Edition 16 Volume 2 - April 29, 2024

A Shiite-led Iraq

Choice and compulsion in Iraq - by  Ridwan al Sayyid

There is no longer a Shiite consensus to rebuff resistance.

A Shiite awakening - by  Laurie Mylroie

UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is the epitome of all that the Shiites mistrust in Arab politics.

Shiite power and Iranian interests - by  Ramin Jahanbegloo

The goals of Iraqi Shiites coincide with the political and strategic interests of the Iranian regime.

Comeback cleric - by  Hassan Fattah and Sarmad Ali

Behind Sadr's battle is a fight for the future of Shiite Islam.

Choice and compulsion in Iraq
by Ridwan al Sayyid

Analyses and predictions have been on the rise over the last two weeks concerning the potential for developments in Iraq and their influence on both the future of its own political system and that of neighboring countries. Several new events have recently transformed the Iraqi situation and led to this flurry of analysis.

The first of these developments is the rebellion of Muqtada al Sadr and its fracturing of the Shiite position towards the American occupation. This rebellion also has implications for Shiite relations with the Sunnis in Iraq and with the Iranians, or the extent to which the Iranians will benefit from this development. The second of these developments is the escalation of the armed Sunni resistance in Falluja and elsewhere. This resistance has led all involved--particularly the American occupiers, the Kurds, and certain Arab parties--to reconsider their initial appraisals.

The third of these developments is the enlarged United Nations role in Iraq and talk of this role being supported by a new Security Council resolution, with agreement from the United States. Finally, there is also discussion of Arab and Turkish forces being engaged within Iraq upon the commencement of the interim period that is supposed to begin on June 30.

It's actually the first factor--the Shiites--that concerns us here because its outcome affects all other developments, and particularly that of the Americans. It is well known that the current make-up of the Interim Governing Council gives preference to the Shiites because they are the majority in Iraq and because they, along with the Kurds, suffered the most during the regime of Saddam Hussein.

However, the Americans appointed approximately half of the Shiite representatives in the Governing Council from among their supporters, those who had cooperated with them for years (such as Ahmad Chalabi, Eyad Alawi, and Muhammad Bahr al 'Ulum). And when the influence of the Shiite religious authorities gradually increased under the leadership of Ali al Sistani in the months following the stabilization of the occupation, Shiite members of the Governing Council (such as Fadel al Rubi'i) rushed to mediate between Paul Bremer and the religious authority. Chalabi himself attempted to cozy up to Sistani.

Given the consensus among the Shiite branches both within and outside the Governing Council (with the exception of Muqtada al Sadr and his loyalists) not to stage resistance against the Americans, positions on two issues have begun to crystallize. These encompass the role of each Shiite branch following the dissolution of the Governing Council and the commencement of the interim period, and how to establish an equal relationship with Iran, whose own relationship with the United States is still one of push and shove.

Everyone, including the United States, has neglected the position and interests of Muqtada al Sadr, who represents a considerable percentage of the Shiite in Iraq's cities (Baghdad, Nasseriya, Basra, and Kut) and some towns. Al Sadr realizes that his final opportunity to gain influence is restricted to this opening before the interim period, lest the situation turn into a Shiite civil war. He therefore chose to revolt now against the Americans rather than against the other Shiite parties that have estranged him or shown him hostility. His rebellion is significant because it means that there is no longer a Shiite consensus to rebuff resistance and because it allows him to join forces with the Sunni resistance. While this may not please Iran, it certainly won't anger it.

As these developments unfolded in Kufa, Najaf and Falluja, the atmosphere in Washington was turning sour for the Bush administration. The congressional investigative committee got underway, and books were published by Susskind, Clarke, and Woodward disclosing the preparations for an Iraqi war prior to or concurrent with the raids on Afghanistan, as well as the weak evidence that existed for the existence of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.

With increasing losses for the American forces in Iraq, fighting in the Sunni triangle that seems to have transformed into a persistent front, and the rebellion of Muqtada al Sadr, the American administration has begun to think deeply about its future in Iraq. The United States is considering the possibility of lightening up on the Sunnis (for example, the decision to return Baathists to government positions and the army), opening up to the Arabs, calming the Gulf countries' fear of a Shiite government in Iraq, as well as seeking Iran's aid in quelling Muqtada al Sadr. In that light, the Americans have encouraged the United Nations to make a strong comeback through Lakhdar Brahimi (who President Bush met personally and asked to become the United Nations secretary general's special envoy).

Al Sistani had reservations about the interim constitution, most importantly about giving the right of veto to the Kurdish minority and the unadressed urgency of establishing an elected government through general elections. The Americans promised Sistani that elections would be held in a year. But his fears increased anew after Baathists were returned to the state's administration, Brahimi appeared in Baghdad and al Sadr revolted thus appearing to weaken the united Shiite front.

Bremer has managed to silence opponents to Brahimi, with the exception of Chalabi, who attacked him and accused him of discriminating against the members of the Governing Council. It now appears that after June 30, the interim government, which will supervise the elections, will not have a clear Shiite majority as does the current government. The prime minister might also not be Shiite--if he is, it will not be Chalabi as the former exile had hoped. There is no doubt that the Gulf states would prefer this, because they all have Shiite minorities that have recently initiated timid movements towards political and social rights.

What will transpire in Iraq, and what will the implications be? The Americans will attempt to leave much sooner than they had previously calculated. But they cannot leave chaos in their wake. Therefore, they will seek to allow greater representation of the Sunnis and the Shiite followers of Muqtada al Sadr. The primary beneficiaries of these developments to date are the Iranians, who possess significant power within Iraq and whose interests are served by a divided (therefore pliable) Shiite front in Iraq. The occupation, however, will remain an occupation.-Published 29/4/2004(c)bitterlemons-international.org

Ridwan al Sayyid teaches Islamic Studies at the Lebanese University, Beirut.

A Shiite awakening
by Laurie Mylroie

The United States went to war with Iraq for reasons of its own national security. Its motives were remote from Islam's basic schism, between the majority Sunni, who constitute 90 percent of the world's Muslims, and the minority Shiite. Yet given that Saddam Hussein's regime represented a brutal Sunni Arab dictatorship in a country that is majority Shiite, the results of overthrowing Saddam were bound to have a profound effect on that sectarian rift. America could not possibly replace one vicious Sunni tyranny with another Sunni Arab dictatorship.

For Iraq's Shiite, this means that for the first time since the founding of the state political dominance is within their reach. That is a heady sentiment, of course. In addition, Najaf, the Shiites' holiest city, is for all practical purposes under Shiite political control for the first time in 500 years. The world's Shiite are making the pilgrimage to their most important religious shrines, for the first time in decades if not centuries free to perform their rituals without any external constraint whatsoever.

Developments in Iraq have, not surprisingly, spurred something of a Shiite awakening. Yet the Shiites' historical experience and deeply ingrained memory is one of persecution and repression. They view the situation in Iraq hopefully, even as they apprehend, not without reason, that international and Arab machinations will deny them the prize that appears within their grasp.

It turns out that Saudi Arabia, the homeland par excellence of Sunni militancy, actively supported the United States' war to overthrow Saddam, as Bob Woodward's newly published Plan of Attack reveals. The Saudi view of Saddam was not so different from that of the American president.

Yet neither the Saudi regime nor any Arab government wants to see a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq. Sunni regimes, including Egypt and Jordan, view the Shiite as a stalking horse for Iran and Islamic radicalism. To some senior US officials this looks like an ancient religious prejudice dressed up in contemporary garb. It does not take into account the variety of Shiite perspectives, nor the large Shiite middle class in Iraq. However, this hostile view is shared by many in the bureaucracies who work on the Middle East, the so-called "Arabists."

In significant respects, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has been quite accommodating of Iraq's Sunnis. Its favored political figure is the octogenarian former foreign minister and Sunni Arab nationalist, Adnan Pachachi, who sat next to Laura Bush during the president's State of the Union speech, a high-profile presence at a prominent event.

Thus, while the Shiite are grateful for America's overthrow of Saddam, they also harbor suspicions that the United States will return the Sunni Arabs to power. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani rejected the initial CPA plan for local caucuses (susceptible to manipulation by US authorities) and demanded elections to determine an interim government for Iraq. The caucus plan was quickly scrapped, but America's turn to the United Nations is viewed with nearly equal suspicion by Shiite leaders. The United Nations-administered "oil for food" program was an enormous scandal, the dimensions of which are only starting to emerge. This includes the charge that senior UN officials were bribed by the Iraqi regime and allowed some $10 billion to be diverted to that regime for illicit purposes.

Moreover, the UN's special envoy on Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister, is the epitome of all that the Shiite mistrust in Arab politics. They apprehend that the caretaker government Brahimi is to appoint will not, in fact, hold fair and free elections in January 2024 as scheduled.

The Shiite, inside and outside of Iraq, are closely watching these developments. Already they have stirred the sentiment among Shiite in other Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, that they too deserve greater political rights. However, it is noteworthy that no unrest, or even significant political protest, has occurred.

The Saudi government is divided as to how to deal with Saudi Shiite, who are concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province (known as al Hasa before the Saudi conquest of the region in 1913). So far the line of Crown Prince Abdullah appears to be prevailing. Abdullah favors a more inclusive posture towards the Shiite; the interior minister, Prince Nayif, reflects the Wahhabi orientation of Saudi intelligence and favors a harsher line. The Saudi government has initiated a slight opening toward them, allowing more open Shiite religious practice and, perhaps, more participation in the National Guard, but one would be hard-pressed to find a Shiite mosque in the entire country.

In Bahrain, where the Shiite are a majority (at least 70 percent) the ruling family has been moving for some time in the direction of remaking itself into a constitutional monarchy. Developments in Iraq are only accelerating that process.

Kuwait has a substantial Shiite minority, perhaps 30 percent of the population. According to Americans who have sat in on the Shiite diwaniyas, Kuwaiti Shiite are asking themselves questions like, why can't I be more openly Shiite? Why can't we participate fully in Kuwaiti politics?

Not least, the future of Iraq has great potential consequence for Iran. Iranians of all political stripes wanted Saddam gone, of course. The hardliners now seek to spoil the US-backed endeavor to create a democratic Iraq and are funding the clerical firebrand, Muqtada al Sadr. Figures like President Mohammed Khatami and the dissident cleric and one-time heir to Khomeini, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, support Sistani and even the (American-created) Iraqi Governing Council. A reasonably democratic Iraq would, in their eyes, have a positive effect in Iran. An unstable Iraq, including the rise to prominence of al Sadr, would reinforce the position of their own hardliners.

The situation in Iraq is unsettled. The clearest present challenge to Arab regimes is the violence of their own Sunni militants. For the Saudis, this is particularly ironic, as these militants are driven by the very ideology the Saudi regime promoted in order to avoid having to share power. Yet if a future Iraqi government can be created that is reasonably stable and representative, at least by the region's low standards, it will mean a Shiite renaissance, with far-reaching implications for the Middle East.-Published 29/4/2004(c)bitterlemons-international.org

Laurie Mylroie is an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Study of Revenge: The First World Trade Center Attack and Saddam Hussein's War Against America.

Shiite power and Iranian interests
by Ramin Jahanbegloo

The fall of Saddam and the defeat of the Baathists in Iraq changed much in the Middle East and in the Persian Gulf. But the United States military victory over the supporters of Saddam Hussein has not yet been able to turn into a positive construction of a "popularly elected" government. As violent resistance to the US presence increases throughout Iraq and as the Shiites fight pitched battles with the American forces and the Allies, the Bush administration's devotion to democratization in Iraq stands clearly revealed as a declaration without many question marks.

Listening to US officials in Iraq, one never suspects that any other point of view besides the American doctrine of "reconstruction" of the country's shattered economy and politics deserves notice and media attention. Speaking of the Shiite radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr, the US proconsul L. Paul Bremer declared recently: "He is a guy who has a fundamentally inappropriate view of the new Iraq." Although al Sadr may have little authority to speak for the Iraqi people, Bremer as the resident chief of a conquering power has none at all.

As Iraqis forge a new government for their country, no group is more influential for the future than the Shiite community, who make up the nation's majority at 60 percent of the population. Among Iraqi Arabs, Shiites make up about 75 percent of the population. As such, with the collapse of Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime and after having born the brunt of casualties in the eight-year war with Iran and after the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, the Shiites aspire to claim political dominance for the first time in modern Iraqi history.

Not surprisingly, the Iraqi Shiites have always been the first to rise up against Saddam or the foreign invaders. This is mainly due to the fact that the Shiites form a well-organized community in Iraq and have a strong sense of Iraqi nationalism, even if they keep close ties with their Iranian counterparts. If in the past the Shiite clerics offered jobs, health care and financial assistance to the poor, today they impose curfews, run their own police force and hospitals and act as self-declared governments in the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf.

Obviously Tehran plays a decisive role in all this, meaning that the goals of Iraqi Shiites coincide with the political and strategic interests of the Iranian regime. Yet it is not correct to say that the Iranian regime simply controls the Iraqi Shiites, because there have been in the past many historical tensions between the two groups. However, even during Saddam's rule Iranian intelligence systematically penetrated Iraq and organized the Shiites; many of Iraq's Shiite leaders spent years in Iran preparing their victorious return to their country. In this case, there is not the shadow of a doubt that Iran is trying to take advantage of Shiite dominance in Iraq, because with a Shiite-controlled government Iran's national security will be safe and the political tensions between Baghdad and Tehran will be minimized.

Understandably, as one of the largest and youngest countries in the Middle East, Iran has a big stake in constructing regional stability. Any form of instability will undermine Iran's internal and foreign policies. From that perspective, Iran's clergy have good reason to hope for an increased Shiite presence in Iraq's political affairs. By combining the political strategy of quietly recognizing the Iraqi Governing Council (as Iranian President Mohammad Khatami did on November 17, 2024) with the decision to infiltrate more than a hundred highly trained Shiite clergy from Qom into Iraq, the Iranian regime is using all its options to extract maximum political concessions from the US.

Provided that the United States leaves the region--and in due course it will leave--and Iraq remains in one piece with a stable government, Iran will become the pre-eminent power in the Persian Gulf. Iran, therefore, has every reason to desire an evolution that leads to a Shiite government in Iraq. A Shiite-run Iraq would probably also suit Syria, an ally of Iran whose ruling elite come from the Alawite sect that is an offshoot of Shiism.

To be more precise, Sunni political dominance in the Middle East seems to be weakening, while the Shiites are gaining more power through their political moves. However, it should be remembered that nothing approaching an Islamic state would be regarded as an acceptable outcome by either the British or the Americans. It is pretty obvious that the emergence of a second Islamic republic would be viewed as a great danger to the oil-rich Arabs of the region, But it certainly could breath new life into the spirit of the Iranian revolution, which over the past ten years has lost its early popularity among Iranian youth and the radical Muslim population of the Middle East.-Published 29/4/2004(c)bitterlemons-international.org

Ramin Jahanbegloo is an Iranian political philosopher. He is presently a professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

Comeback cleric
by Hassan Fattah and Sarmad Ali

As fighting broke out in Kufa and other southern Iraqi cities last month, Muqtada al Sadr became a far bigger name than even he'd ever expected. George W. Bush struggled to pronounce "Mugtadaa", but still singled him out; CNN, and all major media outlets led with stories about him, his Army of the Mahdi militia and their armed insurrection.

Yet just a few months ago, Sadr was a washed up political player. Unable to deliver a mass following, Sadr had relegated himself to being a troublemaker. New evidence suggests that even after he issued the dreaded call for Jihad, the battle fizzled. Sadr's associates now admit that their Mahdi's militia was outgunned and poorly managed. They simply couldn't drum up the popular support they needed for a full-scale insurrection. Sadr couldn't even pay for arms he attempted to buy from arms dealers.

At stake in the war of words and of bullets is the very future of Shiite power. As the center of gravity of Shiadom gradually moves from the holy city of Qom in Iran back to Najaf, the ensuing powerplays in the city may have a major influence on the future course of Islam's minority sect. In the latest salvo, Sadr appears to have made some major inroads. "I can't understand why the Americans did this, when al Sadr was losing support," said one aide to a Governing Council member. "He's been given way too much legitimacy."

Legitimacy is exactly what al Sadr has been seeking. Ultimately, he is locked in a fight with the clerics who make up the Hawza, the Shiite equivalent of the Vatican. They include major figures like Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Bashir al Najafi, Mohamed Ishaq al Fayadh and Mohamed Taqi al Mudaressi. Collectively they are the four marjas or grand ayatollahs of the Hawza, a sprawling complex of schools and centers in Najaf that until the Iranian revolution was the heart of Shiite Islam. With the Iranian revolution, the Iranian government managed to move that center towards Qom in Iran. Now Sistani and his cohorts are working to bring Najaf back to its old glory. In the process, they may also be pushing to redefine the concepts of political Islam popularized by the Iranian Revolution.

In many ways the philosophical opposite of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father of the Iranian Revolution, Sistani has long preached that the clergy remain out of Islamic politics and out of government. Instead, the Hawza would become a center of political influence. In that regard Sistani and Sadr are polar opposites in a dispute that dates back to Sadr's father, Mohammed Sadeq Sadr. The two elders vied for the highest positions of the Hawza, the elder Sadr preaching a more pro-Iranian line, while Sistani preached "quietism" in the face of Saddam's tyranny. The remaining orthodoxy lie somewhere in between. At stake for either side are billions of dollars in support from the Shiite khums, or the tithe donated by Shiites in Iran, Iraq, and--more importantly--the Arabian Gulf and the west. Government backing from Iran, Gulf countries and numerous other Muslim countries is adding even further resources to the fire.

Sadr, barely over 30, is backed by clerics in Iran and increasingly by Shiite leaders connected to Hizballah in Lebanon and has sought to prove that what he may lack in Islamic smarts, he more than makes up for in political and military might. In fact, by choosing Najaf to be his refuge this month, Sadr attempted to turn the war into a struggle between infidels and Shiites. So far that strategy has succeeded moderately well.

After announcing the formation of his Army of the Mahdi last summer, Sadr also brazenly stated that he would launch a shadow government to "protect" Iraqi interests and stand up to the Coalition. The shadow government was to be hand-picked by Sadr, and would have had everything from a foreign minister to an interior minister. But come the day of the unveiling last fall, nothing happened. Sadr simply couldn't sell the idea, aides admitted, and he decided to cancel it at the very last minute.

Months ago, the failure was a clear sign of Sadr's standing in Iraq. For all the noise and posturing, Sadr simply wasn't managing to make a dramatic impact on Iraqi politics. Save a few localized areas like the dirt-poor Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City (renamed for his fallen father), Sadr's brand of Shiite iconoclasm wasn't selling. And soon, his flame was fading from the Iraqi political scene. "There is only one person who can bring out a million people into the streets," said one leading Iraqi politician. "That's Ayatollah Sistani. All the others are just pretenders."

Sadr's fervor was also too hot for most Shiites. His line has played well with Iraq's most disaffected--poor young men, former military men and even Baathists disgusted by Shiite leaders' willingness to engage the Americans. His fortunes plummeted after a firefight with Ayatollah Ali Sistani's militias in Kerbala. Sources say such violence in one of the holiest shrines of Shiadom prompted his main backer in Iran, Ayatollah Kazem al Husseini al Haieri, to recall him. Sources say Haieri emphasized that Sadr had gone too far with the fight and rescinded his backing. Sadr soon began changing his ways. His media men attempted to repaint him as a politician ready to negotiate. He ceased decrying the United States as Satan. In an English-language open letter to the "American"--distributed in Sadr's al Hawza newspaper--Sadr wrote, "Iraqi people love and intend not harm to you."

"The Iraqi people only want what is good for the Americans, because they are not the enemy," he told the London-based Arabic newspaper, Al Zaman. He even said he hoped to be "attending [the Americans'] meetings soon" to further the common goal of a stable Iraq.

But all that stopped when US troops showed up to shutter the doors of Al Hawza. By the time the Coalition arrested Sadr's advisor, Yaqoubi, Sadr was able to whip the crowds into a frothy, fiery mass. But as events unfurled, his associates now admit, the Mahdi army was quickly outgunned. Muqtada soon gave the call to negotiate.

"Sayyed Muqtada al Sadr issued his order to fight the occupiers the same day the Polish and American forces used artillery shells to squash a peaceful demonstration in Kufa killing many innocents and preventing their delivery to nearby hospitals for treatment," said Sayyed Hazim al Arraji, Sadr's spokesperson in Baghdad. That Jihad fatwa was issued directly after the "massacre" that happened in Kufa and Baghdad, said al Arraji. Sheikh Raad al Khadimi, another Sadr aide, said Sadr had actually called him in Kufa and called on him to fight. Both men now admit that Sadr entered negotiations with the Americans because, "grave mistakes were committed."

"Unfortunately, our munitions stores are outside Baghdad, mainly in Kut, and they were attacked and all ammunition were confiscated by the Americans after the start of the fight," said Khadimi. The Americans thus cut all military supplies for the uprising. "We were relying heavily on the stores outside Baghdad because they were well-equipped with weaponry and were difficult to find," Khadimi added.

"We were prepared to drive the Americans outside the city, but lack of weapons greatly affected the whole operation," conceded Adil al Kaabi, Sadr's spokesperson in Sadr city. The task of quelling the fighting then came down to Sayyed Abdul Karim al Enzy, director of the main political arm of al Dawa Party, who has been entrusted with negotiating with the Americans over Sadr. For Shiites throughout the world, the outcome will no doubt have dramatic implications.-Published 29/4/2004(c)bitterlemons-international.org

Hassan Fattah and Sarmad Ali are respectively editor and reporter for Iraq Today, an English language weekly based in Baghdad.

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