Monday, July 28, 2003

Iraq: The IGC and the Battle for Iraq.

Date: Monday 28 July 2003
Subj: Iraq: The IGC and the Battle for Iraq.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty E-mail Conference
From: Elizabeth Kendal, Conference Moderator


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IRAQ GOVERNING COUNCIL (IGC)
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THE POWER OF SCIRI

SCIRI, (Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) is an Iran-backed Iraqi Shi'a resistance and opposition group that formed in exile in Iran more than 20 years ago. SCIRI also has an Iran-funded and armed militant wing known as the Badr Brigade. SCIRI only recently returned to Iraq but is now Iraq's largest and most well organised Shi'a political organisation.

SCIRI initially rejected the IGC as U.S.-appointed, and therefore undemocratic. However, a day of tough negotiations on 12 July 03 saw the U.S. administration yield to SCIRI's demands in order to secure SCIRI participation on the IGC.

In a 10 June Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) article, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, an independent Shi'a activist in London, reported that SCIRI had made a strategic decision to be part of the post-Hussein system in Iraq, and that through its initial rejection of the IGC, it hoped to win greater veto power over who was selected. "I don't think they wanted to be outside the process of democratisation in Iraq," al-Rubaie said. "I think they want to be part and parcel of it, but a major player. The difference is over how major a player [SCIRI] will be."

Al-Rubaie said the reason for SCIRI's determination to remain inside the system is its conviction that it can use the democratic process in Iraq to successfully advance its aims. He said the group wants to first win majority representation for the Shi'a community, which makes up some 60 percent of the Iraqi population, then use its access to the Iraqi media and other institutions to persuade Iraqis to adopt a more Islamic system of government.

As predicted by Al-Rubaie, one of SCIRI's demands was that the IGC be majority Shi'a, while another demand was the replacement of two candidates. The U.S. conceded and SCIRI came on board. The media touted this as a "dramatic U-turn by SCIRI", and hailed it as a victory for the U.S. administration and the IGC. In reality however, it was a strategic victory for SCIRI.

SCIRI has already stated that its intention is to "enforce the Islamic order", and call for the imposition of Sharia (Islamic law) and for Islamic religious leaders to decide important questions of state, based upon interpretations of religious principles. (RFE/RL 4 June)

UPHILL BATTLE FOR LIBERALS

The IGC has won measured support at the United Nations. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the Governing Council's formation is "an important first step toward the full restoration of Iraqi sovereignty." He then warned, "There is an overwhelming demand for self-rule, and democracy cannot be imposed from the outside."

At a press conference after his UN debut, Ahmad Chalabi said that Iraq faced two main challenges in drafting a new constitution -- determining the role of Islam and guaranteeing the rights of non-Arabs, especially Iraq's large Kurdish population. "We look forward to a process where we can separate religion from politics," he said.

Meanwhile, both Shi'ites and Sunnis inside Iraq continue to protest against the IGC, saying they will reject a constitution that does not come from a democratically elected body.

On 1 July, Iraq's leading Shi'a cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a fatwa (religious decree) attacking U.S. plans for a new constitution. The Grand Ayatollah says the constitution should be written by a democratically elected constitutional drafting committee, that can "uphold the Iraqi people's interests and express their national identity which is founded on Islam and lofty social values".

Another leading Shi'a cleric, Sayed Muqtadabal-Sadr, has rejected the IGC and called for the creation of an "Islamic army" that would answer to religious leaders. He is also threatening to establish a parallel Islamic government and a parallel Islamic constitution.

Sunnis meanwhile, are protesting that the Shi'a majority makes the IGC "sectarian".

Not all Iraq's neighbours are supportive of the IGC either. According to IGC representative Ahmad Chalabi, the IGC's attempt to take over Iraq's UN seat on Tuesday was derailed by "the reservations of some of our neighbours." He did not specify which countries were involved, but a source close to the delegation pointed to Syria, a member of the UN Security Council, as part of the problem.

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

Noah Feldman, author of "After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy" and a former senior adviser for constitutional law to the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq, believes democracy and Islam are compatible.

The point remains though, that Islam, when governed by Shari'a, is not compatible with religious freedom - religious freedom being full rights to freedom of belief (including freedom to convert) and freedom to exercise that belief. Yet Noah Feldman says many "Islamic democrats in Iraq" are presently calling for a system where citizens will be free to express their own choices in the realms of religion and politics.

The product of democracy can only be as good as the foundations upon which it is built. And so the battle between the liberals and the Islamists, for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, begins. Presently, the liberals appear to be swimming against the tide.

- Elizabeth Kendal