Shiite divisions give the US breathing room
The Daily Star, 8/9/03
Most Shiite leaders in Iraq have made a tactical decision not to resist the Anglo-American occupation during the coming year. They hope the US, in recreating Iraq as a parliamentary democracy, will give them the political power they deserve by virtue of their numbers. If not, or if the Americans overstay their welcome, the Shiites might well turn against them. It is not, however, clear that the community is united enough yet to effectively close ranks against coalition forces.
As a result of their differences over the shape of a future Iraq, Shiite clerics have fallen to fighting an underground guerrilla war against one another. The chief prizes are the populous neighborhoods of eastern Baghdad and the revered shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala. Najaf contains the tomb of Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, who was assassinated in 661. Karbala is the site of the shrine of Imam Hussein, Ali’s martyred son, who was cut down when he sparked a rebellion in 681. Shiite Islam revolves around the commemoration of these two martyrdoms, with annual readings, processions and rituals of self-flagellation.
The forces of young firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr appear to have succeeded in dominating the east Baghdad neighborhoods. In Najaf, Sadrists have clashed with followers of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) over control of the shrine of Imam Ali. They are also attempting to force the quietist Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and his clerical allies out of the city. Last week, Sadrists in Najaf threatened the life of the son of a senior ayatollah close to Sistani, put a junior clergyman in the hospital and beat up a Sistani aide.
These acts of hooliganism are likely to convince most of Najaf’s Shiites they need the US to protect them from Sadrist gangs. Tribal chieftains from the area loyal to Sistani have demanded weapons be forbidden in Ali’s shrine. They have also recently threatened to send in tribesmen to curb Sadrist excesses. A senior cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Said al-Tabatabaii al-Hakim, declared that the religious establishment sought a peaceful dialogue to end the coalition’s “occupation,” which, he said, “we never asked for.” His followers held a demonstration in Najaf late last week against the tactics of the Sadrists.
In Karbala, Sadrists and followers of Sistani have also struggled for control of the mosque of Imam Hussein, one of the premier pulpits in the Shiite world. Last June they had reached an agreement to alternate preachers, but Sadr abrogated it in July. On July 26, Sadrists held a rally in Karbala against US Marines patrolling too close to the Imam Hussein shrine. Someone in the crowd fired at the US troops, who returned fire, reportedly killing a man. They also struck the shrine with tear gas canisters. This provoked another demonstration the following Sunday, which turned ugly when Marines wounded nine demonstrators. It seems likely that hard-line Sadrists deliberately drew the Marines into firing on a civilian crowd in front of the emotionally charged shrine.
Last Friday, Sadr called for the Marines to be tried by Islamic law courts for their “attack on the shrine of Imam Hussein.” He called on all Shiites who were cooperating with the American civil administration, including Kurds and SCIRI members, to repent and instead join his proposed militia, the Army of the Mahdi. His congregation repeatedly shouted: “No, no to America … No, no to the occupier … No, no to tyranny.”
The divisions among the major religious currents in Iraqi Shiism and the differences between Iraq’s religious, secular and tribal groups have proved a boon to US administrators in Iraq, giving them breathing room. A united Shiite community could likely force the Americans out of the country by holding huge, urban demonstrations, as happened in Iran in 1978 as a prelude to the Iranian revolution.
There is clearly a widespread sentiment that the Americans should depart within a year. If they commit any further mistakes like shooting civilians in front of the Imam Hussein shrine, they could easily incite more hatred against themselves and shorten their timetable. At that point many Shiites might turn away from the staid Sistani and follow Sadr, not only in the slums where he is already popular, but also in Basra and other Shiite cities in the south.
Juan Cole is professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. His web address is www.juancole.com. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR