Grand Ayatollah Sistani Endorses Iraq Constitution

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most influential cleric, has endorsed the Iraqi constitution draft that will be voted on in a national referendum next month.

Powerful Cleric Backs Iraq Constitution (AP)

The Iraqi government’s campaign to win support for the country’s new constitution has won the critical backing of the most influential Shiite religious leader, less than a month before a national referendum on the draft charter.


Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, meeting with aides Thursday in the holy city of Najaf, urged his followers to vote “yes” on the new basic law, according to two top officials in al-Sistani’s organization. The officials refused to be identified because they are not authorized to speak for the reclusive cleric. In January, millions of Shiites followed al-Sistani’s call to vote in Iraq’s first democratic elections in nearly half a century, and the ballot gave the Muslim sect a majority in the new parliament and government.

While this is good news, the majority Shia are not the main concern; they were expected to support the constitution, anyway.

If two-thirds of the voters in any three of Iraq’s 18 provinces reject the constitution during the Oct. 15 national referendum, a new government must be formed and the process of writing the document would start again.

Days after the draft constitution was approved by Iraq’s National Assembly and sent to the United Nations for printing and distribution, the government issued fliers and posters, with the banner headline stating: “Read the Constitution, it was written for your freedom.” But copies of the proposed constitution haven’t been distributed to the Iraqi public yet.

Most Sunni Muslim clerics and politicians have urged their followers to vote against the document, complaining that they did not have adequate representation in drafting it. Sunnis, the favored group under Saddam, account for an estimated 20 percent of the population and form the majority in four provinces. Two other popular leaders in Iraq’s majority Shiite sect, Muqtada al-Sadr and Ayatollah Mohammed al-Yaqoubi, also have rejected the constitution, and their stand — representing a potentially serious rift in the Shiite monolith — has been reflected recent violence in the southern city of Basra.


Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Affairs said the escalation in Basra underscored the growing rift among Shiite factions ahead of the referendum and parliamentary elections in December. “In large part, this is a reaction to a struggle between hard-liners and more moderate religious elements,” he said. Cordesman said the more moderate stance of the largest Shiite political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, was not accepted in southern Iraq, where “a relatively hard-line religious takeover in Basra, one linked closer to Iran,” has created animosity toward the British presence.

The fighting has underscored the fact that the groups “Shiite,” “Sunni,” and “Kurd” are not monoliths but groups of people with their own internal differences. While that should be obvious, we outsiders tend to forget that when analyzing the situation.

Of course, we make the same mistake when analyzing our own polity, whether on party, ideology, or race. Schemas are quite useful for making sense of the world but they can be a barrier to understanding if relied upon exclusively.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. sgtfluffy says:

    Wow…and the Tards over at CNN have a poll saying we are losing….unbelievable

  2. Jim Henley says:

    Of course, we make the same mistake when analyzing our own polity, whether on party, ideology, or race.

    Of course, the DLC and the Institute for Policy Studies aren’t car-bombing each other’s members.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Jim: Thankfully, no. Of course, that wasn’t the case in the 1860s.

  4. Jim Henley says:

    Well let’s think about this? Wouldn’t the appropriate 1860s analogy be internecine wars within the pro-Confederate and pro-Union camps? Say, Seward and Stanton each had their own militias that took out after each other, or Mosby’s boys tried to kill Judah P. Benjamin.

    That didn’t happen. Closest you come are the NYC draft riots, which was spasmodic rather than sustained.

  5. Lurking Observer says:

    Jim Henley:

    The only reason the Kos crew isn’t nuking the DLC is because of the intervention of Hurricane Katrina.

    And I think you draw the lines a little too tightly when you argue about the absence of conflict within the Union and Confederate camps. The reality is that the Civil War was not only between North and South, but within states. The most obvious (and longest-lasting) example is merely West Virginia, which seceded from Virginia; but there are other examples such as northern versus southern Alabama, certain parts of Arkansas, and the continuation of “bleeding Kansas.”

    This would clearly suggest that there were folks prepared to engage in the equivalent of car bombs (including the slaughter of entire towns) against folks who by geography ought to be neighbors.

  6. James Joyner says:


    I was thinking more of the point in time where we were still ostensibly “the United States” and not two countries.

    In any case, the point of the last paragraph in the original post wasn’t to argue that the Iraqi situation is “normal” or “just like the U.S.” but to make a broader statement about how we tend to group things intellectually and forget that it’s just a construct. We think Sunni vs. Shia vs. Kurd when, in reality, it’s horribly more complex.

  7. Lurking Observer says:

    James Joyner:

    Especially egregious of what you have noted is this assumption that Shi’ites are by definition pro-Iran.

    The reality is that during the decade-long Iran-Iraq war, the Shi’ites did not revolt against Saddam Hussein, much less defect, en masse, to the Iranian side.

    The paucity of coverage between the Iranian Shi’ites (who center on the holy city of Qom) and the Iraqi Shi’ites (who center on the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala) I think typifies the tendency to overlook the complexities.

    It would be equivalent to arguing that all Democrats are members of the DLC, or all Christians are Catholics.

    The fact that these elements are willing to car-bomb each other ought, if anything, to underscore said complexity.

  8. Jim Henley says:

    LO, yes there was an awful lot of neighborly slaughter in the border states. (I highly recommend an independent film called “Pharoah’s Army” about that very topic.) But that was because the “macro contestant” adherents were sprinkled among each other geographically in those places. The macro contestants in North America were “Union” and the “Confederacy,” while in Iraq they are, broadly, “Sunnis,” “Shia” and “Kurds.” Within at least two of those macro contestant blocs we see “red on red” strife at a level unknown in our Civil War. There’s a clear pattern of Appalachian dwellers in confederate states fighting against their lowland brethren, for instance. Happened in Virginia/Kanawha, Tennessee, the Carolinas and Alabama, as you note. But the Appalachians were fighting on behalf of the idea of Union – IOW, for one of the existing macro ideologies. We’d have a true correspondence with the situation in Iraq if, say, Florida seceded from the US but then also split from the CSA, or if the aforementioned mountaineers fought not for Union but for an Appalachian Autonomous Region. Or if, in the north, Millerites tried to gain control of state governments via a campaign of assassinations while remaining nominally Union in sympathy.

    James, I do take your point re what you were and weren’t claiming. (Since I’m old enough to remember the Iranian hostage crisis, when everybody knew that moderate Sunni Muslims like you found in Saudi Arabia were the “good guys,” while “Shiites” like they had in Iran were wild-eyed fanatics, I put little stock in instant experts learnedly discoursing on “Salafism” and “Wahabism” and other suddenly important categories someone learned about last Tuesday.)

    Of course, the “horribly more complex” business is why some of us argued beforehand that there was no way the US was qualified to remake a country it had no prayer of even knowing anything much about.

  9. James Joyner says:

    Jim: Indeed on the old “Sunnis good, Shiites bad” meme.

    I’ve been campaigning against nation building since the early ’90s, so I can’t much disagree on the remaking the country issue. Toppling Saddam was a good thing but we clearly haven’t figured out how to ensure the replacement is suitable.

  10. Lurking Observer says:

    The comparison you seek, then, would seem to exist during the American Revolution.

    The Battle of King’s Mountain was fought by folks who were not especially loyal to the state government, and was as much for local autonomy as it was against the rule of George III.

    But, I’m not really sure what you’re getting at.

    There’ve been a number of such convoluted wars: the whole experience of Yugoslavia during World War II among Chetniks, Tito, etc. Or China’s civil war/World War II, where you had warlords, anti-Japanese patriots, anti-Communist patriots, Nationalists, Communists, etc., all mixed together.

    Wars are usually complicated, and humans are rarely driven by single factors as motives. Even World War II, one of the more “simple” wars included independent actors (e.g., De Gaulle) and allies with very opposed goals (USSR and US-UK, although Churchill and FDR didn’t always see eye-to-eye, either).