Iraq's political transition is at a turning point. The U.N. Secretary-General's special envoy, Lakdhar Brahimi, ended his week-long mission with no resolution to the dispute over how sovereignty will be transferred to the Iraqis on June 30. He found tensions between the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Interim Governing Council, spoke of the potential for civil war, and rejected the demand by Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority for early elections, warning that "conducting elections without adequate preparations could lead to even more disagreements." But Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, Ayattollah Ali Sistani, continues to argue that only direct general elections can be used to effect the transition.
Sistani's insistence on elections has stalled the Bush Administration's plan to hold regional caucuses to choose an interim government. According to the Washington Post, Ambassador Brahimi believes direct nationwide elections could be held by late this year. But a fundamental disagreement still exists among Shiites, Sunnis and the Bush Administration over how Iraq should be governed between the transfer of sovereignty and the election. Ambassador Brahimi is expected to submit proposals to address the political standoff to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan later this week.
The Center for American Progress sat down with Joost Hiltermann Middle East Project Director of the International Crisis Group and former director of the Iraq Documents Project at Human Rights Watch, to discuss the latest developments. Hiltermann recently returned from a trip to Iraq.
How important to Iraqis is the return of sovereignty? What's driving the administration's insistence on the June deadline?
Generally speaking what is most important to Iraqis is their own security, jobs, and electricity. But one issue where their expectations have been raised and where it will be very difficult for them now to change is the issue of the return of sovereignty. Now that the deadline has been given it will be very difficult to tinker with that.
The deadline was agreed to in the "November 15 agreement" between [Coalition Provisional Authority Administrator] Jerry Bremer and the Interim Governing Council in Iraq. It's not really clear why the June date was chosen. It's my understanding that Bremer was given a bit of leeway when he went back to Iraq from his deliberations at the White House.
I must say that he was given one clear guideline, which is that there had to be handover of sovereignty to Iraqis well in advance of the American election – there's no question about that. So why it's June 30, as opposed to July 15, or June 15, or Labor Day, we're not sure. I can imagine if for some reason there has to be a slight delay, there would be a drop dead date of Labor Day, but that would be difficult as the Iraqis are not expecting any delay.
What effect would delaying the transfer of power beyond June 30 have?
Well, first, I'm not sure there will be a delay. The elections may happen later in the year or perhaps early next year, but that doesn't mean the transfer of power needs to be delayed. While it might be a good thing to delay that as well, I think because expectations have been raised in Iraq and because of the looming American elections, it would be very difficult to do so.
So you need to think about separating the two: the transfer of power and the electoral process. That means the question now becomes: who are you going to transfer power to on June 30? While a delay is almost impossible, it could depend on the reason given. I think if Ayatollah Sistani comes out and says the United Nations has told us we can't have general elections until January of 2005 and if he insists that sovereignty can only be handed over to a legitimate government that is elected by the Iraqi people and that therefore, the June 30 deadline needs to be moved to January 2005, many people may go along.
What's driving the demands of Ayatollah Ali Sistani?
Two things. One, he is an exponent of Shiite power in Iraq. He is the most respected religious scholar in the Shiite community. He is clearly representing Shiite interests when he calls for general elections. There is the idea among the Shiites, as well as outside, that the Shiites can parlay their demographic majority into political dominance. Therefore, it's very convenient for Sistani, and the Shiites generally, to call for the maximum in democratic procedures – a general election. Because it both looks good and would help Shiites come to power. There's a confluence of factors.
Second, the thing that also seems to drive Sistani – and to give him appeal beyond the Shiite community when he calls for elections – is that he appears to be posing as an Iraqi nationalist, despite the fact that he's Iranian-born. He's clearly positioning himself as one who does not want to see outsiders, particularly the United States and Great Britain, impose procedure or process on the Iraqis. That finds great resonance among Iraqis of all stripes, including Sunni Arabs and even some Kurds.
Sunni Arabs are in some ways conflicted. They express respect for Sistani. They support his call for general elections. At the same time, they express fear of the Shiite majority. Many also understand, though, that the Shiite community is not homogenous and that elections would not necessarily bring a Shiite majority block on every single issue. The Shiite community consists of secular parties like the Iraqi Communist party, which is predominately Shiite. There are secular members of the Iraqi Governing Council like Ahmed Chalabi and Iyad Allawai; there are religious Shiites who don't believe there is a role for the clerics in politics, such as Sistani himself; and then there are religious Shiites who strongly believe that the clerics do have a role in politics like Sciri and the Da'wa factions.
Is there an Iranian influence on Sistani?
Not as a nation or as an ethnicity that is easily detectable. His religious rulings are straight Shiite rulings. They don't have a Persian or Iranian background. He's lived in Iraq most of his life and has studied in Najaf for most of his life. When it comes to his politics, he also doesn't seem to be influenced by Iran. It's ironic that Iran has called for elections and democracy in Iraq. I wish they would call for that in Iran. But they did it because they have this notion that elections are good for Shiites in Iraq, and even though it is not clear Iran would benefit from a Shiite victory in Iraq, they're unlikely to be harmed by it. But that doesn't mean that this is something that is driving Sistani.
What sort of compromise do you think Sistani is looking for from Brahimi and Bremer?
At this point, and even before Lakdhar Brahimi went to Iraq, it would be very difficult for him to go back on his demands for elections. But he did leave himself a way out and said that if the United Nations came and said elections were not possible, he would consider the maximum possible alternative under the current circumstances.
It's very clear and Sistani has not intervened in politics very much, but he has more influence than anyone else, and he has been consistent from the beginning. Starting in June until today, he has only made the call for democracy, which he equates as elections, either to a Constitutional Assembly or now a Transitional National Assembly. It's going to be very difficult for him to back off from that having taken this position so consistently, so vigorously, and so publicly.
Now it seems like the United Nations is going to go along with that, which is not so surprising. But it is likely they will also determine that it's not possible to hold such elections before the June 30 deadline. So we're back to the question of whom power is going to be transferred to if we stick to the June deadline. Then the matter becomes what kind of compromise would Sistani and his supporters accept for the new transitional period, which is June 30 and the date of general elections to a Transitional National Assembly.
What kind of compromise do you think they will come up with?
I don't know. There's very little support for the Interim Governing Council so that's clearly not an option. Perhaps the Interim Governing Council could be expanded to more accurately reflect Iraqi society and be less skewed toward former exiles who are now dominating the Council.
For example, one could think of bringing the eighteen governors onto the Interim Governing Council and perhaps some members of the Provisional councils as well. That would definitely address that balance. That would also bring more people from the Shiite south and center, as well as other Sunnis and Kurds onto the Council that have more legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraqi people than the people who are currently on it.
Otherwise we need to think of an entire new electoral exercise before June 30, but one that would be a lot simpler than the caucus process that has been designed and certainly one that would not carry the same name, as that's been tainted by Sistani and others in the past two months.
How important is it for the United Nations to play a visible role?
It's critically important. At the moment in Iraq, despite the United Nations' past in Iraq when it was not well-regarded, the United Nations is seen as a multilateral actor and the voice of the international community and as such, having more legitimacy than the United States and United Kingdom. At this point, the latter's legitimacy is much reduced because of all of the problems that have occurred – the reversals in policy, the lack of security that still prevails in some areas, the absence of stable electricity, the real problem of joblessness. The United Nations, despite its past, has less baggage and more legitimacy than the occupying powers.
 The Interim Governing Council was appointed by U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer in early July 2003. On June 30, 2004, the Coalition Provisional Authority is scheduled to transfer full authority to the council. According to the November 15 agreement, the 25-member council will then hold authority in the country until a constitution is written and elections are held.
 According to CIA World Fact Book, Shiites account for 60% of the population; Sunnis for 30%; and Kurds for 10%.
 According to an October 2003 Gallup Poll, 50% of Baghdad residents viewed the United Nations as "favorable" – opposed to 29% who felt that way about the United States, and 24% about the United Kingdom.