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Iraqi Shia insist on greater voice

Iraq's Shia clerics have warned top US civilian administrator Paul Bremer against blocking Islamic law.

Last Modified: 18 Feb 2004 11:26 GMT
Bremer wants Islam to be one of the sources of Iraq's constitution

Iraq's Shia clerics have warned top US civilian administrator Paul Bremer against blocking Islamic law.

Shia clerics havereacted angrily to Bremer's threat to use his veto if the US-appointed interim governing council proposes a basic law that challenges the spirit of Western-style democracy.

"Islam is the source of law, and so it should be in a Muslim majority country," said Abd al-Mahdi al-Karabali, who represents the Iranian Shia spiritual leader Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani in the holy Shia city of Karbala, 110 kilometres (70 miles) south of Baghdad.

"The Iraqi people only can veto the legislation and nobody has the right to interfere in our constitution," he said.

The Najaf head of the main Shia party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, also warned against US intervention in the drafting of the country's legal code.

Iranian backed IGC members
al-Hakim (L) and Jalal Talabani (C)

"I think that if one seeks to impose a solution other than what the Iraqi population wants, it would spark a crisis and none of the parties want this to happen," Shaikh Sadr al-Din al-Kubbanji said.

But Bremer's spokesman played down the rift between the provisional authority and the Shia, stressing the United States was not challenging the principle of Islam as one of the sources for the country's new legal code.

The Iraqi Governing Council is charged with writing the temporary constitution, or fundamental law, that will govern Iraq until national elections are held.

Observers believe that some council members are pushing to implement Iranian style Islamic rule in the post-occupation era. This was triggered during Abd Al-Aziz al-Hakim's rolling presidency to the IGC last December.

Abd Al-Aziz al-Hakim, who is a pro-Iran Shia cleric, passed the controversial decision number 137, according to which Islamic Sharia law would replace Iraq's civil law.

Shia militia frustration

While British control in the south of the country has been praised, powerful Shia militias say they are behind it and trouble will loom unless their demands are met.

"If they (the coalition) are against elections, if the Americans don't want to hold elections, there will be problems"

Abu Amar al-Mayahi, a Badr Brigade leader in Basra

Leaders of the Shia movements say they are merely waiting to exert a stronger presence in Basra and may even heed an anti-coalition call to arms should the UN report decide that snap polls are not possible.

"Until now the British haven't managed to secure anything without our help or the Iraqi police and other Islamic parties," said Abd Allah al-Faisal, general secretary of the Organisation of Islamic Bases (OIB).

A group of about 400 young men, drawn from the ranks of the poor and disenfranchised, the OIB is already one of the most feared groups operating in Basra.

Al-Faisal said his men were successfully curbing smuggling and crime in the region and were waiting for the British to either quit or allow them a greater role.

"We haven't even started yet. It is like a football game; the coalition forces have put us on the subsbench and we're waiting for someone to take charge and change the team," al-Faisal said.

Necessary evil

For the British, the Shia militias are a necessary evil in and around Basra, shoring up law and order until local police are fully trained.

"I think a factor here is that they were already here and they are not particularly posing a threat to us. We have got more important things to do such as trying to recruit and retrain police and deal with the terrorist situation," said Major Tim Smith, spokesman for the British-led multinational division, based in Basra.

Basra is calm but not over lack
of basic needs 

Under the coalition's model for Iraq, groups such as the Badr Brigade, an Iran-backed resistance force under Saddam Hussein, now emerging as a religious political party, will be disarmed and their militia absorbed into the police or army.

Abu Amar al-Mayahi, deputy chief of the Badr Brigade in Basra, is also growing impatient with the coalition as he moulds his new political group into a formidable force that he says will eventually engulf other regional Shia militias.

"If the British were working alone they would not have their reputation. It is our organisation and a few others who are creating the security, because we have a history and ability," he said. 

"There is weak coordination between our work and the British, we want to work with them, but until now there is no response."

But Mayahi warns the current dividision between his men and the British could become a battleground if Sistani's poll demands are met.

Related Links
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"If they (the coalition) are against elections, if the Americans don't want to hold elections, there will be problems," he said.

"There were millions of Iraqis killed under the former regime. Iraqi people are waiting for a result and I know that to make happen what our leaders have requested, they are willing to pay with that number of lives again." he warned.

Source:
Aljazeera + Agencies
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