To negotiate with al-Sistani, U.S. needs U.N. involvement

The 10 months since Saddam Hussein’s overthrow have provided ample reason to seek U.N. involvement in U.S. reconstruction efforts. Transition plans have been repeatedly revised in the face of opposition from Iraq’s Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish populations. The latest plan calls for the selection of an interim government through regional caucuses and a full handover of authority in time for the presidential campaign next summer. A new constitution and democratic elections would follow some time after.

That’s a far cry from the plan touted by Paul Bremer and company last summer. Then, well before the U.S. casualty count topped 500 and election-year politics began to dominate the news, the United States envisioned a more deliberate scenario. The U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority would choose Iraqis to draft a constitution, to be followed by national elections and the formal return of sovereignty to the Iraqi people.

The quickening timetable for political transition reflects more than a growing Iraqi insurgency and creeping U.S. casualties. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the revered Shiite cleric, has quietly emerged as the most influential political figure in Iraq. His June religious edict demanded national elections to choose a group to write a constitution, effectively dooming U.S. intentions to appoint a group. The new focus on regional caucuses is largely a concession aimed at al-Sistani.

Still, the Ayatollah has responded with calls for public demonstrations. Monday saw tens of thousands of Iraqis marching through the streets of Baghdad. Smaller demonstrations in cities throughout southern Iraq continued Tuesday. In recent days U.S. officials have courted U.N. assistance, hoping a team of U.N. officials might have more luck convincing al-Sistani that national elections are not feasible in the near future.

The impasse with al-Sistani is a symptom of a much larger problem with the U.S. approach to the Iraqi transition process. With a reputation for oil and empire rather than democracy, the United States simply lacks the credibility to effectively negotiate with figures like al-Sistani.

The decision to seek U.N. involvement is a step in the right direction. Sadly, the moment for a U.N.-directed transition might already have passed. But it is not too late to give the organization a much-needed place at the table.