Iraqis campaign for democracy, 2003-2005

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Time Period:  
Location and Goals
Location City/State/Province: 
Bagdad and Basra, Iraq
Al-Sistani wrote in June 2003 fatwa, that, “there must be general elections in which each eligible Iraqi can choose his [or her] representative in a constituent assembly for writing the constitution”

Iraqi women and men waged a nonviolent pro-democracy campaign from 2003 to 2005. Led by the moderate Shiite religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani (a respected Iraqi theologian within the “Quietest Branch”), Iraqis used public protest, strikes, walkouts, sit-ins and boycotts to push for democracy.

Iraqis faced a difficult situation after the 2003 U.S. invasion. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), led by U.S. Administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer III, had quickly abandoned plans to convene free and fair elections. The CPA’s failure to protect Iraqi civilians and public institutions from organized looting and vandalism had amplified risks to public safety. The CPA’s dubious move to enact a “de-Ba’athification” of Iraqi society meant that tens of thousands of highly trained soldiers and civil servants were suddenly unemployed and unemployable. Foreign Jihadists began to enter the country with weapons and new fundamentalist ideologies. Local militias seized many of Saddam Hussein’s abandoned caches of conventional weapons. However, in spite these new challenges and Hussein’s legacy of repression, many Iraqis sought democracy with nonviolent action.

The Iranian moderate Shiite religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani was among those in 2003 who led thousands of Iraqis out into the streets of Bagdad in organized pro-democracy protests. The protesting Baghdadis demanded that free elections take place prior to the drafting of a new constitution. Consistent with Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), protesting Iraqis wanted “the right to take part in the government of his [or her] country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.” Protesting Iraqis affirmed that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government [and that] this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage” (see UDHR, 21:1,3). The overall strategy was to apply nonviolent political pressure to the U.S. and to local Iraqi leaders for the establishment of free and fair elections, by which the majority of Iraqis would be able to participate in government.

Al-Sistani’s political influence is related to the fact that Iraq is 60 percent Shiite. Al-Sistani favored a democratic non-theocratic Islamic state in Iraq, with freedom of religion and civil liberties. Al-Sistani issued a fatwa (an authoritative religious statement) in 2003 that encouraged Iraqi women to vote in free elections and to participate in nonviolent civil protest. Al-Sistani wrote in June 2003, that “there must be general elections in which each eligible Iraqi can choose his [or her] representative in a constituent assembly for writing the constitution.” Al-Sistani also encouraged Shiite clergy to become engaged participants in the secular political process, although he has advised against Islamic clerics holding political office. Al-Sistani thought that the Shiite majority (who had been living under minority Sunni rule for decades) would be greatly empowered by a new democratic system of government. He declared that the United Nations must oversee political elections in Iraq to ensure the democratic legitimacy of any elected governing body. Sistani repeatedly defied U.S. political maneuvers in Iraq and he consistently rejected violence as a strategic alternative.

Al-Sistani led a major escalation of the pro-democracy campaign in January 2004. In response to Paul Bremer’s statement that there was “no time” for general elections, Al-Sistani called for massive nonviolent protests. Supported by his leadership, more than 100,000 Shiite Baghdadis joined in a series of marches and rallies, and up to 30,000 Iraqis marched in Basra. Iraqi demonstrators waved flags, chanted slogans, and announced that, “[i]f America won’t give us the democracy they promised, we will make it for ourselves.” As advised by Al-Sistani, these massive Iraqi assemblies remained nonviolent, and protestors disbanded on cue when Al-Sistani chose to pause the campaign while the United Nations studied the situation. Al-Sistani threatened to expand protests and to organize strikes on 16 January 2004 if the U.S. continued with its “colonial plans” in Iraq. A representative of Al-Sistani’s Marja (a group a elite religious leaders led by Al-Sistani) told reporters, “We tell you to support the Marja's call for general elections. The Marja will do all in its power to stop those who would throw away the rights of the Iraqi people and will not give up its cause."

Al-Sistani was also able to intervene in various crises in Iraq. For example, in August of 2004, Al-Sistani negotiated a peaceful conclusion to a violent confrontation between U.S. supported security forces and the Medhi Army (a militia led by Muqtaga Al-Sadr). The Imam Ali Mosque in the Iraqi city of Najaf had been paralyzed by violence for weeks. Numerous attempts to resolve the conflict had failed, including attempts by the U.S.-backed Prime Minister Awad Allawi and his Iraqi Interim Government. Al-Sistani, however, had legitimacy as a negotiator, because of his well-known opposition to the occupation and because of his popularity as a leader of the nonviolent pro-democracy movement.

In January of 2005, Al-Sistani directed his followers that it was “their religious duty” to vote in the landmark referendum on the Iraqi constitution. A comprise had been reached that the first freely elected government under the new constitution would review and make changes to the document. On 15 October 2005, Iraqis voted to support the new constitution, despite the fact that mostly CPA appointees to the Transitional National Assembly had drafted it. Although the constitutional referendum won by a large margin of the electorate, it nearly failed in that two Sunni majority Iraqi provinces defeated it by a two-thirds majority (three such defeats would have stopped adoption of the document outright). Accusations of vote fraud (especially in a third Sunni province that nearly opposed the document by two-thirds) revealed at least a pervasive suspicion of the elections (if not outright tampering).

Research Notes
[1] Kirk, M. (Director). (2008). Bush’s War. (Documentary Film). Frontline PBS & Kirk Documentary Group.

[2] Isakhan, B. (2011). The Streets of Iraq: Protests and Democracy after Saddam. In Isakhan, B., & Stockwell, S. (Eds.) The Secret History of Democracy (p. 191-203). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

[3] Universal Declaration of Human Rights (2011). Retrieved September 5, 2011 from

[4] Omayma Abdel-Latif (2004). Al-Hawza’s muscle. Retreived September 5, 2011 from

[5] Council on Foreign Relations (2004). Iraq: Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. Retrieved Sept. 5, 2011 from

[6] Assyrian News Agency (2005). Al-Sistani will not tell people how to vote on Iraq constitution. Retrieved September 5, 2011 from

[7] Official Website of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani (2011). Retrieved September 5, 2011 from

[8] Middle East Online (2004). Sistani threatens protests against U.S. Retrieved September 5, 2011 from

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Jesse Laird, 25/08/2011