Reading Iraq's Ayatollah

Posted: Apr 28, 2004 12:00 AM

 Events of July 30, 2003, at the courthouse in Najaf, a city sacred to Shiite Muslims, may have foreshadowed the larger U.S. effort to establish a new government in Iraq that could finalize our victory there and allow our forces a richly deserved homecoming.

 That's the day a U.S. Marine officer responsible for re-establishing order in that city tried to install its first-ever female judge.

 He was met with "a group of about 30 male and female lawyers," reported New York Times correspondent Neil MacFarquhar. They chanted: "No, No Women."

 The chief justice confronted the officer with a number of fatwas. One had been issued about two months earlier by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the pre-eminent cleric of Iraq's Shias, who constitute about 60 percent of Iraq's population.

 This fatwa addressed two questions. Could women (a) wear perfume and (b) serve as judges? Perfume, yes, said the ayatollah, but judges, no.

 The U.S. officer wisely made a realistic decision: He postponed installing the female judge. Egalitarianism would be nice in Najaf, but moving toward stable government in Iraq is a U.S. national security interest.

 Now skip to March 9 of this year. That's when CIA Director George Tenet presented the Senate Armed Services Committee with this seemingly sunny analysis of the Grand Ayatollah: "Sistani favors direct elections as the way to produce a legitimate, accountable government. His religious pronouncements show that above all else, he wants Iraq to be independent of foreign powers. Moreover, his praise of free elections and his theology reflect, in our reading, a clear-cut opposition to an Iranian-style theocracy."

 Does this square with what happened in Najaf last July? Does it square with what has happened since?

 Consider the Shiite doctrine of "taqiyya" and the ayatollah's increasingly aggressive interventions in politics since the fall of Saddam.

 A glossary on Sistani's Web site defines taqiyya rather blandly: "Dissimulation about one's beliefs in order to protect oneself, family, or property from harm." But a grand jury in Detroit defined it more dramatically last November when it indicted alleged Hizballah fighter Mahmoud Yousseff Kourani. "While in the United States, Kourani employed 'taqiyah,' a Shia Muslim doctrine of concealment, pretense and fraud," said the indictment. "This meant among other things that Kourani would, when he thought necessary, avoid going to mosques, not attend Shiite religious rituals, shave his beard, and otherwise keep his true beliefs secret while inside what he considered hostile territory -- the United States of America."

 The New York Times on April 9 cited unnamed former U.S. intelligence officials who said the CIA "was never able to get solid estimates of the number of Shiite fighters involved in Hezbollah or the Islamic resistance that eventually forced the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon." Why? "Those former officials pointed out that the practice of Taqiyya -- dissembling about one's religion, especially in times of danger -- is particular to Shiism. That particular tradition has made Shiite groups extremely difficult for intelligence officers to penetrate, the former CIA officers said."

 In February, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post correspondent Anthony Shadid cited Iraqis who attributed the practice of taqiyya to the Grand Ayatollah himself. "Many of Sistani's followers," wrote Shadid, "describe his reticence in the years under Hussein as a version of taqiyya."

 Sistani's Web site lists his published and unpublished works. Poignantly, a work entitled, "A Treatise on 'Taqiyya' (precaution)," is listed as not printed yet.

 In June, Sistani issued a fatwa insisting that only Iraqis elected by Iraqis could draft an Iraqi constitution. This scuttled plans for an appointed council to draft a constitution.

 In November, he rejected an alternative plan for local caucuses to elect an interim government that would write the constitution. Abdul Aziz Hakim, a Sistani ally on the Iraqi Governing Council, explained one of the ayatollah's objections: "There should have been a stipulation which prevents legislating anything that contradicts Islam in the new Iraq."

 Sistani has since refused to endorse the interim constitution adopted by the Iraqi Governing Council, which includes many liberalizing reforms and gives Iraq's Kurdish minority at least a fighting chance to reject a permanent constitution it does not like.

 Each step of the way, our overall strategy for dealing with Sistani has been similar to the officer's in Najaf -- practical, not ideological. That's OK, as long as we don't lose sight of the one practical thing we can't leave Baghdad without: a stable government that won't threaten its neighbors or the United States of America.