THINGS are not going America's way in Iraq; for the most part this is because of bad decisions dating back to before the war started and exacerbated since, but at the same time it has to be said that Washington is not having much luck either. The latest blow is the illness of the 73-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani which has made it necessary for him to leave his country for heart treatment in London. Although he has always maintained a proper distance from day-to-day politics, Mr Sistani is probably the single most influential man in Iraq and certainly the most influential of the country's clerics. He is the acknowledged religious leader of Iraq's Shia community which makes up at least 55 per cent of the country's 25 million population. The power he holds was dramatically shown last year when he forced the American administrators in Baghdad to agree that a new constitution should be drawn up by an elected body rather than by an American-appointed convention. As if by magic huge crowds appeared on Baghdad's streets to support the Ayatollah's view and in no time at all the Americans saw things his way.

The elections on which Ayatollah al-Sistani insisted are due to take place in January at the latest. But there are many voices, including those of the electoral experts of the United Nations, warning that a true electoral roll simply cannot be drawn up in the available time and that therefore the elections should be delayed. The Shia community, in particular, will not want this to happen and will have been counting on the Ayatollah's influence to ensure that no delay was accepted. Whether he will be able to exert this influence is now an open question, adding yet another uncertainty to Iraq's increasing crises.


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