Sistani, the UN and America

The violence in Iraq continues, and while the frequency of attacks may decrease, yesterday’s spree of bombings, which killed 6 troops and an unknown number of Iraqis, prove that the effectiveness may be increasing. It is this environment that United Nations will enter to mediate between the United States, the Governing Council and Iraq’s Shi’ites, led by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. This was certainly not in the United States’ plans when it decided to invade Iraq last year.

The violence in Iraq continues, and while the frequency of attacks may decrease, yesterday’s spree of bombings, which killed 6 troops and an unknown number of Iraqis, prove that the guerillas’ effectiveness may be increasing. It is this environment that the United Nations will enter to mediate between the United States, the Governing Council and Iraq’s Shi’ites, led by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. This was certainly not in the United States’ plans when it decided to invade Iraq last year.
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Mass turnouts in Basra and Baghdad send a clear message to the CPA
However, as Stratfor notes, it must be sweet indeed for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who opposed the invasion and felt the United States has ignored the U.N., the Security Council and himself personally. But there is another man for whom the entry of the United Nations as an trusted broker is a welcome sight: Sistani.
He has proven himself a canny politician in demonstrating his power. On Jan. 15, on the word of the Ayatollah, tens of thousands of Shi’ites marched in Basra to support open elections to the national assembly. Last week, 100,000 Iraqis marched in Baghdad. And then, on Friday, Sistani turned off the spigot, telling his supporters not to march and giving the United Nations time to think. His point had been made: If George Bush doesn’t want the entirety of southern Iraq to burst into an intifada, he would do well to heed the Shi’ites’ desires.
Enter United Nations, stage left. And its entry is significant because it means the United States has been reduced from an all-powerful occupying power to a party in a dispute — and one that has already signaled its intentions to relinquish power. The only questions now are when and how.
According to Stratfor, the United Nations’ entry addresses three issues:

  1. Symbolism is important, and it’s got to stick in the craw of the White House to be coming to the UN to patch things up almost a year after it snubbed them. Have no doubt, this is a loss for Washington, and it undermines the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war.
  2. Political cover. Sistani will get what he wanted all along, which is a Shi’ite dominated Iraq. But now he will get it not by negotiating with the United States, but with the United Nations. His hand — and Shi’ites in Iraq in general — will be strengthened by this.
  3. Finally, we come to the issue of the U.S. troops. One of the primary reasons the United States invaded was to have a strategic base to project force throughout the region and pressure Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria. The future of the troops in Iraq is now in question.

Stratfor says that if the guerilla war were going better and the U.S. had not been forced to turn to the Shi’ites, the question of the troops would be moot. But until now the troops have been the big elephant in the room that no one wanted to talk about. Sistani has not explicitly called for the removal of the troops, and he probably won’t as long as the insurgents are around. But Sistani will ask the United Nations to negotiate a mechanism for allowing a sovereign Iraqi state to determine rules for how the troops operate, where they’re based and when they leave. Look for Annan to be receptive to whatever ideas Sistani throws on the table.
This will throw a serious wrench into the plans that Washington had for Iraq. President George W. Bush and his advisors need a free hand militarily in Iraq if they’re going to move forward with their strategic rationale for the invasion. The negotiations between all the parties will likely result in a compromise, but they will be a long, hard slog. Sistani has yet to lose much in his dealings with the Americans.