On April 11, I interviewed Mohammed Baqr Al-Najafi, the representative for Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. He’s his right-hand man in America and he lives in Los Angeles. We talked about Sistani’s position on elections, security, Muqtada al-Sadr and American intentions in Iraq. As promised, here follows a lightly edited transcript of the interview. The only changes I made were to clean up a few confusing sentences and add one explanatory note. I think what’s most interesting about this interview is the dangling of the possibility of restoring the 1925 constitution in order to hold elections, after which legitimately elected officials could write a permanent constitution. This would remove most of the Ayatollah’s objections to the current interim law, Najafi said.
Also, don’t forget about the “Majority Report”:http://www.majorityreportradio.com/weblog/ tonight night on “Air America Radio”:http://www.airamericaradio.com/. I will be on during the 8 p.m. EDT hour and “Atrios”:http://atrios.blogspot.com/ will be co-hosting with Sam Seder.
My apologies for the earlier typos. I was rushing to get the transcript up for the Majority Report show. They should be fixed now.
My first question is, when were you last in Iraq?
Unfortunately, we fled the country in November 1981, and we haven’t had a chance to come back.
Have you been in LA ever since?
No, I was here since 2000.
What is your relationship with the Ayatollah?
Ayatollah Sistani needs representatives around the world in order to solve the religious – in order to help the religious people around the world and I am considered as a representative of the Ayatollah in Los Angeles.
Do you speak for the Ayatollah, as a spokesperson?
In the religious problems, yes, I have permission to speak for him. But as far as the political situation, he didn’t give permission to anyone outside of Iraq. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t show the overall path for the Shi’as regarding the current situation. But regarding the political position, it’s the responsibility of the Sayyid himself.
What does the Ayatollah think the Americans should do in Iraq to generate goodwill and help Iraq get back on its feet?
The Ayatollah thinks that everything good for people comes from the will of the people. And the will of the people comes with the freedom to choose what they want. And the freedom for choosing what they want will bring stability to t he country. Security can’t come with force. Maybe security can be achieved temporarily with force, but it can’t last forever. Security can only be achieved by the will of the people.
What is the Ayatollah’s current position on the interim law.
It is a negative opinion regarding the interim law.
Can you expand on that, please?
There are many positive things in the interim law regarding freedom of religion and personal freedom, but this does not satisfy the heart and flows of the Iraqi people. But the most important thing is that it wasn’t written and it wasn’t shown to the Iraqi people before it was approved. The law for the people should be taken from the people themselves in order to know the mood of the people.
What kind of mechanism does the Ayatollah envision for the taking the law of the people from the people themselves? How would that work?
The Ayatollah is satisfied that according to his opinion there is a possibility for elections. And once the possibility of holding an election is there, that means the Iraqi people can choose people from themselves to make their own laws. And they can do two things. The first: There is going to be a committee that will [inaudible] the constitution and the second one will be preparation for the general election. And the experts proved that to the Ayatollah that it is possible to elect a government and also write a constitution in six to eight months. And the Ayatollah made a copy of all these proofs and provided them to Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. envoy to Iraq.
It seems to me that the interim law is providing for the creation of a national assembly. How can you hold elections to a legislative body that hasn’t been created by a constitution? It sounds like the Ayatollah wants to have elections and then a government. Correct?
This will not prevent what you’re talking about, of course. It can be one of the ways in order to reach a legitimate elected government. But we have many problems with the interim law. And before these problems, I have to say one point: That in Iraq, even though we used to have a dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, there was a law [constitution] in Iraq. During the time of the dictatorship, there was a law but no one was working with it because of the dictatorship of Saddam. He was the only law. But there is a written law there and the Iraqi people can work according to it until we have an elected government.
It’s been a year since the fall of Saddam’s regime and the new constitution has been named. People have been having their own regular lives. This doesn’t mean it’s not possible. And the imposition of the interim law in the way makes us feel conservative about it. After this point we come to the problems of the constitution.
It is a good thing to have a temporary law, but point No. 1: In many countries, a temporary constitution becomes the permanent one later on. And there is something that is scary in that, which will make Iraq into sectors instead of having one Iraq. [He’s worried about ethnic-based statelets here.] For example, when they make the presidential committee three people — one Shi’a one Sunni and one Kurdish — and it’s supposed to be an election of individuals, not sectarian groups.
And lastly, there was paragraph C in part , which is a very serious point: that two-thirds of the people in three governorates could refuse the constitution. And usually minds will go to the Kurds at this point. Any three governorates could refuse the permanent constitution if two-thirds of the people [in those governorates] vote against it.
Just so I understand you: Would you support a reinstatement of the old constitution in order to hold elections to the national assembly, which would then write a new constitution, if the national assembly were supervised by the U.N. or something like that?
I didn’t say that this is the way. This is just one of the possibilities. It seems there are possibilities out there, so why do we have to be so stubborn about this interim law?
How can the Ayatollah — and by extension the larger Shi’a community — reassure the Sunni community and the Kurds that they will not be dominated by a Shi’a-dominated Iraq?
That’s an interesting question to ask. But the thing is, another question should be asked. Why are people scared of the Shi’a? What in history shows that they were bad to their own neighbors in Iraq?
The Kurds are worried they will lose their autonomy and the Sunnis are worried that Shi’ites will take revenge on them.
For the Kurds, we insist that there aren’t such intentions. When the Ba’athists took their army and attacked the Kurds 30 years ago, at the time, the marjariya was Sayyid Mohsin al-Hakim. At the time, he issued a fatwa, a religious order, that they’re not supposed to attack the Kurds and he stopped the Ba’ath regime at that time. And the Kurds were autonomous at the time. And the relation with us was very good up until today when we see there is an alliance between the Shi’a and the Kurds. The problem with the Kurds is that they don’t have sensitivity for the Shi’a. They have a national idea in order to take Kurdistan for themselves. And the Ayatollah Sistani didn’t give any religious order for that because he believes in the idea that the Iraqi people should have the choice if there will be a federal system in Iraq.
But for the fear of the Sunni, well they have the right to get scared or have that kind of fear. That’s because the Ba’athists were part of them. But most of the Sunni in Iraq are our brothers and we have family ties with them. So we don’t really have a problem with Sunnis in Iraq, but we have a problem with the hands that got dirty with the blood of the mass graves. And regarding taking revenge for those crimes, we are not very emotional either way that we will take revenge. Everything will be done under the law.
A very good example of that, after the fall of Saddam, is that Ba’athists are moving freely in the streets of Iraq. And the Ayatollah Sistani already gave a religious order that it is haram (forbidden) to do anything to those Ba’athists unless it is through the courts in Iraq. So we look at the point that there isn’t anything that we are going to fear from, because if the Shi’a are in control and govern the country with such kinds of ideas, it will be a better option. Also, we, the marjariya, the religious leadership, we don’t have any political project for Iraq. It’s up to the Shi’a people if they choose to govern the country, and if you look at the democracy that is taking place in many parts of the world, the governing is for the majority. So what’s the problem with the Iraqi Shi’a if they are the majority?
The question is how will minority rights be protected?
[Here my translator said, “He already told you that answer.”]
Will the Ayatollah work with the United Nations if it comes in to help run elections?
Ayatollah Sistani has called for a vital role for the United Nations in Iraq and he will not prevent the United Nations from working if they are willing to allow for elections.
What is the Ayatollah’s position on Sayyid al-Sadr?
Which Sayyid al-Sadr? We have many Sayyid al-Sadrs.
Are you asking about his opinion religiously about him or politically about him?
Religiously, we think that the young Sayyid is from a religious family. He grew up in the hawza, the religious school, the Islamic University, in Najaf, and he still has much in front of him to learn about religious matters. And usually the marjariya take special care for the students who came from religious families and want to continue their studies.
But for the political view, we see that his political qualifications are not [enough] for what he is doing. He doesn’t have that much political experience. He is still a young man. And also, he doesn’t have a political agenda or political party that has been recognized.
But some people like his father and they’re proud of his father — his father was killed by the previous regime, Saddam Hussein. And also, he’s making legitimate requests, like the end of the occupation. But we think that the way he is going about this is not useful because he is not politically experienced.
I think a lot of Americans are wondering just what Muqtada al-Sadr’s aims are. I don’t actually know myself. What are his aims?
We don’t know ourselves what he wants.
Sayyid al-Najafi, do you believe Sayyid al-Sadr is angling for a spot on the Governing Council or some other official government post in the new Iraqi government?
Personally, we have that kind of hope. But you cannot put a litre of water into a cup that already is full. Sitting on the Governing Council or in the government requires someone who has political experience. I personally think that even if they gave him a seat on the Governing Council, I don’t think the problem would end. He doesn’t have a clear political agenda or a political party or a clear view of the future.
Should Muqtada al-Sadr be arrested, and if so, who should do it?
The arrest means there is an authority. And if the authority were elected from the people, the arrest would not be a problem. Arrests by the occupying forces or the governing council would cause problems and not solve them. And besides, what is the cause for his arrest? What’s the problem? What did he do wrong?
Does the Ayatollah see al-Sadr’s actions as a challenge to his own authority?
You didn’t answer my question.
Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were actually asking me a question. … Well, he is wanted in connection with the murder of, I believe, Sayyid Abdel Majid al-Khoei.
There was a lot of killing within Iraq. Why don’t we send everyone who killed to court? And why did they delay for now, after a year? The warrant of arrest is a big question mark.
Back to my other question. Does the Ayatollah see al-Sadr’s actions as a challenge to his own authority? Does the Ayatollah disapprove of the people joining the Mahdi Army to fight? Why does he think they might be doing this?
He isn’t for the idea of people joining the Mahdi Army, but people who are doing this are very well-regarded in Iraq. The Ayatollah is not encouraging people one way or the other.
At the same time, there are people who are not followers of Sistani who are joining the resistance. They are political people, but they are not joining the Mahdi Army.
[This is a confusing answer. What Sayyid al-Najafi means is that al-Sadr’s actions are encouraging politically active Iraqis to join the resistance, although they may not be officially joining al-Sadr’s fighters.]
How many people are joining in the fighting?
Majority of people in Iraq take their religious orders from Sayyid Sistani, not from Sayyid al-Sadr. But we see during the last few days that unemployment has risen, up to 70 percent of the people. And the economic situation makes the people leave everything, even their own religion. When people see the Americans’ promises aren’t being kept, and the economical picture is bad, and the Mahdi Army is paying salaries and gifts, we are not surprised to see people going to them.
What do some of the other Shi’a leaders such as Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, think of al-Sadr? Are any of their followers joining with al-Sadr?
All the Shi’a leaders and clerics are with the ideas of Sayyid Sistani to calm down the situation. The marjariya and the Shi’a leaders invited him to sit down and talk, but it looks like he has his own agenda and he doesn’t want to listen to them.
Will the Ayatollah issue a fatwa condemning Muqtada al-Sadr or the American responses to the violence?
Has he or will he issue a fatwa?
For the current events, the Ayatollah Sistani has already issued a statement to the people regarding what happened and the killings of the Iraqi people. And he put the responsibility on the occupying forces for the killing and destruction.
A statement or a fatwa?
A fatwa is a religious order, and the people should follow the marj’a of that religion. And a statement is different in a way, in that it’s a point of view. It’s not religious or compulsory to people. Every fatwa is a statement, but not every statement is a fatwa.
Was the Ayatollah’s statement a fatwa or just a statement?
It was a statement. He condemned what happened, but didn’t issue a fatwa.
Will he issue one is the future?
It is not a possibility. It comes from the religious needs of what is happening. In another meaning, a fatwa is instructions to take actions about something that takes place, and the marjariya must be consulted.
What must be done to deal with Muqtada al-Sadr and what is the Ayatollah prepared to do himself?
He will maintain his relationship with Muqtada al-Sadr and he will not withhold his advice to him. And he will not hesitate to give any advice about any issue that will serve the Iraqi people. Three days ago, [on April 8] he sent one of his representatives to al-Sadr in order to calm him down and convince him not to directly confront the occupation. And the Ayatollah will continue doing that.
Are you worried that the situation in Iraq has reached a point of no-return?
No, we don’t think that. There are still a lot of choices in front of us and everyone is good until now. We ask the Coalition forces, and especially Americans, to act with wisdom more. Because the real force on the ground is American. And American can help in calming down the situation.
If you could give any advice to the Americans, to the CPA, what would you tell them to do? Both in the short-term and the long-term.
Now, when you are talking about short-term, long-term, the answer will be kind of the same. We already gave a lot of advice to the Americans a long time ago, but unfortunately, they don’t listen to us. One piece of advice I gave is that it’s not for the good of Americans or for the good of Iraqis to have any kind of confrontation with any group inside Iraq.
Many of the motives and goals of American are kind of obscured and we can’t really tell what they are. That’s why whenever we give advice and talk, we find a new agenda that they are having. At the end, we say that in order to prevent all this bloodshed and all these problems, and in order to build a new Iraq as they promised, we ask for the speeding up of the general elections and the end of the occupation.
Regarding the long-term advice, it should both be the end of the occupation and trying to influence the people, because people over there cannot bear any kind of occupation.
America should leave, and at that point, Iraq can make an alliance with governments and countries like any other country around the world. America is a very powerful, big industrial country. Of course Iraq will be having a connection and a relation with it.
Does the Ayatollah trust the Americans? Does he believe they have good intentions regarding Iraq?
I don’t think so. America until now hasn’t shown this care and good intention.
What does he think America’s intentions are?
It’s not clear to us, as I mentioned previously. When the Americans asked many times to see the Ayatollah, the Sayyid refused for many reasons. One of these reasons is that the intentions and goals of America are not really clear. How can we set a meeting if we don’t have something to discuss? We wish that America, who has great capability for helping people, to help Iraq, as is its duty when America promised to help.
What is the latest situation that you’ve heard regarding Fallujah, Karbala, Najaf and the other cities?
The news media are already covering that, and also our connections and calls are continuing all the time. From hour to hour, things are getting hotter and hotter.