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History News Network

3-17-03: News Abroad

Why You Should Pray that We Don’t Bomb the Sites Sacred to Shiites

By Juan Cole

Most Iraqi Shiites would be overjoyed to see the United States come in and effect regime change. But will the Shiites, brutalized by Saddam’s tyranny, remain happy with the United States in the aftermath of the war? The US is about to take control through conquest of the holiest shrines of Shiite Islam. The sensibilities of Shiites throughout the world could easily be injured if they are damaged in war or later seen to be administered unjustly.

U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was recently quoted as saying of Iraqis, “They are overwhelmingly Shia which is different from the Wahabis of the peninsula, and they don’t bring the sensitivity of having the holy cities of Islam being on their territory.” He could not be more wrong. Shiites from all over the world revere the tombs of Shiite holy figures Ali and Husain in the cities of Najaf and Karbala, and many come there on pilgrimage. If a US bomb goes astray and hits either shrine, Shiites from Lebanon to Afghanistan could become enraged at the US.

It is true that some Iraqi Shiites are secular Arab nationalists. Still, large numbers of them are pious believers. Their alliance with the US is a matter of convenience. Saddam killed thousands of ordinary Shiites during the abortive 1991 uprisings after the Gulf War. Even pro-Iranian groups such as the fundamentalist Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution (SCIRI) in Iraq have been willing to ally themselves with the Bush administration. SCIRI has some 15,000 men under arms in exile in Iran, the Badr Brigade, which could play a supporting military role in the US march to Baghdad. They are already establishing beachheads in northern Iraq.

In the 1980s, in the wake of Khomeini’s 1979 revolution in Shiite Iran, the Shiite branch of Islam threw up many of the more pressing challenges to the United States in the Middle East. That era of hostage-taking and terrorism largely passed after Khomeini’s death in summer, 1989, as more moderate voices came to the fore. Now the major challenge comes from the Sunni radicals of al-Qaeda. Sunnis and Shiites are as different from one another as Protestants and Catholics, and al-Qaeda despises Shiites.

As the US forces leapfrog toward Baghdad from the south, they may try to take control of Najaf and Karbala. They should be careful not to damage the shrines. The US intends to impose a military government and then a US-led civilian administration on Iraq. SCIRI leader Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim has denounced the prospect of even temporary US rule over Iraq: “If the Americans do this, they will discover it is a mistake.” He hinted that the Badr Brigade could turn on its US allies. Should Shiites in Najaf and Karbala become discontented with US policies and riot, and should US soldiers quell them with violence, that also could turn the world’s approximately hundred million Shiites against America.

The British conquered Iraq during World War I, wresting it from the Ottoman Sunnis. But when they gave affront to the feelings of Shiites in the shrine cities, and then imposed a Mandate on the country instead of letting it become independent, they faced a major rebellion. The Shiite clerics of Najaf and Karbala were among the leaders of that failed uprising.

In 661, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, having become the leader or Imam of the early Muslim state, was assassinated. His gilded, revered tomb in Najaf, 160 km. south of Baghdad, forms a major site for pilgrims from the Shiite branch of Islam all over west and south Asia. In 681, Ali’s son Husain and many family members and followers were killed when they staged an uprising against the then king of the Islamic realm. Husain’s shrine is at Karbala, 100 km. southwest of Baghdad. Shiites put revering him as a martyr at the center of their spirituality, especially on 10 Muharram, which fell on March 14 this year. In 1998 a US air strike killed 17 civilians in Najaf, handing the Sunni-dominated Baath regime a propaganda tool against the US with the Shiites.

The leader of the Lebanese Hizbullah militia, Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah (who studied in Najaf), told a gathering of 150,000 Shiites honoring the Imam Husayn last Thursday that “Regarding the US war, events and all the US lying and hypocritical slogans about salvaging peoples, establishing democracy and human rights, we here declare our denunciation and rejection of this evil, arrogant and Zionist administration. We tell them, do not expect that the people of this region will receive you with flowers, rice and rose water. The region’s people will receive you with rifles, blood, weapons, martyrdom and martyrdom operations.”

The looming US war on Iraq may or may not go well militarily, but the US does have the advantage of overwhelming military superiority. The real question is whether it can successfully wage a war of public opinion during and after the military conflict. Iraq is a minefield of religious sensitivities because of the Shiite shrines. Unless the Bush administration is very careful, the 1920 great rebellion could be repeated, this time against an American Mandate. Worse, we could return to the bad old times of the 1980s when it was Shiite radicals who attacked Marines, blew up our embassy in Beirut, and took US hostages. We should be careful not to create allies for al-Qaeda from among its natural enemies.