Mideast Diary: Iraq's Shiite Awakening

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When the Bush Administration decided to invade Iraq, it made some breathtaking assumptions. One was that the country's Shiite Muslims would view the American troops as liberators and not occupiers.

A month before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was still certain that U.S. troops in Iraq would not stir up religious passions as they had in Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden's homeland, during Gulf War I. "The Iraqi population is completely different," Wolfowitz told National Public Radio on February 19. "The Iraqis are among the most educated people in the Arab world. They are by and large quite secular. They are overwhelmingly Shiite, which is different from the Wahabbis of the Peninsula. They don't bring the sensitivity of having the holy cities of Islam on their territory."

If you observed the hundreds of thousands of Shiites performing a religious ritual in Iraq this week, you might question Wolfowitz's assumptions. In fact, Iraq's 15 million Shiites, around 65 percent of the population, are not by and large secular. They are, indeed, extremely sensitive about having holy cities of Islam on their territory. Yes, Mecca and Medina are in Saudi Arabia, but this week's ritual was performed in Kerbala, which along with Najaf are Iraqi cities which have been venerated for 14 centuries by Shiites as the resting places of their two most revered imams, Ali and Hussein. If there was any message for the U.S. from the Shiite throngs, it wasn't, Welcome, liberators. It was, Get out, occupiers.

What we are seeing in Iraq is a historic awakening of the country's Shiites — which translates as "partisans of Ali," a reference to the branch of Islam founded by the martyred son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed. It happened among Shiites in Iran and in Lebanon starting in the 1970s, but Saddam Hussein's brutality made sure that Iraq's Shiites did not join in. Thanks to the toppling of the Baghdad regime, Iraq's Shiites have a real chance to grab meaningful political power in their country for the first time. That poses a dangerous challenge for Washington's plans to stay in Iraq and fashion an Arab democracy. The banners and chants of the protesters did not speak for all Shiites, but they surely counted for something significant.

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CNN.com: War in Iraq
Iraq is not destined to become an Islamic Republic like Iran. Iraq has no charismatic figure like Ayatullah Khomeini. The late Iranian ruler actually rose to fame on the back of a nationalist revolution and then cemented his authoritarian power through a Shiite doctrine called velayat-e fagih, or rule of the Islamic clergy. The doctrine is not widely accepted by Iraqi Shiites, including their most revered leader, Grand Ayatullah Ali Sistani, who favors the traditional "quietist" role of the clergy in politics.

Nonetheless, the Shiite majority is going to play an important part in Iraqi politics, and the clergy is going to play an important part in Shiite politics. The early signs do not bode well for a lengthy American involvement in Iraq.

The first sign came on April 10, not yet 24 hours after the U.S. Marines helped pull down Saddam's statue in Firdos Square in Baghdad. At the Mosque of Ali in Najaf, a gang murdered Sheikh Abdul Majid al-Khoei, the son of the late Grand Ayatullah Abolkassem al-Khoei. The killing was an immense setback for the U.S., since al-Khoei was a moderate who had been courted to play a crucial role in encouraging Iraq's Shiites to cooperate with Washington's nation-building plans. The killers appeared to be supporters of Moktada al Sadr, the young, power-seeking son of the late Ayatullah Muhammad Sadiq al Sadr, a radical cleric who had opposed moderate rivals before being murdered by Saddam's regime in 1999.

The second ominous sign came a week later when the best organized Shiite political group in Iraq, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, decided to boycott the U.S..-sponsored, inaugural meeting of Iraqi political groups preparing for a transitional government. Although SCIRI has been on speaking terms with Washington since Gulf War I, its Tehran-based leader, Ayatullah Mohammed Bakr al Hakim warned before Gulf War II that U.S. forces would be attacked as occupiers if they lingered too long in Iraq after ousting Saddam. In Kerbala this week, Hakim's brother Abdul Aziz, who is SCIRI's deputy leader, declared: "The American presence is unacceptable and there's no justification for it staying in Iraq."

True, Iraqi Shiites are gratified that the U.S. got rid of Saddam. Yet there is no evidence that a majority of Iraqi Shiites hold different views from Arabs throughout the Middle East who bitterly criticize American support for Israel against the Palestinians. Before recent events, they were also angry toward the U.S. for once supporting Saddam's regime, and for standing back while Saddam slaughtered thousands of Shiites who responded to Bush the Elder's call to rise up during Gulf War I.

For the U.S., the worrisome precedent right now is not Iran, but Lebanon. In 1982, President Reagan dispatched U.S. Marines to Beirut as peacekeepers. He also sent Secretary of State George Shultz there on a nation-building mission. But Lebanon's Shiites proved to be an obstacle that turned Reagan's plans into a humiliating political disaster. Many Shiites there had initially welcomed Israel's 1982 invasion, feeling that it liberated them from the Palestine Liberation Organization forces that had dominated the country. But when Israel dug in for a long-term occupation, and the U.S. Marines propped up an unpopular pro-Western government, radical Shiite groups rose to the fore. Taking the lead in attacking Israeli and U.S. troops with everything from sniper fire to suicide bombs, they forced Reagan to completely abandon Lebanon in less than 18 months.

It is easy to find differences between yesterday's Lebanon and today's Iraq. Perhaps Reagan's commitment then was not as strong as Bush's is now. With the Cold War still going, maybe Reagan felt greater geopolitical constraints to act. But anyone who ignores the parallels that exist does so at his peril. Iraqi Shiites, like those in Lebanon in 1982, have suddenly been released to seek their fortunes in politics. As in Lebanon, many groups will seek advantage over others by opposing America's occupation of Iraq.

In the nightmare scenario, Shiite demands for America to leave will be irreconcilable with Washington's insistence on staying until democracy is established. That's when we'll really discover if Wolfowitz's assumptions were correct or not.