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Najaf Bombing Deepens Divide Among Shiite Iraqis, a Group Critical to a Future Stable Iraq - 2003-09-09

The Shiites did not seek confrontation with Americans, says Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern Studies and International Affairs at Sarah Lawrence College. They had a wait-and-see attitude.

Professor Gerges says what they have now seen they do not like: namely, the murder of their leader Ayatollah Mohammad Biqir al-Hakim and some 100 of his followers in a bombing outside their mosque in Najaf: “The danger lies in the fact that the extension of armed attacks into the Shiite areas represents a dramatic, qualitative escalation of violence and shifting tactics on the part of the anti-American coalition in Iraq. And here, it seems to me, the Shiites are being dragged into confrontation against their own will and the goal here is to create chaos and defeat the American project in the country.”

The Najaf bombing inevitably deepens divisions among Shiites, as it was no doubt intended, says Michael Hudson, director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. Iraq’s Shia community is now at a crossroads: “This community has the potential, if it remains unified, to play a major or maybe the major role in some future stable Iraqi government, if that should come about. But it is also a community that is deeply split in a number of ways. Certain leading clerics who enjoy great respect and legitimacy are opting out of the political process. And the late Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, who had played a qualified, cooperative role with the American occupation regime was, I think, assassinated for that reason.”

The Najaf violence has heightened the fears of Shiites and led to the black-shirted militias, armed with Kalashnikovs, now offering them protection. These militants, says Professor Gerges, are increasingly anti-American and demanding more Iraqi control of security: “There is a very dangerous power struggle taking place within the Shia community. You have one faction which is led by Moktada al-Sadr, a young, fiery militant cleric and his followers, who would like to establish an Islamic state led by Shiite clerics. This power struggle has the potential not only to create social upheaval within the Shia community but also to militarize and make the Shia community join the armed resistance against the United States.”

From the beginning of the occupation, the Americans have tried to prevent any para-military groups from forming in Iraq, fearing they would lead to division. Professor Gerges agrees that is exactly what they will do: “You are really transplanting the Afghanistan model into Iraq by having various warlords having their own militias in order to provide security. This is highly dangerous because it might create the foundation for fragmentation in the future in Iraq. And this is why I believe that the American authorities’ decision to dismantle the Iraqi army – more than 350,000 soldiers – was a terrible blunder.”

Professor Gerges says this decision puts thousands of angry well trained soldiers out on the street where they can plot revenge against the occupation and take it. Perhaps they have already.

The U.S. challenge, says Professor Gerges, is to maintain order while keeping its presence at a minimum.

That involves a contradiction, says Professor Hudson: “Somewhat unfairly, the Americans have been kind of whipsawed. They have been blamed recently for not having been visible enough among the Shia to help protect them. At the same time, the Americans were saying, ‘Well, the Shia asked us to stay away because we would be provocative.’ So that is a kind of a lose-lose situation for the United States and the coalition forces that are there.”

Iran is in as deep mourning over the death of Ayatollah al-Hakim as Iraq. Indeed he spent 20 years in exile in Shiite Iran, aiding rebels against Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Professor Hudson is uncertain how Iran will now react to the loss of a chief ally: “After all, he had lived for many years in Iran, and the organization that he had established – the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq – was actually nurtured and I should think supported from Iran. So that was the main institutional linkage of Iran to the Iraqi Shia community, and it is unclear what the future is for this supreme council.”

But Iran, as much as the United States, values stability in Iraq, says Professor Gerges. As long as the American occupation does not threaten its interests, Iran is unlikely to make trouble. “Part of the received wisdom before the war and during the war was that as soon as the Shiites were empowered, they would automatically follow the example and model of Shia counterparts in Iran. And they would establish, of course as the conventional wisdom had it, a theocratic state based on the Ayatollah Khomeini model. I think this proposition does not take into account the diversity, complexity and sophistication of the Shiites in both Iraq and Iran.”

Professor Gerges adds that there is no serious separatist movement among Iraq’s Shiites yearning for a closer alliance with Iran. In fact, they remained loyal to Iraq in the war with Iran.

It is crucial at this moment for the United States to win the allegiance of the Shiites, says Professor Gerges. This can best be done by offering them a significant role in governing Iraq and doing it quickly: “The Shiite leadership has made it very clear that they need the U.S. authorities to expedite the process of transferring power to Iraqis as soon as possible. This has really been one of the most consistent demands by Shiite clerics and politicians – to see at least a date set for elections, more Iraqi faces on the street providing security for Iraqis, the international community to become more involved in the process of social, economic and political reconstruction in Iraq.”

Professor Hudson agrees there is no time to lose. Decisions must be made as fast as the bombs are exploding in Iraq if they are to be stopped.

Like others, he says the U.S. planning for the occupation hardly compared to the planning for the war: “The irony of the situation is that the American forces who went in to depose a regime that was too strong have succeeded, and now they are left with a country that is too weak. And there is no rooted, stable order even months after the major combat ended. The whole country is a huge power vacuum into which all kinds of elements, including many militant elements of different sorts, are gravitating and are being able to act.”

Professor Hudson adds that if Shiites see their country on the mend and genuine signs of progress, they have no reason to confront Americans. They are aware the U.S. arrival removed the tyrant who had persecuted them. Unlike many Sunnis perhaps, they have no longing for that vanished order. But an acceptable one must replace it.