In a modest house down a narrow lane in the holy city of Najaf sits a 73-year-old man with a white beard whose views may determine the success or failure of America's plans for Iraq.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most influential leader of the Shias of Iraq, is demanding an election so Iraqis can choose democratically the assembly and government to which the United States will turn over sovereign power on 30 June. The US and US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council claim there is not time to organise an election. They want to select members of an assembly through a complex system of regional caucuses. But Ayatollah Sistani insists that "each Iraqi must have the right to vote".
It is his refusal to give his blessing that sent Paul Bremer, the chief US civilian official in Iraq, rushing to Washington yesterday to discuss the Shia leader's objections with President George Bush. Mr Bremer and his British deputy in the Coalition Provisional Authority, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, will join a delegation on Monday of the Iraqi Governing Council to see Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, in New York. They will press for the UN to send back its staff to Iraq and play a role in supervising the indirect elections. But the UN fears its participation will give legitimacy to the dubious local caucuses. The grand ayatollah has also said that a new Iraqi government must be able to rule on whether or not US and allied troops can remain in Iraq.
After the fall of Baghdad, the ayatollah did not call for resistance to the occupation. He told his followers they could co-operate with the US but after every discussion with an American official they should ask: "And when are you Americans going to leave?" The strength of his position was shown this week when up to 30,000 people marched through Basra, normally a politically passive city, demanding elections in May. There is no doubt about the ayatollah's influence.
He is fearful that once again the Shias will be robbed of power as they were under the Ottomans, the British, the monarchy and Saddam Hussein. It took time for Mr Bremer and the CPA to realise that without his approval their plans would founder.
Once again Ayatollah Sistani holds the upper hand. Neither a new assembly nor a new government will have much authority if the US does not allow real elections.
¿ The Pentagon inspector general's office is said to be investigating possible criminal violations involving fuel imports to Iraq by Halliburton Co, the oil services company once headed by Dick Cheney, the Vice-President.
The Democratic politicians Joseph Lieberman, Henry Waxman and John Dingell said they were told by the inspector general's staff on Thursday that an overcharging issue involving Halliburton's Kellogg Brown and Root unit was now being investigated.Reuse content