Holding out for a hero.

Author:Lancaster, Pat
Position:The Last Word

The decision to go ahead with elections in Iraq before the handover of power at the end of June is a triumph for democracy and a 73 year old Shi'a cleric. In a calculated show of strength, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, leader of the Hawza, the network of religious schools, in Najaf, called up to 100,000 people onto the streets of Baghdad chanting for direct elections to appoint members of a new Iraqi government. Similar, smaller, protests were held in other cities across the country.

The extent of the ayatollahs influence may not please the US administration but after such a show of strength, Washington was forced to sit up and listen. What role the United Nations might play--if any--in the forthcoming polls, is for the moment unclear, especially given the tenuous security situation in Iraq.

Iraqis, particularly the majority Shi'a population, believed to number some 60% of the total population of around 25m, had feared that the US and its local allies would be the ones to select and appoint members of a new assembly and government, to which they have agreed to hand power on 1 July. The US and the governing Iraqi National Council (INC) seem dubious that a one-man (woman) one-vote election can be organised within the timescale. Others say it is the fact that such a vote would preclude Ahmad Chalabi, Iyad Allawi and other members of the interim council, that makes the US reluctant to push ahead with such plans.

After months of political turbulence and some serious disappointments, the Iraqis were holding out for a hero but their hopes were fading fast. Now the entrance of Ayatollah Sistani onto the political stage has opened up a series of possibilities.

It is known that he has said that no law in Iraq should conflict with Islamic principles, and that he wants Islam to be recognised in law as the religion of the majority of Iraqis. But Sistani's ideas of an Islamic state, compared with those of Iran, would seem moderate, informed observers say.

Certain US experts believe the cleric could support an Islamic state that is...

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