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June 28, 2005
Sistani Blesses Major Concession To Sunnis

In another sign that the Iraqis continue to adapt quickly to democratic politics, the spiritual leader of the Shi'a in Iraq gave his blessing to a major concession to his rival Sunnis that could result in greater representation for the former ruling minority in Parliament. That promises to create less tension over the development of the new Iraqi constitution and create serious momentum for the scheduled December elections:

Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric appeared to offer a major concession to the Sunni Arab minority on Monday when he indicated that he would support changes in the voting system that would probably give Sunnis more seats in the future parliament.

In a meeting with a group of Sunni and Shiite leaders, the cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, outlined a proposal that would scrap the system used in the January election, according to a secular Shiite political leader, Abdul Aziz al-Yasiri, who was at the meeting. The election had a huge turnout by Shiites and Kurds but was mostly boycotted by Sunni Arabs. ...

Under the proposal, voters in national elections would select leaders from each of the 19 provinces instead of choosing from a single country-wide list, as they did in January. The new system would essentially set aside a number of seats for Sunnis roughly proportionate to their numbers in the population, ensuring that no matter how low the Sunni turnout, they would be guaranteed seats.

The change creates a more federalized system, one that benefits not just the Sunnis but also the Kurds, depending on where the boundaries are drawn. The numbers won't be proportionate to population as such, but more to the provinces that each have as majorities. Once the federal government has established its constitution and electoral procedures, the provinces will create their own electoral governments, giving the ethnic and religious factions even more stability and incentive to work within the system.

This continues the careful politics of Ayatollah Sistani, the Najaf-educated cleric who professes the "quietism" of that school of Shi'ite Islam. His vision of Islam focuses on the spiritual rather than the temporal; his vision of government is one guided by the precepts of Islam but not run by clerics. In that regard, and given the history of religious repression by the Ba'athists, Sistani wants to ensure that the Shi'ite majority get its chance to run Iraq but that the Sunnis and Kurds have enough power to keep the country from falling into chaos.

In fact, while Sistani objected to the previous system of nationwide candidate lists, he allowed them to go forward when the United Nations insisted that any other system could not be implemented quickly enough for the January elections. That system effectively cut out the Sunnis, who boycotted in large numbers but would have won more seats in the central provinces had a federal system been in place. That decision has led to some of the resentment even among those Sunni who did participate. However, the more important objective -- that Iraq will convert to democracy despite minority obstructionism and violence -- has been made.

The progress in negotiations should energize the Sunni moderates into committing completely to the political process, putting even more pressure on their more radical brethren to admit defeat and lay down their arms. It shows the progress being made in Iraq and that the momentum still rolls towards democratization and freedom -- as long as we give the brave Iraqis the support they need to realize their goals.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 28, 2005 6:42 AM

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» Iraqi Democracy from Don Singleton
I hope it will persuade the Sunnis to support the new constitution, and does not discourage the Kurds from supporting it. [Read More]

Tracked on June 28, 2005 11:43 AM

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