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Shiites Poised to Dominate First Time in Iraq History


While the long-held rivalry between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in Iraq fuels much of the armed insurgency in the country, some observers note that fissures among Iraq's Shiites also threaten efforts to establish a stable postwar Iraq.

With the ouster of Saddam Hussein, the Shiites of Iraq, who make up about 60% of the population, moved quickly to fill the power vacuum created by the collapse of his regime. From the cities of the south to the slums of Baghdad, Shiite religious parties and militias stepped in, providing not only welfare and basic services, but also a semblance of law and order that the US led coalition forces could not provide.

Many Shiite leaders decided from the outset to cooperate with the American-led coalition. They played a vigorous role in the transitional political process, which paved the way to last month's full parliamentary elections under Iraq's new constitution. After capturing a big lead in the latest vote, the Shiite election coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, is now getting ready to claim enduring political dominance for the first time in modern Iraqi history. The alliance was joined by the three largest Shiite religious parties, the Dawa Party; the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, SCIRI; and the Sadrists, a faction lead by the young firebrand cleric Moqtada al- Sadr.

Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor and specialist on Iraq says that although the Shiite religious parties stand for Islamic rule, they above of all want justice for their community that suffered years of abuse under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime. He says, "They want to consolidate their dominant position within the Iraqi political system and they want to undo what they see as persecution and discrimination against the Shiites who were the poorest and the most mistreated portion of the Iraqi population."

But Professor Cole cautions Iraqi Shiites are not a monolithic entity. He argues the competition among groups within the the United Iraqi Alliance could stymie their united ambition to assume political power.

Shiite Branches Fighting for Power

Chris Toensing, Executive Director of The Middle East Research and Information Project in Washington echoes this warning. He says that one of the key disagreements between the big three Shiite branches, is over how strong Iraq's central government should be. SCIRI is in favor of a loose federation. It supports the creation of a powerful nine-province Shiite autonomous region in the south, which would include the port of Basra, oil resources and the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

"Cracks are starting to emerge," says analyst Toensing. "One split is over the degree of federalism that should be pursued by the ruling coalition. SCIRI is much more enthusiastic about forming a Shiite super-province in the south than is Dawa, which is more inclined to have a stronger government And the second major split is between both of those mainline religious parties and the Moqtada al-Sadr faction, which is very much opposed to federalism and is much more inclined to ally with Sunni Islamists who ran against the United Iraqi Alliance in the elections."

Mr. Toensing says there is also a split between the Sadrists who stayed in Iraq during the Saddam years and the leaders of the other two parties who in the 80s and 90s fled to Iran. He says that split was sharpened even further by the attitude of these different factions towards the US occupation. Moqtada al-Sadr at times called for a national rebellion against foreign troops and sent out his militiamen to confront what he termed the "invaders" and Iraqi police. But SCIRI and the Dawa Party cooperated with the American occupation authorities from the beginning.

Observers say Sadr could be a bridge between the Shiite religious parties and Sunni Arab factions who have a very strong anti-occupation position and who have worked with him in the past. Phebe Marr, of the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, contends it is essential that the Shiites, together with their close allies, the Kurds, partner with elected Sunni officials in forming a new unity government.

Freezing Out the Sunnis

According to Phebe Marr, "They really have to negotiate a new social contract; a new deal that includes at least some of those elected Sunnis and addresses some of their grievances. That is the only way in which gradually, slowly you are going to draw the sting of the insurgency. And if you don't draw the sting of the insurgency there isn't going to be much development in Iraq. They are not going to get the oil resources going. They are not going to get prosperity, and of course they are not going to get security."

Ms. Marr says the Shiites and the Kurdish leaders have come to learn to work with each other during the months they drafted the new Iraqi constitution.

According to Mr. Toensing the Shiites and the Kurds were able to form an alliance, excluding the Sunnis, because American forces backed it. But, he says, this could change.

But Mr. Toensing argues that "a major structural reason why that kind of arrangement could be made was because the American military remained a combatant on the side of the Iraqi government against the insurgency. If the US were to tell the Kurds and Shiites the party is over, we are going to start drawing down the troops in substantial numbers, so substantial that you will essentially be left to fight on your own alone. That might change the calculus I think that's a major focus of US diplomacy at the moment."

Shiites Gaining Key Role in Gulf

If the three Iraqi ethnic groups work out a functioning unity government, Shiites in Iraq will for the first time in a millennium, dominate an Arab state.

According to Professor Cole, of Michigan University, the traditional power equation in the Gulf is rapidly shifting in favor of Shiite Islam. He notes Iraqi religious parties have already established close ties with Iran, a nation of 70 million predominantly Shiite Muslims and a major power in the region.

"The Iraqi Shiite majority, some 16 million people, will also be the bulwark for the Lebanese Shiites," says Professor Cole. "They will be a support for the Shiites in Bahrain, who are a majority but have a Sunni king over them, and for the minority Shiites in Saudi Arabia, about 10 percent of the population, many of whom live in the oil-producing region of Saudi Arabia and are a special security concern for the Kingdom. Maybe 30 percent of Kuwaitis are Shiite. So with a Shiite dominated Iraq, the power seems to be shifting in the Gulf region towards the Shiites."

Professor Cole maintains that since two-thirds of the world's proven oil reserves are in the Gulf, the Shiite population there is attaining a potentially pivotal role in future geopolitics.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.