Najaf's Clerics Praise Iraqi Voters and
Appear Confident That Shiites Will Gain Power
By Edward Wong
The New York Times
Tuesday 01 February 2005
NAJAF, Iraq - Leading clerics here in the holiest city of Shiite Islam on Monday expressed strong approval of the conduct of the country's first multiparty elections in decades, despite the fact that Iraqi electoral officials have yet to announce the results.
The clerics' confidence was obviously inspired by reports of high turnout across the arid Shiite heartland on Sunday, with long lines of voters snaking out of polling places in southern cities like Najaf, Karbala and Basra.
The United Iraqi Alliance, the large slate of candidates cobbled together by the most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is expected to emerge as the top vote-getter once all the ballots are counted.
The dusty streets of Najaf remained subdued on Monday. There were no signs of raucous celebration, and most residents opted to stay indoors on the third and final day of a government-declared national holiday. A trickle of donkey carts and cars plied rubbish-strewn streets near the labyrinthine Old City.
Many of the checkpoints set up by the Iraqi police and national guardsmen on election day had been dismantled, though guards and concertina wire blocked several streets downtown.
Ayatollah Sistani's office issued a message late Sunday thanking Iraqis for taking part in the vote, a message amplified by one of his senior representatives in an interview on Monday.
"He thanked Iraqis, and I think that's a positive," said the ayatollah's representative, Muhammad al-Habubi, as he reclined in a black robe and turban in the lobby of the Pearl of Najaf hotel. "He thanked Iraqis for responding to the call of their country and helping to get out of this crisis."
The ayatollah, a venerable recluse who lives in the warrens of the Old City, dictated the timetable for the elections. L. Paul Bremer III, the top civilian administrator in Iraq until June 2004, had initially pushed to have a constitution written before general elections took place. Ayatollah Sistani strongly objected, insisting on speedy elections for a constitutional assembly, which eventually forced the Americans to change their plans.
The holding of elections was seen by many Shiite leaders as a way to legitimize rule by the majority Shiites, who have been governed by the minority Sunni Arabs for decades, most recently during the oppressive reign of Saddam Hussein.
It will now be up to the new National Assembly to write a permanent constitution by August, with Ayatollah Sistani and the other leading clerics of Najaf expected to wield influence behind the scenes, as they did in the elections.
With the voting, "Iraqis proved that they're up to the responsibility, that despite living in very hard conditions and situations, they still live and hope for the future," said Alaadeen Muhammad Hakim, a son of and spokesman for Ayatollah Muhammad Said al-Hakim, one of the four senior clerics of Najaf.
"The mistakes that happened during the occupation did not bend the will of the Iraqis or their determination in building the future and protecting the national unity," Mr. Hakim added.
The black-robed Mr. Hakim spoke as he sat on a floor cushion in his office near the Old City, in the same dun-colored building that had been partly destroyed in the summer of 2003 by a gas-canister bomb that killed three of the ayatollah's guards.
Thousands of Shiites have been killed in bombings, ambushes and assassinations since the toppling of Mr. Hussein. Sunni Arab militants are suspected in the attacks, yet the Shiites have remained remarkably restrained, with religious leaders like Ayatollah Sistani and Ayatollah Hakim dissuading their followers from seeking revenge and igniting a civil war.
Their goal has been to keep the political process on track, so that the Shiites could take on the mantle of power through elections.
"The success of the elections lies in two things," Mr. Hakim said. "One, the participation was large and broad. Everyone who decided to go to the polling centers was feeling defiant, was putting up a challenge. It shows the Iraqis are brave and seek responsibility for their country."
"Second, those organizing the elections were Iraqi officials," he added, which shows "the high potential of Iraqis."
Though Moktada al-Sadr, the young rebel Shiite cleric, did not encourage his followers to vote, his top aide, Ali Smesim, said on Monday that the election seemed to have gone well.
"We can say that it's successful," Mr. Smesim said in an interview on the top floor of a mosque here. "But before saying it was a complete success, we have to study what has taken place."
"We did not boycott the elections, as you know," he added. "But we suspended our participation in the elections. We did not put forward people from the Sadr movement as candidates."
Several Shiite leaders have said, though, that at least a dozen of the candidates on the United Iraqi Alliance, the big Shiite slate, come from the Sadr organization. Mr. Sadr appears to have straddled the fence, privately ensuring that he gets a say in the new power structure while publicly playing the oppositionist role.
"We were hoping the elections would be free and honest and outside the boundaries of the occupation," Mr. Smesim said.
He grinned as he stirred a tulip-shaped glass of tea. It was obvious that he felt those criteria had been met.