Allan Topol is a partner in a large Washington-based international law firm. He has a science and engineering degree from Carnegie Mellon, and a law degree from Yale University. For almost 40 years, he has been involved in issues at the height of the Washington power structure.
He is also a national bestselling novelist, using the thriller genre to explore international geopolitical and military issues. His 2001 novel, SPY DANCE, is about a former CIA agent on the run and Saudi Arabian oil. His 2003 novel, DARK AMBITION, deals with the corruption of power in Washington and China's threatening posture toward Taiwan. In January 2004, his new novel CONSPIRACY was released dealing with a foreign leader's attempt to influence an American presidential election and the possibility of renewed militarism in Japan.
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With much fanfare, the signing of an interim constitution for Iraq was heralded in the media. Personally, I think the celebration is premature. Ayatollah Sistani and the Shiites have signaled that they have no intention of being bound by what their so called representatives signed.
To gain a better idea of the kind of Iraq that Ayatollah Sistani and his followers envision, one need only look at neighboring Iran and its so called election two weeks ago. Some in the world had hoped that twenty-five years after the founding of the Islamic Republic by Ayatollah Khomeini, that Iran has evolved into a meaningful democracy. They have been proven wrong.
Over the years, many Iranian politicians called themselves reformers, but they got nowhere. Progressive newspapers have been closed down. Behavior not in accordance with an Ayatollah's interpretation of Islamic law has been severely punished.
The Iranian constitution permits decisions of the parliament to be struck down by the "just and pious" clergymen of the Council of Guardians. For the February parliamentary elections, the Council disqualified more than 2,000 candidates, including eighty-seven existing members of parliament.
But it doesn't end there. The Council in turn is subordinate to the top cleric and "supreme leader," who is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Transfer this concept across Iran's western border to Iraq and it's easy to see what Ayatollah Sistani wants. Among Shiites, he already has the de facto supremacy enjoyed by Khamenei in Iran. Comprising sixty percent of the Iraqi population, the Shiites will never sign a final document which does not meet with Sistani's approval. That means a constitution which, like Iran's, imposes his will on the rest of the country. It means women are required to have their hair covered outside of the home.
This type of authoritarian theocracy is precisely what the Kurds will not accept, and the Sunnis for that matter. They would rather split Iraq into three pieces than live under an Ayatollah dominated theocracy. The Shiites are very well aware of this fact.
Evaluated in this light, the interim constitution, which is intended to serve as the basis for a permanent constitution to be developed in the future, is a superb document. No question about it. Crafted under the guidance of American lawyers in the finest traditions of the U.S. legal system, its objective is to ensure the participation of all of Iraq's communities in the government, and it contains a bill of rights based upon our own. Going beyond the American constitution, the document even promises that women will comprise at least one quarter of the membership in the national legislature.
The difficulty is that even as they were signing, the Shiite representatives were explaining loudly and clearly that they had objections to some of the provisions and the document will have to be revised.
As a Shiite spokesman, Hamid al-Bayati, a senior leader with the Supreme Council for the Islamic revolution in Iraq said, "we've decided to sign the constitution and resolve the problems in it later." Not worth the paper it's printed on is the expression that kept popping into my mind as I read about the signing.
The primary "problems" for the Shiites alluded by Hamid are two fold. First is the fact that Islam is to be only "a source" for the laws governing the Republic. Not "the source" of the law. The second is that the interim constitution in essence provides the Kurdish minority with a veto over the terms in the final constitution and many operations of the government. It was an ingenious short term solution, developed by the Americans, because it folds the concept of federation into a single Iraqi state.
In the long term, it leaves behind an issue, which is major and intractable. Unquestionably the Shiites will want the final constitution to provide for the creation of a theocracy with ultimate control of the government in the hands of the highest ranking Ayatollah and with Islamic law ruling the country. In their vision of Iraq there will be no veto for the Kurds.
So why did Ayatollah Sistani permit the Shiite representatives to sign the interim constitution which appears to give the Kurds what they want?
The answer is pragmatism. The Shiites have one objective right now. That's to get the Americans out of Iraq so they can begin to transform the country into a theocracy.
This was a clever move on their part. To hold back and press the battle in the future. Let's not delude ourselves into believing we have won a victory with this interim constitution. It's the endgame that counts. With the U.S. insisting on democracy which means popular elections and with a majority of sixty percent under his control, Ayatollah Sistani still holds the most powerful hand at the table.