A Tale of Two Iraqis

In the past two years, Iraq has gradually drifted off of the front pages of most American publications. Public opinion polls indicate most Americans believe that the war has ended. Whether this is true or not, the battle for Iraq’s future continues.

To better understand this battle, it is important to look at two major Iraqi figures since the start of the war in March 2003: Ahmed Chalabi and Ali Al-Sistani.

Ahmed Chalabi, as an Iraqi exile, provided inaccurate information to help George W. Bush’s administration carry forward the invasion of Iraq. Since then, he has been involved to varying degrees in Iraq’s government. Ali Al-Sistani is Iraq’s highest-ranking Shiite religious authority.

Both have some similarities. They are both Shiites – a particular sect of Islam that is dominant in Iraq. They are both highly intelligent. Chalabi received a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago and Al-Sistani attained the rank of ijtihad (regarded as having sufficient knowledge of religious texts to make an independent interpretation of the legal sources for legal decisions) at the remarkably young age of 31. Both also have connections to Iran. Chalabi has political connections and Sistani lived there until his early 20s.

But they are also very different, particularly in their contribution to Iraq’s democracy. Chalabi has risked reigniting sectarian fighting for political gain between Sunnis and Shiites and has undermined Iraq’s democracy by playing off the fears of the country’s Shiite population, long oppressed by Saddam Hussein’s government. As one of the heads of the Justice and Accountability Commission that is in charge of removing members of Saddam’s Baath party, he has been involved in the removal of numerous Sunni candidates (and some Shiites) on the grounds that they were Baathists. Because the Baath party was predominantly Sunni, Sunni Iraqis see such actions as attempts to exclude them from the political process.

Ali Al-Sistani, on the other hand, has contributed far more positively to Iraq’s democracy. For example, in 2005 he urged all Iraqis, even women whose husbands refused them permission, to vote. He has repeatedly tried to dampen sectarian fighting by calling on Shiites to not respond to provocations by Sunni militants. Amidst the sectarian explosion following the February 2006 attack on the Askariya Mosque, Ali Al-Sistani called for restraint. In 2010, he again actively pushed people to vote in the elections but did not endorse any specific candidate.

Iraqis have had a steep learning curve in democracy over the past few years. One of the most important lessons is that democracy is more than just voting in elections.  It is also something its citizens must continually protect. Democracy depends not only on institutions and offices but also on the country’s people. No institution or office is strong enough to prevent “capable” people from turning a country’s democracy into something else in the name of a cause (see McCarthyism). It requires people to protect it. This is especially true when a democracy is just taking shape and is as fragile as it now is in Iraq.

Eventually, once America’s forces depart the country, Iraqis may decide in the name of security or national interest that they prefer dictatorship to democracy. There has been evidence of a creeping authoritarianism within the country under Al-Maliki. In the end, though, it is the Iraqis’ democracy. They are the ones who have to keep it or lose it.

Wesley Oliphant is a graduate student in economics.  He can be reached at woliphan@uci.edu.