Shiites Emerge as Iraq's Key Players

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Shiite muslims worship in Karbala, Iraq

Two key questions hold the key to the immediate future of Iraq. What do the Shiites want? And what does the U.S. want? Much depends on whether the answers are compatible. So far, neither question has been clearly answered.

This week's Shiite pilgrimage to Kerbala to commemorate the 7th century slaying of the sect's then-leader, Imam Hussein, has been far more than a religious event. Around one million Iraqi Shiites crammed into the southern holy city in an emotional outpouring not only of spiritual fervor, but also communal pride and identity. Comprising 60 percent of Iraqis, they had long been banned from performing the ritual, and their celebration at Kerbala marked a conscious effort — encouraged by their clergy — to assert their determination to claim for the first time a say in Iraq's future commensurate with their number. It was an impressive end to two weeks of organizing in which local imams around the country, acting on orders from the central religious authority at Najaf, moved to fill the power vacuum left by the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. By creating militia and community organizations that have stopped looting and restored basic services, they have demonstrated their centrality to the project of stabilizing Iraq — the organizational ability and moral influence of the Shiite clerics makes them, or at least their blessing, indispensable to any new Iraqi authority.

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Wooing the Shiite clerics, however, is a daunting task for General Jay Garner, the U.S. administrator for post-Saddam Iraq. Shiite religious-political groups are far from united, and their divisions are potentially violent, as the fatal stabbing two weeks of a prominent pro-Western cleric at Najaf demonstrated. Ayatollah Abdel Majid al-Khoei was murdered by supporters of a young cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, who seek an Iran-style Islamic state in Iraq and are innately hostile towards cooperation with the U.S. But the supreme clerical authority in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Najaf, has been more cautious. And even the most influential of the Shiite groups, the Iran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, is considering working with the U.S. In an interview with Reuters, the group's leader Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim said his group would be willing to work with the U.S., along with the UN, European Union and Arab and Islamic states, to stabilize Iraq. He also spoke against replicating the Iranian political model, instead advocating a separation of church and state. But like most other Shiite leaders, Hakim emphasized the need for Iraqi control of the process of selecting a democratic government.

Despite their diversity of views, the Shiite clerics share in common a coolness, suspicion even, towards U.S. intentions, an insistence on Iraqi control, and a rejection of anything that smacks of occupation. Nor do they share Washington's hostility to Tehran. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld warned darkly Tuesday of Iranian "infiltration" and meddling in Iraqi politics. But much of the Iranian influence is indigenous to Iraq. SCIRI, the largest of the Iraqi political groupings, has been based there for years. Agitation for an Iran-style Islamic revolution is coming from internal Iraqi groups, while the leader of the key Iran-based group is actually speaking against going the theocratic route. And the scale of the outpouring of Shiite emotion over the past week may have served as a warning, also, of the dangers in trying to suppress those among the Shiite clerics whose politic preferences are unpalatable to the U.S.

Of course, the muscular assertion of Shiite identity and claims is not necessarily at odds with U.S. plans for a post-Saddam Iraq. Indeed, an anti-American demonstration held Wednesday at the culmination of the Kerbala pilgrimage drew only a few thousand of the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. Much depends, in fact, on the exact nature of Washington's plans. And those are the subject of a fierce, and increasingly bitter political firefight in Washington — witness the charge Defense Policy Board member Newt Gingrich, Tuesday, that State Department officials on Garner's team had been sent to undermine President Bush's goals in Iraq.

The hawkish civilians in charge of the Pentagon have clashed bitterly with the State Department over plans for a post-Saddam Iraq. The Pentagon civilians have pushed hard for the U.S. to hand over power to a provisional government headed up by their favorite Iraqi exile, Ahmed Chalabi, whom they emphasize is in tune with the President's wider Mideast agenda. A U.S. official traveling with Chalabi in Iraq last week told TIME that the INC leader was "the only one" who could create a viable secular democratic government in Iraq.

But the State Department and CIA, as well as key U.S. allies ranging from Britain to Saudi Arabia and Jordan, don't share the Pentagon's enthusiasm for Chalabi. They question whether a man who has spent the past 45 years in exile from Iraq has any standing among Iraqis, and point to his conviction for bank fraud in Jordan a decade ago to question the appropriateness of backing him. The Pentagon may have hoped to seal the debate by flying in Chalabi and some 700 of his U.S.-trained militiamen in the last week of the war, but the "facts on the ground" they have created have been, at best, confusing. On the one hand, Chalabi's forces have helped the U.S. capture some leading Baathists, and maintain order in one or two towns. On the other hand, their presence has become a lightning rod for Iraqi opposition and hostility — "No, no Chalabi" has become a familiar chant at Shiite political rallies in different parts of the country.

In Baghdad, a key Chalabi ally, Mohammed Moshen al-Zubeidi, last week proclaimed himself governor, and announced that one of his underlings would represent Iraq next week at an Opec summit. But while al-Zubeidi was holding press conferences and meeting various locals (on the strength, it appears, of touting his connections with the American forces), the U.S. administrator for Baghdad, Barbara Bodine, announced that Washington did not recognize Zubeidi's authority, and even Chalabi's spokesman stressed that the self-styled governor was acting without INC authority.

The reaction to Zubeidi's attempted putsch in Baghdad suggests that Garner's team is well aware of the risks in the U.S. being seen to anoint the man proclaimed by some Washington officials as "the only one." But the bigger question may be how they relate to the Shiite groups, who have until now kept their distance from Garner's efforts to muster a transitional authority.

Garner plans to hold an important meeting in Baghdad on Saturday to discuss postwar political planning. And getting the Shiites on board is clearly the key challenge. But al-Hakim's group stayed away from the last such meeting, and may boycott this one, too. The reason cited by al-Hakim is that his group are not sure what the American agenda is, right now. Unfortunately, that uncertainty may be shared among the Americans themselves.