The Shiites The U.S. Thinks It Knows

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A month before the invasion of Iraq, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was asked by an interviewer how he imagined the U.S. military would avoid the sort of local hostility there that its presence in Saudi Arabia had generated. Wolfowitz replied: "First of all, the Iraqi population is completely different from the Saudi population. The Iraqis are among the most educated people in the Arab world. They are by and large quite secular. 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. We're seeing today how much the people of Poland and Central and Eastern Europe appreciate what the United States did to help liberate them from the tyranny of the Soviet Union. I think you're going to see even more of that sentiment in Iraq."

Far from the anticipated rapturous welcome, the U.S. mission in Iraq has been confounded by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most influential spiritual leader among Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority. Sistani managed to scrap two U.S. transition plans and has now made clear that he wants the interim constitution signed last Monday amended before it takes effect on June 30, to eliminate the de facto veto power it grants the Kurdish minority over a permanent constitution. Sistani did, however, advise his supporters on the Iraqi Governing Council to sign the document, because failure to do so would have provoked a crisis that could delay the July 1 hand-over of power by the U.S. And Sistani and the Shiites are so keen to see the U.S. out that they're willing to deal with the Kurdish veto later. (The Kurds, incidentally, believe the interim constitution granted them a de facto state that included Kirkuk — a misconception that could trigger a civil war, and, to the extent that it is shared in Turkey, touch off a wider regional conflict. But that's another story.)

Forget, for a moment, Wolfowitz's wildly optimistic predictions for Iraq; what concerns us here are the assumptions he derived from his reading of the Sunni-Shia distinction. In many ways, they're a mirror image of the thinking in Washington two decades ago, when Shiite radicalism centered in Iran was deemed the most threatening. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the U.S. cooperated with Saudi Arabia in recruiting and arming hundreds of Sunni Muslim radicals to wage jihad. One unintended consequence of that program, of course, is the international jihadist brigade known today as al-Qaeda. But the operating assumption at the time was that the Wahabi brand of Sunni radicalism was innately conservative and therefore a natural ally of the U.S. against both the godless communists and the radical Shiites. (Ironically, it was the same hostility to the Mullahs in Tehran that led the Reagan administration to send an emissary to Baghdad — a certain Mr. Rumsfeld — to make nice with Saddam Hussein and offer support against the common foe.) The assumption was half-right, of course — Sunni radicalism of the Wahabi stripe certainly is innately conservative, in social and religious terms, but that doesn't necessarily make it a natural ally of the U.S.

More worrying, perhaps, is the casual ease with which the equation is flipped today in Washington. Newsweek reports that "Bush administration officials now talk about Iraq's Shiites as a vital component of their plans to reorganize and democratize the Middle East. They claim that traditional Shiite Islam, as opposed to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's kind that rules in Iran, has a 'thick wall' between mosque and state." The same officials are quoted as hoping that the Iraqi Shiites based at Najaf become the antidote to the Iranian mullahs. Again, half right: The Najaf leadership headed by Sistani do not maintain the Khomeinist principle of Wilayat al-Faqih (the rule by Islamic jurisprudence). That didn't stop the most influential Shiite leader on the Iraqi Governing Council, Ayatollah Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, praising that doctrine of clerical rule just last month while visiting Tehran. But whatever his beliefs about the proper place of the clergy in a future Iraqi constitution, anyone suggesting that Ayatollah Sistani is staying behind a "thick wall" separating the mosque from the affairs of state ought to check in with Paul Bremer.

The flip side of the newfound enthusiasm for Shiism among some in Washington is the assumption that killing Shiites has now become a priority for al-Qaeda. Princeton scholar Michael Doran, writing in the Washington Post, argues that the recent "Zarqawi letter" proposing a campaign of terror against Iraqi Shiites, "even if it is a forgery, faithfully expresses al-Qaeda's attitude toward sectarianism." This, he deduces from the implacable hatred of Shiism at the heart of the Wahabi religious tradition in Saudi Arabia and its acolytes elsewhere, and in this article — and in a lengthier exposition in Foreign Affairs — he explains how the ousting of Saddam Hussein has made attacking the Shiites a more pressing priority for a segment of the Wahabi clergy in Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps. But the extremist clergy in Saudi Arabia is not the leadership of al-Qaeda, no matter how much their positions converge on many questions. Indeed, a couple of weeks after U.S. officials in Iraq first began touting the "Zarqawi" letter as "proof" that terror attacks on Shiites in Iraq were part of an al-Qaeda plot, the New York Times quietly reported that U.S. intelligence agencies believe that al-Qaeda had, in fact, rebuffed the call by the Zarqawi network in Iraq to support a campaign of terror against the Shiites. Al-Qaeda itself, it seems, is reluctant to conform to Doran's view of its "attitude toward sectarianism."

The idea that al-Qaeda itself would launch a campaign against Shiites would certainly challenge much of what is currently known about bin Laden's network. For example, U.S. and European intelligence agencies have long maintained that some of the movement's operatives are working out of Iran, a Shiite state with little tolerance for those who would slaughter their brethren — as Iran's proxy war with the Taliban demonstrated. U.S. officials have also speculated that Bin Laden's network may be receiving logistic assistance from the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. And just last month, it was reported that Iran had played host to al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and just about every extremist group imaginable at a conference celebrating the 25th anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini's return from exile. If any of these groups had been involved in a terror campaign against the Shiites of Iraq, the Mullahs in Tehran would have been more inclined to arrest them than to huddle with them.

Osama bin Laden is not a cleric, and his movement's policies and strategies have been formulated on a political basis. As former CIA operative Reuel Marc Gerecht noted three years ago, "Bin Laden's vision was designed to appeal to the larger Muslim world. His primary target is the enemy without, the United States, not the enemy within, the 'impious' Muslims. The goal is to unify Muslims, not to divide them by doctrine or even by the intensity of their faith." Gerecht cites passages from key policy documents of al-Qaeda stressing the need for bin Laden's supporters to focus on rallying any available support against the primary enemy, and avoid allowing divisions to strengthen the hand of that enemy. That logic suggests bin Laden and his leadership circle would see a call for war against Shiites as inherently dangerous to al-Qaeda's wider objectives. Which means the dynamic confronting the U.S. both in Iraq and the wider Arab world seldom conforms to the binary Sunni vs. Shiite simplicities of which some in Washington appear to be rather fond.