Harshly suppressed and sometimes slaughtered by Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s Shiites have now reemerged as a religious and political force in the aftermath of war. Comprising at least 65% of the Iraqi population, they are bound to wield considerable power in any postwar government. The question is how much and what kind. There are fears they may try to establish a theocratic state inimical to democracy.
Mostly by foot and by any vehicle available, hundreds of thousands of Shiites have converged on the holy city of Karbala to celebrate their freedom from Saddam Hussein and to urge an early American departure from Iraq. “No to Saddam,” they chant, “and no to Bush.”
To back up these words, Shiites have seized control of various Iraqi cities without consulting U.S. forces. Syed Abbas, a leading member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq or SCIRI, is the self-appointed mayor of Kut near the Iranian border. U.S. officials don’t like him, but are wary of trying to remove him. “I have been chosen by God,” he insists.
Quietly arriving in Iraq, the new U.S. overseer, Lieutenant General Jay Garner, says Americans will leave fairly rapidly, but speculation in Washington about the length of the occupation runs from a few months to five years.
Time indeed may be limited by Shiite opposition, says Juan Cole, professor of modern Middle East history at the University of Michigan.
“The protests that we have seen, the statements by major Shiite figures as well as the chanting of crowds, demonstrations and so forth suggest that the United States may not have the luxury of that kind of long term timeline for turning Iraq back over to Iraqi rule. The Shiites do not like this idea of Americans staying in Iraq for so long,” Professor Cole says.
Even so, U.S. policy makers are reaching out to Shiites, including SCIRI, says Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service in Washington. It is SCIRI that is keeping its distance.
“Some of that reflects Iran’s views. Some of it is their own ideology, viewing the United States as perhaps not sympathetic to Islam and Muslims and perhaps somewhat too pro-Israel in their view,” Mr. Katzman says. “What we are seeing is a lot of that latent tension between the Shiite Islamists and the United States is now becoming much more public and much more pronounced.”
Mr. Katzman believes the Shiite ties to Iran are crucial. Through them, Tehran can expect to have considerable influence in the new Iraqi government:
“A lot of these are Shiite Islamic forces who are somewhat factionalized but all roughly working together in a pro-Iranian camp. There are some differences. Some are less pro-Iranian than others, but in general they reject a U.S.-led process for forming a new government,” he says. “They believe that the United States should have virtually no role in selecting the interim government, and they seem to be asserting their influence by themselves outside the U.S.-led process.”
Mr. Katzman says the Shiites might create a shadow government in competition with the official one.
We must be willing to live with the results of democracy, however messy, say Americans. But Shiites could put that to a severe test, according to Professor Cole.
“It was inevitable that much of what the will of the Iraqi people represents might be contrary to U.S. strategic interests or policies,” he says. “It is highly unlikely in my view that the Shiite community of Iraq would be hostile to or negative towards the Hezbollah group in southern Lebanon, which the United States views as a terrorist organization. It is rather unlikely that the Shiites of Iraq will have a strong negative attitude toward Iran, which the United States has called part of an axis of evil. The United States has let genies out of the bottle, which it is not going to be able to control.”
But don’t think Iraqi Shiites are altogether identical to Iranian Shiites, cautions Professor Cole.
“It should not be forgotten that cities like Najaf and Karbala in Iraq have a great deal of religious charisma of their own,” Professor Cole says. “It is not impossible that figures will emerge among the Iraqi Shiites in those holy cities who will ultimately challenge some of the Iranian clerical leaders for authority within the world Shiite community.”
Shiites may also share a strong sense of Iraqi nationalism, say observers. Shiites fought alongside Sunnis in the Iraqi war with Iran in the 1980’s. Yitzhak Nakash, professor of modern Middle Eastern studies at Brandeis University, says “the tension between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq is not cultural or ethnic but primarily political. And it reflects the competition of the two groups over the right to rule and to define the meaning of nationalism in the country.”
Jim Wall, senior contributing editor to the Christian Century magazine and a frequent commentator on the Middle East, says Shiites, no less than other Iraqis, seek stability for their country.
“You have some mainstream leadership in the Shiite community that would be in a position to take some moderating role if they are given a chance to participate and if our government does not try to force too harsh a secular stance on to the new government. It is going to have to have some religious influence because of the importance of religion to the Iraqi people,” Mr. Wall says.
Mr. Wall says Shiites recognize the importance of keeping Iraq together and not letting it disintegrate into various sectarian parts. Three smaller, weaker countries, even if one is Shiite, hardly measure up to a united Iraq.
“That is going to be the key. Can they cooperate? Can the Shiites, Sunnis, minority Christians and Kurds participate without splitting into three sections,” he asks. “I would think it would be very hopeful that they might be able to struggle toward a common goal. After all, they have a huge, huge financial backing with the oil riches of that country.”
Don’t assume that diversity means division, says Mr. Wall. Let’s call it positive diversity from which all can benefit. And don’t make the mistake of confusing all fundamentalism with fanaticism. Fundamentalism is the future, at least in part, and we must deal with it.
Mr. Wall says there are signs Washington understands this.
“I was pleased that some of the early meetings that the Bush people have been putting together in Iraq did include some of the religious leaders. But not enough because the Shiites in the south are protesting that they do not want to sit down with the Bushes,” he says. “Yet they are politicians, too, you know, and there may be some jockeying to get themselves ready to have a major place at the table so long as we open the door to all of them and do not appear to be frightened of the rise of fundamentalism.”
Eric Davis, director of the center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University, writes in The New York Times newspaper that traditions of civil society and cultural pluralism still exist in Iraq despite the years of oppression and can be revived to assure a promising future.