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.
This is only Sistani's latest power play. In 2003, the ayatollah rejected a U.S. proposal that an appointed committee draft Iraq's constitution, insisting on elections for an interim government to write it, instead. When those elections were held, the ayatollah put together and endorsed the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition dominated by Shiite Islamist parties. When that coalition won the election and dominated the constitution-writing process, the ayatollah insisted that the constitution include language preventing any legislation that contradicted Islam. The final draft: "No law can be passed that contradicts the principles of Islam."
When the ayatollah endorsed the draft constitution, more than 90 percent of voters in predominantly Shiite regions cast ballots to ratify it, while more than 90 percent of voters in predominantly Sunni regions voted against it.
The ayatollah's favored Shiite-Islamist coalition now runs Iraq under a constitution overwhelming rejected by the country's Sunni minority.
Meanwhile, Sistani has published decrees on his multilingual Website elaborating theological views that were suppressed during Saddam's rule. These include his view that a husband can forbid his wife from going out, that a man can contract to marry a "temporary" wife for a period as short as one hour, and that singing and the game of chess are forbidden.
Most important to the U.S. troops who liberated Iraq, and the U.S. diplomats trying to politically stabilize the country, is Sistani's nagging suspicion that Christians and Jews might be "najis" (impure), as opposed to "pak" (clean).
"As regards the people of the Book (i.e., the Jews and Christians)," the ayatollah decreed, "... they are commonly considered najis, but it is not improbable that they are pak. However, it is better to avoid them."
Still, Sistani has had defenders in the United States who have argued that all this ayatollah really wants is a democratic country where people of all religions can live in peace and equality. Then-CIA Director George Tenet exemplified this thinking when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 9, 2003, that Sistani's "praise for free elections and his theology reflect, in our reading, a clear-cut opposition to Iranian-style theocracy."
The Presidential Medal of Freedom winner was right in one sense: In an Iranian-style theocracy, it takes a whole committee of ayatollahs to tell the elected government what to do.