Cover Story


As Iowans again jumpstarted America's election season last week, Iraqis remained eager to start their own democratic traditions. But radical groups who oppose regional caucuses-scheduled for springtime in Iraq-are expressing the passions of the mob, not the will of the people

Issue: "Iraq: The other caucuses," Jan. 31, 2004

SUNDAY NIGHT AT THE newest Christian Missionary Alliance church in Baghdad is standing room only. Nabil Haj, an engineer with the U.S. Army's 30th Medical Brigade, doesn't like to miss it. But to get there, he has to dodge U.S. regulations. They require army personnel to wear body armor and helmets and to travel in convoys outside headquarters in downtown Baghdad.

Mr. Haj, a Lebanese-American from Ohio who speaks fluent Arabic, instead trades out his everyday desert camouflage for street clothes. Waving aside regulations and threats, he waits outside an Army checkpoint near the Republican Palace where a bombing on Jan. 18 killed 31. When a nondescript sedan driven by Iraqi church friends arrives, he slips into the backseat and makes his way across town.

At the church, a converted residence really, Mr. Haj is happy to wedge into a front-row seat in the sanctuary while latecomers jam the hallway and overflow rooms. "These are my people," he says, arms wide for a moment and smiling.

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Two rows behind him is Atheer Nasr, a former member of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard. Mr. Nasr said he was forced to serve in the elite unit, even tracking a downed U.S. pilot south of Baghdad when the war was hot. Now, he says through a broad smile and novice English, he is free not to.

That former enemies can worship together is nothing new in Christendom. What's unique about postwar Iraq is that Iraqis currently have more freedom to come and go at church than the Americans.

Mr. Haj is a rare soldier who makes frequent contact with everyday Iraqis a priority. At Christmastime he organized Iraqi churchgoers for caroling. They sang to American MPs at Baghdad checkpoints. He arranged for U.S. soldiers to adopt Iraqi orphans for a day.

Perhaps, Mr. Haj admits, he gets away with community service because he speaks the language and can pass for a local. For other U.S. soldiers, it's more difficult. Iraqis are worried that security precautions are actually hampering the U.S.-led coalition's democracy-building in Iraq. The more the United States is paralyzed by fear of attack, the more Iraq is in danger of gangster rule by insurgents or bombers, on the one hand, or mob rule, on the other, by radical Shiites. Many fear the United States will leave too soon and leave their country in the wrong hands.

Shiite leaders have mobilized thousands of Muslims to protest plans for the first round of elections, regional caucuses slated for spring in Iraq's 18 provinces. The protests began in Basrah but moved to the capital starting on Jan. 19.

Continuing unrest provoked an unexpected thaw in relations between the Bush administration and the United Nations. U.S. administrator Paul Bremer and Iraqi officials traveled to New York, where they won from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan a pledge to act as intermediary between the clerics and Iraq's present leadership to set a fair timetable for self-rule.

Regional caucuses-not unlike those held in Iowa-have been the starting gate for that plan. Caucuses slated for May are set to choose representatives for a transitional assembly. The temporary government will assume sovereignty over Iraq on June 30, but give way to a permanent assembly after a second round of elections nationwide, which must be held by the end of 2005.

Shiite protesters, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, are demanding that nationwide direct elections for a permanent government be held by June. He and other prominent clerics want nationwide elections early because they would favor Shiites, who form a majority in Iraq but were long suppressed under Saddam.

But the 73-year-old Iranian-born cleric has made other, more serious demands. He also wants elections to be held only in safe areas, a move that would disenfranchise Sunnis living in the terror-torn Sunni triangle. He wants Iraq's fundamental law to stipulate that Iraq is an Islamic state, and that no law will be enacted to contradict Islamic law. Under the present timetable, the fundamental law is to be formulated by Feb. 28.

Christians and other non-Shiites fear that those changes will force them to live in an Islamic republic not unlike Iran, where a clerical elite holds veto power over elected officials.

If the streets of Baghdad seem to favor the ayatollah, Iraq's political leadership does not. Shiites hold 13 seats-a majority-on the Iraqi Governing Council, which approved the transfer-of-power agreement late last year. Their endorsement emerged not as a result of American manipulation so much as a sign of coalition building among council members. Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds united with so-called "secular," or moderate, Shiites. For the leading Muslim representatives, the goal is the same: to withhold political power from the ayatollahs.


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