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Backgrounder in Postwar Iraq, Shi’ites Trying to Assert Some Political Power

April 29, 2003
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Twenty years ago in Lebanon, the Shi’ite Muslims turned within a matter of weeks from a suppressed community into the torchbearers of a national struggle.

Now it seems they may do the same in Iraq.

When Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982, the Shi’ites in the South initially greeted the Israeli soldiers as liberators from PLO oppression.

However, once the Shi’ites realized that Israel planned to stay for a while, they became the spearhead of Lebanese resistance, forming the fundamentalist terrorist group Hezbollah as well as a secular militia, Amal.

Iraq’s Shi’ites have not even given America the benefit of doubt. Only a few days after the fall of Baghdad earlier this month, Shi’ite clergymen already were lifting the banner of resistance against the continued presence of American troops in the country.

Like Lebanon’s Shi’ites, the Shi’ites of Iraq enjoy the support of neighboring Iran, where a fundamentalist Shi’ite regime took power in the 1979 Revolution.

In the past few days, Shi’ite clerics have been streaming from Iran to the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, Iraq’s major Shi’ite teaching centers.

In addition, hundreds of Iraqi students who studied at Iran’s religious seminaries have begun returning to Iraq.

On the face of it, it seems a legitimate return of exiled sons. But experts say it also represents an orchestrated attempt by Shi’ite radicals to export Iran’s Islamic Revolution — and the Iraqi ground is ripe.

Shi’ite militants from both banks of the Shatt al-Arab waterway do not want to waste any time. The Iraqi-born Grand Ayatollah Kadhem al-Husseini al-Haeri has issued a fatwa, or religious edict, calling on Shi’ites to “seize the first possible opportunity to fill the power vacuum in the future administration of Iraq and play their role in reconstructing their country.”

Shi’ites make up around 60 percent of Iraq’s population, some 13 million out of an estimated population of 22.4 million.

Shi’ism is Islam’s second largest branch after Sunni Islam, representing about 10 percent of the total Muslim world.

The sect emerged in the middle of the seventh century as “Shi’at Ali,” or the faction of Ali Ibn Abu-Taleb, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. Ali, who was in power from 656-661, was just the fourth caliph, or Islamic ruler, after the religion was founded.

Following Ali’s assassination, the Shi’ites claimed that it had been Ali’s right to succeed Muhammad, and that the previous caliphs had been usurpers. They maintained that only the descendants of Ali and his wife, Fatima — Muhammad’s daughter — were entitled to rule the Muslim community.

Their descendants were 12 imams, whom the Shi’ites said were the only ones with the divine right to authority. The last imam disappeared in 880. Shi’ites to this day await his return, when they believe that justice will be established on earth.

From its early days, Shi’ism differed from mainstream Islam in its strict adherence to the Koran as a divine revelation, and to Muhammad’s descendants as divinely blessed.

Consequently, the Shi’ites traditionally believed their religious leaders held a higher degree of political legitimacy than did the state — similar in certain ways to the haredi perception of the rabbinical establishment’s authority vis-a- vis the secular Israeli state.

There are an estimated 165 million Shi’ites worldwide. They are the majority in Iran and Iraq, and large numbers of Shi’ites live in Syria, Lebanon, India, Pakistan and parts of Central Asia.

Despite religious differences, in recent years several Shi’ite leaders, including Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, advocated rapprochement and solidarity with Sunni Islam.

The Shi’ites in Arab countries have not enjoyed political status and power proportional to their numbers.

In Iraq, for example, the ruling Sunni minority has oppressed the Shi’ites and excluded them from the highest levels of political power.

Yet Iraq’s Shi’ites remained loyal to Iraq during the 1980-88 war against Shi’ite Iran. Nevertheless, groups of pro-Iranian Shi’ites have been active in Iraq.

The main Shi’ite opposition group in Iraq has been the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which receives financial and strategic backing from Iran.

In March 1991, just after the Persian Gulf War, Shi’ite strongholds in southern Iraq staged a widespread revolt against Saddam Hussein’s rule.

Western coalition forces were close at hand but did not intervene, and the Iraqi army was able to reassert control over urban areas by midyear.

International concern for the Shi’a resulted in the declaration, in August 1991, of a no-fly zone below the 32nd parallel, where fixed-wing Iraqi aircraft were forbidden.

Extreme poverty, along with the murder — allegedly by Saddam’s regime — of some senior Shi’ite religious leaders prompted widespread unrest in many southern towns and in Shi’ite areas of Baghdad in late 1998 and 1999.

The reaction of Saddam’s security forces was uncompromising: According to some reports, the Iraqi government ordered the burning and shelling of villages and had dams built to divert water from the marshes in southern Iraq, depriving the Shi’ites of food and cover.

Last week, in Karbala in central Iraq, Shi’ites staged a massive religious celebration that had been banned during the Saddam era.

Suddenly Iraqi Shi’ites smelled the sweet odor of political freedom. But instead of thanking the Americans for that freedom, Shi’ites, many of whom oppose Western influence, called on U.S. troops to leave Iraq.

Other expressions of freedom were the appointment of neighborhood committees run by Shi’ite religious leaders, the handing down of fatwas calling for a Shi’ite takeover of the country and the self-appointment of local mayors and governors.

With the Shi’ites’ new sense of power came local power struggles. Only a few days after religious leader Abdul Majid al-Khoei returned from his London exile, he was stabbed to death by Shi’ite rivals in the shrine of Najaf, causing further agitation in the community.

How fast will the Shi’ite fire spread? The answer depends not just on the local scene but on possible outside support, mostly from Iran.

The Bush administration has issued stern warnings to Iran not to back Shi’ite resistance to the American presence in Iraq.

At the same time, Gen. Jay Garner, the U.S. official responsible for leading the reconstruction of Iraq, convened a meeting with some prospective Iraqi leaders in an effort to stall an “Iranization” process.

As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last week, an Iranian-style government in Iraq “isn’t going to happen.”

At the least, it would be an unintended — and, from America’s perspective, most worrying — consequence of the war.

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