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Changing reins in Iraq

THE INTERIM constitution that Iraq's Governing Council approved unanimously yesterday affirms a desire for self-government within a unified federal state. It protects the rights of women, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. The spirit of compromise embodied in this document augurs well for Iraq's passage toward independence.


Now, as a UN advisory team and the senior Shi'ite Ayatollah Ali Sistani bargain in public over the calendar for elections of a representative government in Iraq, it appears that the reins are slipping from the hands of the Bush administration. This is a good thing -- for Iraqis, for the United Nations, and for America. Sistani is playing a positive role when he rejects a US scheme to select an interim government and instead calls for democratic elections by the end of the year. These circumscribed interventions in secular politics do not mean Sistani is abandoning the quietist tradition that prevails among Shi'ite religious authorities. Unlike Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, Sistani and like-minded Shi'ite scholars teach that the clergy should hold itself apart from the world of politics.

Sistani's departures from that rule aim not to create a theocracy in Iraq but to foster a birth of representative government. This is a crucial distinction. Sistani's reasoning has consistently been that of a democratic patriot wary of US intentions. He has insisted that Iraqis be permitted to choose their own legislators, who will then form a government and write a permanent Constitution.

Sistani and millions of other Shi'ites have good reason to mistrust the Americans who liberated them from Saddam's enormous concentration camp. They remember what happened in March 1991, when they heeded the call of another President Bush to rise up and overthrow the dictator Saddam. That Bush let Saddam crush their popular uprising. The tanks of Saddam's Republican Guards were allowed to roll past US Army positions on their way to slaughter rebelling Iraqis in Najaf, Karbala, and the other Shi'ite cities of southern Iraq. Mass graves being discovered today contain the victims of those massacres.

Sistani's mistrust of US intentions is the price the current President Bush must pay for not understanding his need to apologize for his father's betrayal of Shi'ites and other Iraqis in 1991. Sistani is trying to guide his people out from under US tutelage. He and they may want continued American protection against Ba'athist diehards and Islamist fanatics, but they do not want the US occupying power to control their nascent politics.

This is a healthy impulse because the legitimacy of the institutions Iraqis build in the coming months will depend in large part on the degree of independence the builders are able to maintain. For its part, the United Nations now has a chance to lend legitimacy to Iraq's democratic transition and assuage Iraqis' resentment of past UN behavior that too often seemed to help Saddam stay in power. If he is wise, President Bush will assist Iraqis in rebuilding their blasted nation without meddling in their politics.

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