Increasing Islamic Influence in Iraq

Posted: Jan 21, 2004 12:00 AM

Although President Bush devoted much time to foreign policy in his State of the Union address, there is one issue he did not tackle in detail that could yet cause him political harm before November: Islamists? increasing power inside Iraq.

  Most media attention has focused on Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq?s most powerful Shi?ite cleric, who has repeatedly called for immediate, direct elections in recent weeks.  Given that Sistani has been told by the United Nations, among others, that ?democracy? takes just a few months and the casting of ballots, the cleric?s position seems nothing if not reasonable.

  Establishing direct elections before the foundations of a free society?free press and freedoms of religion and speech most importantly?have taken root, however, can lead to very un-democratic outcomes, particularly if radical Islamists take the reins.  Iran?s 1979 referendum is the ultimate cautionary tale.  Most Iranians regretted the result within months, yet the country is still in the clutches of the mullahs a quarter-century later.

  Iraq is already taking steps in Iran?s direction.

  Last month, the Iraqi Governing Council decided to reverse course on decades of modernized civil law in order to embrace sharia, or Islamic law.  Sharia is not the same in all implementations, but in any form it is almost certain to mark a step back for the women of Iraq.  And if sharia is used as the universal civil law, the rights of all religious minorities, including Christians, Jews, and other non-Muslims, could be jeopardized.

  The U.S. civilian administrator, Paul Bremer, has yet to approve or veto the IGC?s embrace of Islamic law, although many administration officials believe he is unlikely to stand up to the IGC on such a significant issue.  If he does allow it, there will no doubt be a cavalcade of critics lining up to say, ?I told you so.?

  Before the liberation of Iraq, naysayers and doomsdayers predicted that ousting Saddam would create a haven for radical Islamic terrorists, actually aiding al Qaeda.  The argument went that Saddam was a bad guy, but at least he was a secular bad guy?someone who was keeping the Islamist threat at bay.

  With the growing Islamist influence in Iraq, it is tempting to say that the critics who would have preferred that Saddam stay in power were right.  But they weren?t then, and they aren?t now.  That doesn?t change the fact, however, that something needs to be done to prevent Iraq from going the route of its neighbor Iran.

  If anyone is to blame for the Islamist decision of the IGC to adopt sharia, it is the U.S., which stacked the 25-member body with Islamists.  There are some on the council who are committed to secular democracy, and three of the members are women.  But as evidenced by the closely divided vote in favor of sharia, the Islamists have considerable, if not controlling, clout within the IGC.

  Other actions of Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) have also indicated a preference toward Islamists.  Bremer seems to have a soft spot for IGC member Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, former spokesman in the 1990's for the Dawa Party, which is responsible for the 1983 bombing of the embassy in Kuwait that killed six and injured dozens.

  Al-Rubaie?s profile was raised even higher when he was one of two IGC members tapped to meet individually with Secretary of State Colin Powell in September.  But unlike leaders such as Ayatollah Sistani, al-Rubaie has no natural constituency among the Iraqi people.

  Even on a smaller level, the U.S. is sending all the wrong signals.  At some secular public schools, for example, the CPA is allowing security to be handled by Islamic religious guards?and the money to pay for it comes from the Ministry of Education.

  To the extent the CPA has been talking about defending the rights of minorities, it is to discuss the need for affirmative action for Sunnis.  Regardless of the regime, Shi?ites have always suffered at the hands of Sunnis.  So any perceived embrace of Sunnis will only serve to alienate the U.S. from the Shi?ite majority.

  With the State of the Union address finished, Bush needs to ensure Iraq truly becomes the success story it deserves to be.