Iraqi Culture Night in the Green Zone?
When I first read it in The Washington Post I flinched. There was
no way that the skeptical eye of an already poised international
media was going to overlook this story’s tragic irony: One
year and three months into the occupation, the U.S. military,
hamstrung by its tactical miscalculations and general cultural
illiteracy, belatedly begins the process of instructively
acclimating U.S. soldiers to the Iraqi socio-political dynamic.

Sam Singer

As the reconstruction period has progressed, the
Coalition’s fundamental incomprehension of the Iraqi theatre
has grown all the more apparent. The military’s prewar
assessment of Iraq’s numerous ethnic blocs as politically
vulnerable, rudimentary splinters that would capitulate to U.S.
strong-arming was indeed a crude one. And no group has brought the
Bush administration more anguish for its one-dimensionality than
the religious leadership of the country’s largest ethnic
faction, the Shiites. In particular, the shadowy Grand Ayatollah,
Ali Al-Sistani, unmistakably the nation’s most influential
figurehead, has come to represent a perpetual headache for the
Provisional Authority. The Coalition’s relationship with the
cleric has grown gradually more lopsided as the mullah uses his
unbounded political clout to circumvent one U.S. policy after
another.

A professed political moderate, from the very beginning Sistani
was flagged as a cooperative liaison between Bremer and the
embattled Shiite majority. His support was considered critical, not
only as a powerbroker, but as an icon of legitimacy.
Disappointingly, the only thing that analysts underestimated more
than Sistani’s obstinacy was his loyalty. The sheik’s
unyielding demand for an electoral system based on direct
representation has been grounds for constant U.S. backpedaling and
has left a vulnerable Iraqi government exposed in the eye of a
political hurricane.

Sistani’s first eruption came last fall after Bremer
entrusted the task of crafting a permanent constitution to the
soon-to-be-appointed Provisional Authority. A symbol of stability
to the Bush administration, a permanent constitution was a post-war
necessity — a cornerstone promise Bremer never saw himself
breaking. But to Sistani, the idea was an affront to democratic
sovereignty, and the sheik threw flames until the U.S. proconsul
gave ground. Sistani’s next casualty would be Adnan Pachachi,
a former Foreign Minister and Bremer’s trophy pick to fill
the Presidential spot in the forthcoming regime. Pachachi, however,
declined the executive reigns; a startling move that numerous
sources maintain was the result of outside pestering from
Sistani.

In the wake of the June 28 handover the cleric’s
stonewalling is likely to intensify. Just weeks ago, Sistani locked
horns with Kurdish leadership over the language of a recent United
Nations resolution — a minor illustration of what seems to be
an inoperable stalemate. The cleric has denounced Kurdish petitions
for regional autonomy and has managed to flush any special
concessions to the Kurds out of the recent resolution. In
recognition of Shiite opposition, the authors of the carefully
worded document shied away from explicit references to the
Transitional Administrative Law, a set of statutes that devolve
veto power to ethnic Kurds over the merits of a permanent
constitution.

Riled by the resolution, Iraq’s two most powerful Kurdish
officials wrote a scorching letter to President Bush threatening to
withdraw from the new government if issues of federalism were not
adequately addressed. Then, in a rare demonstration of hostility
for a customarily docile community, thousands of ethnic Kurds
traveled north in a collective struggle to repossess territory that
was taken from them under the Baath regime. Add to that the 1.7
million Kurds who signed a ballot initiative in support of holding
a regional referendum on independence, and a troubling pattern
appears.

As newly appointed Prime Minister Allawi cautiously considers
the hand he has been dealt, he does not see a budding democracy, he
sees a ruptured and deadlocked populace — a nation on the
brink of a succession crisis. Isn’t it a little late for
Iraqi Culture Night in the Green Zone?

Singer can be reached at
“mailto:singers@umich.edu”>singers@umich.edu.

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