In the Shiite theocracy of Iran, the people elect the parliament and president, but the nation is not a democracy.
That is because a 12-man Council of Guardians -- half of whose members are clerics appointed by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei -- vetoes candidates and nullifies legislation.
In post-invasion Iraq, a simpler theocratic system has evolved. One man holds the veto. He is Ayatollah Ali Sistani, an Iranian by birth, who is Iraq's pre-eminent Shiite clergyman.
Although Sistani has no formal governmental authority, in practical terms his word has been law in Iraq ever since U.S. forces overthrew Saddam Hussein.
Tragically, he is now trying to stop a draft law aimed at reforming Iraq's de-Baathification policies. The measure was proposed by Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki, a Shiite, and President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd. It would allow most former members of the Baath Party who served in Saddam's government to collect their pensions or return to public service, as long as they had not been indicted or convicted of a crime and were willing to pledge not to speak out against the new government.
This reform is indispensable to reconciling Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites. That is because Iraq's indigenous Sunni insurgency -- as opposed to al-Qaida in Iraq -- is believed to be significantly manned by former Baathists. They resent being thrown out of the military and government service by Ambassador Paul Bremer, who ran Iraq for the United States before Iraqi sovereignty was restored.
Without reconciliation between former Baathists and Iraq's Shiite-dominated government, a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is likely to lead to an escalating civil war, which could in turn lead to a broadening of the conflict to neighboring oil-rich Persian Gulf Arab states, where, as in Saddam's Iraq, Shiites live beneath autocratic Sunni governments.
As Iraqi reconciliation is delayed, U.S. troops are killed and wounded.
On March 26, Maliki and Talabani announced their de-Baathification reform. Last Sunday, Ahmed Chalabi -- who managed the original de-Baathification process directed by Bremer (and who previously was the favorite of some administration officials to become the post-Saddam leader of Iraq) -- met with the reclusive Sistani. After the meeting, a Chalabi aide told The Associated Press that the ayatollah "rejects passing this law because it allows Baathists to return to top state posts."
The next day, a Sistani aide confirmed to The New York Times that the ayatollah did indeed reject the de-Baathification proposal.