Thursday, April 11, 2013

How Paul Bremer Tried To Ignore Iraq’s Ayatollah Sistani

Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) arrived in Iraq in May 2003. He was determined to put his stamp upon the country. He had a vision for how it would become a democracy, which would require up to two years of transition under his supervision. This was to be a top down process that had little room for what Iraqis wanted. This ran into immediate opposition from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most senior Shiite cleric in Iraq. He wanted Iraqis to have a voice in the process, and demanded that elections be held as soon as possible to draw up a new Iraqi constitution, and government. Bremer consistently rejected the cleric’s demands until Washington forced him to compromise. It was an ironic turn of events as Sistani consistently pushed for a faster turn towards democracy than the Americans did.

CPA head Paul Bremer wanted to run Iraq as a viceroy, and did not want to listen to prominent Iraqis like Ayatollah Sistani (AFP)

Paul Bremer envisioned a long process of building a new democratic Iraq. At first, many believed that he would quickly set up an interim government to turn over control to Iraqis, but he immediately squashed that idea. Instead, he created the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) with some help from the United Nations in July 2003. The council was tasked with coming up with a timetable for selecting a constitutional drafting body, and when the document would be written. Afterward there would be elections for a new Iraqi government. He speculated that process might take up to two years. Then on September 8, he wrote an op ed for the Washington Post where he clarified his plans. He ruled out early balloting, because there were no voter roles, no districts, or laws on elections or political parties. Instead he proposed a three-step process. The first was the creation of the Iraqi Governing Council. Then a constitutional committee would be formed by August. A constitution would be drafted, then a referendum held on it, followed by elections for a permanent government, finished off by sovereignty being returned. While Iraqis were minimally included in the process through the Governing Council, Bremer demanded that he be in charge, and have ultimate say. For example, no Iraqis were included in formulating his plan. Many were unhappy with this idea, including the ones that Bremer chose as partners, and his superiors back in Washington.

The Iraqi Governing Council and the Bush Administration had major problems with Bremer’s ideas. First, the Governing Council was a divisive group, and could not decide on any dates for when the constitutional committee would be put together or start its work. In October, the United Nations passed Resolution 1511, which required the IGC to submit a constitutional plan by the middle of December. That placed pressure upon the Council to make some decisions, but it still couldn’t agree. Bremer grew increasingly frustrated with the group, and blamed them for the delays even though he held all of the real power in his hands. At the same time, officials back in Washington were afraid that the chaos that was unleashed with the fall of Saddam’s regime, along with the failure to find weapons of mass destruction was costing it support for the war amongst the U.S. public. That led some to push for a faster timetable for turning over sovereignty to the Iraqis to try to show progress to the home front. Bremer was opposed to changing his plans, but after he was called back to the White House in November, he was forced to compromise. Instead of an open-ended two-year plan, Bremer now only had six months in office. By the end of February 2004, an interim constitution would be drafted and approved by the Governing Council. Then in May caucuses would be held in each province that would come up with a temporary parliament to form an interim government with the task of writing a permanent constitution. Sovereignty would then be handed over to the Iraqis in June, and the CPA would cease to exist. Elections for a constitutional convention would be held in March 2005, followed by national elections for a permanent government by the end of the year. Bremer was forced to give up on his long-term plan by domestic political concerns back in the U.S. At the same time, the Americans would remain in control until at least June 2004. The Governing Council for example, had zero say in the new plan. Rather it was delivered to them as a fait accompli when Bremer returned to Iraq after his meetings with Bush officials.

Ayatollah Sistani continuously demanded that Iraqis have a say in the new government being put together (Wikipedia)

Despite the sped up process that was announced in November 2004, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani always objected to Bremer’s plans. As early as June 2003, Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) went to Najaf to meet with Ayatollah Sistani. He called for an elected national assembly to draft a new constitution. The cleric followed that up with a fatwa at the end of the month saying that any body put together by Bremer to draft a constitution would be opposed, and repeated his demand for Iraqis to cast ballots to determine their future. U.N. special representative to Iraq Sergio Vieira de Mello met with Sistani, and then told Bremer that he had to listen to the Ayatollah. Bremer refused saying that Sistani was telling different people different things, and that Iraq was not ready for any voting anyway. The CPA head did try to meet with Sistani in Najaf in July to discuss the matter, but was turned down. The elder cleric wanted to keep his distance from the Americans. When Bremer published his September op ed for the Washington Post, the ayatollah responded that the Iraqi people be allowed to vote for a body to come up with a new constitution. That led de Mello and British representative to Iraq Sir Jeremy Greenstock to go to Bremer about their concerns surrounding Sistani’s objections, but the CPA chief would not listen. Others were taking note as well, most importantly officials in the Bush administration. They convinced National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that Sistani needed to be listened to, which contributed to the November compromise. That didn’t stop the complaints however. Members of the IGC went to Sistani about the caucuses idea. Afterward, he issued another statement demanding an elected body instead, and then made comments about Iraqis not having enough say in the political transition. The CPA reacted stronger this time, believing that the Ayatollah was trying to dictate terms to it, and some asking whether they would have to run all their decisions through him for approval. The CPA had just been made to cut back on it plans, and now it was coming under attack by Sistani again. Finally, in February 2004, new U.N. representative Lakhdar Brahimi met with the ayatollah, and convinced him that elections could not happen until December at the earliest. At the same time, they talked about getting rid of the caucuses, and having elections for an interim parliament instead to write a constitution. It was always Sistani’s belief that Iraqis needed to have a direct role in the creation of a new government. CPA official Larry Diamond believed this came from his religious beliefs about social contracts. Bremer on the other hand, wanted complete control, and never consulted with Iraqis, but instead delivered his decisions to them after they were made. He also continuously rejected Sistani’s demands, because following an ayatollah did not fit his image of what the new democracy should be about. It was only when Washington pushed him that Bremer was willing to change showing that domestic American politics were more important than Iraqi ones. In the end, the U.S. did agree to hold elections in January 2005 for an interim parliament and government, which would then put together a constitutional commission, followed by a referendum on the document. These might be happening later than Sistani originally envisioned, but they did allow Iraqis to have their say.

The Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) that was written as a temporary constitution also brought out Sistani’s opposition. In early 2004, a small coterie of American and Iraqi representatives wrote the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), that would be in affect until a permanent constitution was passed the next year. Ayatollah Sistani came out against that document as well, arguing that the Iraqi people, not the U.S. created Governing Council, should ratify the TAL. He also said that it would serve as a barrier to a permanent constitution being formed, because the Americans would again be setting the groundwork for what should be an Iraqi affair. His office ended up passing out leaflets condemning the Transitional Law, claiming that it would divide the country, and that the U.S. was trying to impose it upon Iraq. For a while, he wouldn’t even meet with anyone from the U.N. unless the Security Council acted to limit the TAL. This again reflected Sistani’s view that the U.S. could not make all the decisions to determine Iraq’s future. That should be up to the Iraqis. He was convinced by Brahimi that the country wasn’t ready for immediate elections like he wanted, but he thought nothing should be done until they were ready. This brought him continuously into conflict with Bremer who wanted to dictate all the terms of Iraq’s transition towards democracy.

Bremer came into Iraq wanting to run it like a viceroy, and never realized the importance of Ayatollah Sistani until the end of his time in office. The CPA director never included Iraqis in his decisions even though he was supposed to be empowering them through democracy. Instead he wanted to impose his vision upon Iraq in a long, drawn out process that would maintain American control until its conclusion. Washington ended up making him curtail his plan, because it was worried about losing support for the war. Some were also concerned about Sistani’s continuous attacks upon Bremer’s ideas. Still, the overriding concern of the Bush administration was American domestic politics, which showed that it too was only marginally concerned with what the Iraqis wanted. Sistani’s argument for early elections to write a new constitution, and then form a permanent government might have been unrealistic at first, because there was no system in place to carry them out. Still, he finally won out, and the U.S. agreed to three rounds of balloting in 2005 in part to satisfy the Ayatollah. It turned out that the Iraqi cleric was pushing for a democratic process, while the Americans wanted to run everything. The Bush White House and Bremer never really understood Iraqi society, and tended to look at it as a blank slate, which they could shape into whatever they wanted. The country ended up fighting back, which caused all kinds of problems for the American project. One sign of that was Ayatollah Sistani’s constant calls for Iraqis to have their say in whatever new government was going to be created.


Chandrasekaran, Rajiv, “Iraq’s top Shiite assails U.S. plan to cede power,” San Francisco Chronicle, 11/27/03

Collier, Robert, “Shiite support for U.S. occupation of Iraq appears tenuous,” San Francisco Chronicle, 7/16/03

Diamond, Larry, Squandered Victory, The American Occupation And The Bungled Effort To Bring Democracy To Iraq, New York: Times Books, 2005

Gordon, Michael and Trainor, General Bernard, The Endgame, The Inside Story Of The Struggle For Iraq, From George W. Bush To Barak Obama, New York, Pantheon, 2012

Packer, George, The Assassins’ Gate, America In Iraq, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005

Powell, Bill and Ghosh, Aparism, “Paul Bremer’s Rough Ride,” Time, 6/28/04

Ricks, Thomas, Fiasco, New York: Penguin Press, 2006

Special Inspector General For Iraq Reconstruction, “Hard Lessons,” 1/22/09

Tyler, Patrick, “Big step toward a new Iraq,” San Francisco Chronicle, 7/8/03

Whitelaw, Kevin, “Deal Maker, Deal Breaker,” U.S. News & World Report, 1/26/05


Steve Donnelly, AICP said...


As the article suggests, when the Iraqi voices are all accounted for, a different history will emerge.

My assumption was always that the Grand Ayatollah would appear, in the end, to be a voice for an Iraq-that-could-have-been that would have been more desirable than what resulted.

Impossible to predict how this road not taken would have led to that hypothetical outcome, but there were some very interesting voices in Iraq that deserved more listening to, as Ms. Rice and other, perhaps way too belatedly, came to realize.

Good article.

Joel Wing said...

Yes, unfortunately too many in Washington didn't know or care what the Iraqis wanted. The administration seemed to dismiss them too easily with comments about how there were no internal voice because of Saddam, or not wanting to listening to an ayatollah, because that was not what a new Iraq was supposed to be like. Not only that, but the Iraqis that the White House did know about were people like Chalabi who was just saying whatever he thought the Americans wanted to hear as a way to get into power.

Swopa said...

To some extent, I have to disagree with both of you.

Steve, although Sistani talked a wonderfully non-sectarian game -- and I'm sure he's no happier than any ordinary Iraqi with the government's corruption and inability to provide services -- his underlying goal was to ensure that Shiite religious parties ran the new Iraq, and his actions were consistent with that.

That's why he pushed for elections as soon as possible, and why he organized those parties into a unified slate as soon as the elections were scheduled, then used his influence to urge Shiites to vote for that slate.

Moreover, within seconds after the Chalabi fantasy evaporated in early April 2003, everyone knew this was the Shiite game plan. Consider this NYT article from November:

The nation's most powerful cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, made public today his opposition to a new American plan for indirect elections of an Iraqi government, dealing a possibly fatal blow to the United States initiative to turn power over more quickly to Iraqis.

Spokesmen for Mr. Sistani, who exercises strong influence over Iraq's majority Shiites, said he was insisting that the election planned for next June must be a direct, popular ballot — not the indirect caucus election called for in the already-troubled American plan. He is also insisting that any new Iraqi government have a more overtly Islamic character, aides said today.[...]

Both American and Iraqi officials have said they believe the real motivation for insisting on direct elections is that the clerics hope the nation's Shiite majority will empower religious leaders to form an Islamic government — an idea the United States opposes. And in fact, Mr. Hakim said one of Mr. Sistani's objections was that "there is no emphasis on the role of Islam and the identity of the Muslim people."

"There should have been a stipulation which prevents legislating anything that contradicts Islam in the new Iraq," Mr. Hakim said.

bb said...

" When Bremer published his September (2003) op ed for the Washington Post, the ayatollah responded that the Iraqi people be allowed to vote for a body to come up with a new constitution. That led de Mello and British representative to Iraq Sir Jeremy Greenstock to go to Bremer about their concerns surrounding Sistani’s objections, but the CPA chief would not listen."

Did de Mello appear as a ghost at this meeting? He was killed in Baghdad on August 19, 2003.

Your last para account of Bremer ignoring the Iraqis re the TAL is completely at odds with Rajiv Chandrasekarian's account of it in Ïmperial Life in the Emerald City.He was in Baghdad at the time.

Joel Wing said...


Error in writing. De Mello went to Bremer before the op ed and Greenstock went afterward.

Regarding the TAL, it was based upon western norms and ideas rather than Iraqi ones. The list of rights in the TAL for example were based upon the U.S. Bill of Rights. It also introduced federalism, which had never been discussed in Iraq.

Joel Wing said...


Sistani definitely wanted Shiite rule in Iraq, and elections were obviously the way to ensure that since they were the majority.

As for setting up an Islamic state and empowering the Shiite religious parties I'm not so sure. I think since those were the parties that were organized he went with them in the United Alliance. However none of them pledged allegiance to Sistani as their spiritual leader, they all had different visions of what they wanted Iraq to look like, and the Sadrists were openly hostile to Sistani as well. Again, that leads me to believe it was a marriage of convenience to get a Shiite led government.

I'm hopefully going to get an interview about Sistani together soon, so hopefully more light can be shed on this subject.