall apart."

If the Shiite coalition were to crumble, Shiite leaders fear, they could lose ground to the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, a secular-minded Shiite, or to the Kurdish parties, which are unified on a single slate and which will probably benefit from a large turnout.

Kurdish leaders have already begun to talk up the prospect of Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union for Kurdistan, getting the post of president, which would give him enormous power in shaping the composition of the new government.

The Shiite coalition, known as the United Iraqi Alliance, was pulled together under the leadership of Ayatollah Sistani, the country's most powerful Shiite cleric and a native of Iran. Ayatollah Sistani, without formally endorsing any political party, has issued an Islamic edict calling on all eligible Iraqi Shiites to vote.

The Shiite coalition is widely expected to pull in the largest number of votes on election day. Shiites make up about 60 percent of the electorate here, and if, as expected, large numbers of Iraqi Sunnis boycott the election, then Shiites could capture an even larger percentage of the national assembly seats.

The decision to exclude clerics from the senior positions in the Iraqi government has set off a scramble for the post of prime minister. Under the election rules, the prime minister is to be chosen by the party or group that forms a government, presumably by the group that wins the largest number of seats in the 275-member national assembly.

Among the Shiites, the leading candidates for prime minister are thought to be Adil Abdul Mahdi, the Iraqi finance minister and a leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq; Ibrhaim Jofferey, the head of the Dawa Party; Hussein Shahristani, a nuclear scientist; and Ahmad Chalabi, who marshaled support for the toppling of Saddam Hussein's government in the Bush administration and has since become a pariah. All are candidates for the United Iraqi Alliance.

All four candidates are secular-minded leaders who spent much of their lives in exile. They maintain that they will borrow from Islam's tenets in writing the country's constitution, the main task for the new government, but will ensure that the Iraqi state does not have a religious cast.

Mr. Mahdi, for instance, flirted with communism in his youth, has two master's degrees from French universities and maintains a home in France. Mr. Shahristani was educated in Canada and is married to a Canadian. Mr. Chalabi, the most overtly secular of the group, has a doctorate in mathematics and spent much of the past 30 years in Britain and the United States. Dr. Jofferey is a medical doctor who lived in London.

Also a contender for the prime minister's job is Dr. Allawi, the current head of the Iraqi government, who was chosen last June by the United Nations envoy, Lakdhar Brahimi, and the American leadership. Dr. Allawi is running for the national assembly as the leader of his own slate of candidates, called the Iraqi List.

Dr. Allawi's chances to remain as prime minister are thought to depend not just on how well his group does at the polls, but on how well the United Iraqi Alliance fares. If Dr. Allawi's group performs well, and the Shiite coalition less well, then Dr. Allawi, Shiite leaders say, could become a leading candidate for prime minister. It was a deadlock between Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq last June that allowed Dr. Allawi to become minister.

That principal trend in Iraqi Shiism, known as quietism, rejects the kind of political role for the clergy that it has in Iran. Indeed, some prominent Iraqi Shiite religious leaders note that the Iranian government, after taking power in 1979, marginalized and persecuted Iranian followers of the quietist school in that country.

"It's a completely different concept of government," Mr. Shahristani said, referring to the Iraqi government. "The Iraqi government and the constitution will seek neither an Islamic government nor the participation of Islamic clerics in the government."

The ayatollahs will not be part of the government in any way or express views on day-to-day governance."

Ayatollah Sistani, though an adherent of the quietest school, has involved himself in every step of the political process here. Though he has stopped short of endorsing political candidates, he has come close to backing the Shiite slate. Earlier this month, some candidates in Dr. Allawi's slate protested that the use of Ayatollah Sistani's picture on the United Iraqi Alliance's election posters violated the ban on the use of religious symbols.

Indeed, some Iraqi Shiite leaders say it will probably fall to Ayatollah Sistani to hold the coalition together once the election is over.

Shiite leaders agree that the biggest task facing the next Iraqi government will be mollifying the Sunni Arabs, who they have displaced as Iraq's dominant group. The Sunnis are a minority in Iraq but a majority in the rest of the Arab world, and some of their leaders have had a difficult time reconciling themselves to a subordinate role.

While Shiite leaders say they intend to reach out to the Sunnis, they will have to overcome no small amount of suspicion. Publicly, that suspicion is usually expressed by making reference to Iran, the powerful Shiite-majority neighbor to the east.

"We're not afraid of the Shia or the Kurds governing Iraq," said Sheik Moayad Brahim al-Adhami, leader of the Abu Hanifa mosque, a Sunni bastion in Baghdad. "But what we're afraid of is a fundamentalist representing a foreign country's interests."

Edward Wong contributed reporting from Baghdad for this article.