(Originally published on 7/26/2003 @ Hurriyet Daily News)
Beyond the Eurhrates began for us the land of mirage and danger, the sands where one helplesssly sank, and the roads which ended in nothing. The slightest reversal would have resulted in a jolt to our prestige giving rise to all kinds of catastrophe; the problem was not only to conquer but to conquer again and again, perpetually; our forces would be drained of attempt. (Emperor Hadrian, AD 117-38)
The recent war in Iraq has produced an unintended consequence — a fearsome Shiite Muslim geopolitical bloc that will dominate politics in the Middle East for many years. Religious Shiite groups and militias in Iraq have recently stepped into the gap resulting from the collapse of the Ba’ath Party, especially in the sacred shrine cities. Among the big surprises of the weeks following the fall of the Baath Party in Iraq is the way in which Shiite religious leaders and parties moved immediately into the vacuum.1
Although Iraq is an overwhelmingly Muslim country, it is both religiously and ethnically diverse. More than 95 percent of the population is Muslim, but this total is divided between Shiites who constitute over 60 percent and Sunnis who represent just under 35 percent. And the Sunnis are divided among Arab, Kurdish, and Turkman ethnic groups. The very small Christian population, probably about three percent of the total, is divided among Chaldeans, Assyrians, and others. Despite the fact that the majority of the country is Shiite, the Sunnis have for several generations dominated the country, sometimes co-opting Christian support. As a consequence, the Shiites have felt themselves seriously repressed. This led to a Shiite uprising in the south in 1991 following the Gulf War, which was brutally put down. The Hussein regime murdered many Shiite clerics and leaders. As a result, Shiite resentment and hostility have grown over the last decade.2
With the collapse of a regime dominated by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, Iraq’s Shiite majority now aspires to claim political dominance for the first time in the modern history of the country. The Shiites of Iraq, already the second most powerful force in Iraq behind U.S. forces, are also openly resisting foreign intervention and express a strong distrust towards the armies of the United States and Britain.
Shiite Islam was the very first “Politicised” Islam in the world. In the 11th and 12th centuries, a Shiite stronghold in Iran directed an assassination cult that terrified Christians and Muslims during the time of the Crusades. It was said that the members of this suicide/assassination cult could find — and kill — anybody in the known world that their leader targeted.
Today Iraq’s 15 million Shiites are extremely sensitive about having holy cities of Shiite Islam on their territory. Kerbala and Najaf are two significant cities that have been respected for the last fourteen centuries by the Shiites of the world as the resting place of their two most sacred imams, Ali and Hussein.
What we are witnessing in Iraq is a historic awakening of the country’s Shiites. This has significant consequences for the whole Middle East. Iran, Iraq and Bahrain have Shiite majorities. In Lebanon and Syria, although they are in minority, they are politically the dominant power groups. Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia has a Shiite majority that is probably the most politically active group in the kingdom. There are significant Shiite presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
The Awakening of Iranian and Lebanese Shiites happened in the 1970s, but Saddam’s extreme secularism made sure that the Shiites of Iraq did not join in. Now, by destroying the secular government of Saddam Hussein, the recent war in Iraq brought that country’s Shiite majority to the fore. Iraq’s Shiites are suddenly free to contemplate the power vacuum left by Saddam’s departure. The Shiites have not been shy about asserting themselves in the new Iraq. Following orders from their religious leaders, they have already taken over neighbourhoods in cities across the country, set up armed militias, organized public services and established long-banned political parties in a nervous bid to make their presence felt.3
In a generally religious country, religious leaders belonging to the Shiite sect have a particularly firm grip on rank-and-file believers. It is clear that the Islamist movements will play a major role in the future of Iraq’s politics, particularly among the Shiites. The Shiite majority is going to play an important part in Iraq, and the Shiite clergy is going to play an important part in Shiite politics.
For the occupying U.S. and British forces, the new fear is that the Iraqi Shiites will try to follow the example of their bitterly anti-American fellow Shiites in neighbouring Iran. While the Shiites were violently suppressed by Saddam Hussein’s government, many Shiite groups are also hostile to the United States because of its support for Israel. Leading Shiite factions, supported by Iran, want U.S. forces to leave Iraq as soon as possible. Some, but not all, of these factions are seeking to establish an Iranian-style government dominated by Shiite clerics, a goal strongly opposed by the country’s Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities. Others Shiite groups believe that the clergy should not be involved in politics and favour a more secular form of government.4
The most active Shiite religious leader since Hussein’s regime collapsed has been Muqtada al-Sadr, a young and relatively inexperienced man who comes from a long line of respected religious authorities. From his base at the Hawza, the supreme institution of Shiite learning, he has dispatched his close supporters around the country to try to fill the power vacuum left by the Ba’ath Party. In the predominantly Shiite Baghdad slum once known as Saddam City, residents have re-named their district Sadr City, and painted new portraits of Mohammed Bakr Sadr on the stands from which Saddam Hussein’s face once beamed.5
The Sadr movement appears to be intolerant and authoritarian, and to have a class base in the poverty-stricken neighbourhoods brutalized by Ba’ath Party goons. Eyewitness accounts of the mob killing on April 10 of an American-backed rival ayatollah, Abd al-Majid al-Khoei, flown into Najaf from exile in London, point to the significance of the Sadr movement. Members of this movement then surrounded the houses of Sistani and Ayatollah Said al-Hakim, nephew of Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), demanding that these two leave Najaf immediately. This attempt at a radical change in the Shiite clerical leadership of the shrine city was forestalled when 1,500 Shiite tribesmen came in from the countryside to protect Sistani and al-Hakim. Muqtada views expatriate politicians and clerics now returning to Iraq in the same light, heaping abuse on Ahmad Chalabi and the secular-leaning Iraqi National Congress.6
The Sadr movement wants an Islamic republic in Iraq, even if not one exactly like the one Ayatollah Khomeini established in Iran.7 Press reports from the slums of Baghdad suggest that Muqtada is worshiped there and that most of the armed militiamen now patrolling the neighbourhoods of the renamed Sadr City are his followers. One report said that they had repelled an attempt to infiltrate the city by a rival Shiite militia, the Tehran-based Badr Brigade of SCIRI. Like most other Iraqi Shiite clerics, Muqtada wants the Americans out of Iraq as soon as possible. He says, according to one report, that “We refuse occupation. If the Americans become occupiers, yes, we have to go to jihad. The Shiite taught the world jihad, and the Iraqi people gave millions of their sons to Saddam Hussein. If they were to defy the Americans, they would not find it hard to give millions more.” 8
It seems that twenty-four years after Ayatollah Khomeini outmaneuvered Iran’s religious and political establishment, his spiritual disciples in Iraq are attempting a similar clerical takeover. Within the increasingly volatile conditions of post-Saddam Iraq, where the American occupation of Iraq is new and unsteady, the power of the Shiites emerges as one of the wildcards.
Dr. Bulent Gokay is Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Director of European Studies SPIRE, Keele University, Staffs ST5 5BG, ENGLAND
Website: http://www.keele.ac.uk/depts/spire/Staff/Pages/Gokay/goka y.htm
1. Jonathan Eric Lewis, “America encounters the Shiite”, May 8, 2003, http://www.shianews.com/hi/articles/politics/0000368.php,
2. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/middle_east/jan- june03/religion_04-22.html
3. CBSNEWS.com, “Shiite Power In Postwar Iraq”, April 14, 2003.
4. “Shiite leaders stress peaceful resistance, Garner in Baghdad; preparation for a five- year rule”, Iraq-U.S., Politics, 4/22/2003, http://www.arabicnews.com/ansub/Daily/Day/030422/20030422 40.html
5. http://www.philly.com/mld/philly/news/columnists/trudy_ru bin/5641986.htm
6. Ed Finn and Avi Zenilman, “A Guide to Iraq’s Shiite Clerics”, http://slate.msn.com/id/2082980/, 15 May 2003.
7. New York Times, April 29, 2003.
8. Juan Cole, “Shiite Religious Parties Fill Vacuum in Southern Iraq”, the Middle East Report Online, April 22, 2003, http://www.merip.org/mero/mero042203.html