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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 November, 2003, 14:01 GMT
US Iraq plan unpopular with Shias

By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst

The latest American plan for Iraq's political future is running into trouble.

The country's most senior Shia Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is reported to feel it fails to give a sufficient role to the Iraqi people - or to acknowledge the role of Islam in Iraqi society.

Ayatollah Sistani objected to the first American plan for Iraq's political future.

Shias demonstrating
Many Shia Muslims are suspicious of US intentions
Back in June he issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, saying only Iraqis who had been elected by the people could draft a new constitution.

The American view was (and is) that nationwide elections are not a practical possibility.

There are no voter lists. There needs to be a new census. And insecurity in parts of the country would deter voters.

Timetable

Nevertheless, in an effort to get round the ayatollah's objections, the Americans came up with a new plan, which was endorsed by the Iraqi Governing Council on 15 November.

The new plan sets out a timetable for a swifter transfer of power - by the middle of next year - to a partially elected government.

In a mere three months, by the end of February, the Americans and the Governing Council are to draw up a "fundamental law". This will serve as an interim constitution.

Shia Muslims at prayer
The Shia will have to be reassured that they will get a share of power
Then a series of local meetings, or caucuses, in each of Iraq's 18 provinces are to choose the 250 members of a "transitional national assembly".

By the end of June next year, the assembly is to choose a government - to which the Americans will transfer sovereign power.

According to the new plan, full elections will not take place until 2005.

The trouble is Ayatollah Sistani still wants full elections much sooner, and for two main reasons.

Tricky problems

First, the ayatollah, and apparently other religious figures, fear that the Americans and their allies in the Governing Council will dominate the caucuses - and weed out Islamists they regard as unsympathetic to them.

Second, they believe that only full elections will give the Iraqi Shia the political representation they feel they are entitled to, as 60% of the population.

Getting the US plan back on track will pose tricky problems.

At root, the challenge is one of building confidence. Long ruled by a Sunni elite in Baghdad, the Shia need to be reassured they will have a fair share of power.

But, equally, secular Iraqis and the non-Shia communities (Kurds, Sunnis, Christians and others) need to be reassured that the new Iraq will not be a Khomeini-style Islamic state.

Many Shia insist this is not want they want. They say what matters is to create a democratic Iraq in which no group will be able to impose its wishes on any other.




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