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News ::
No democracy without the Shiites (english)
02 Mar 2003
Iraq after Saddam, President George W. Bush invoked the prospect of a democratic Iraq in his address last month to the UN General Assembly. Secretary of State Colin Powell has told Congress that he foresees Iraqis being governed "in a democratic fashion." Yet the administration remains closest to Sunni Arabs, a minority that has never shared its power.
Sunni Arabs, including Saddam Hussein and most Iraqis in the American-backed opposition, account for no more than 16 percent of the Iraqi population. Ethnic Kurds, who are also Sunni Muslims, make up about 20 percent. Nearly two-thirds of Iraqis are Shiite Muslims.

They populate the slums of Baghdad as well as the south of the country. Unlike Kurds and others in the northern no-flight zone, who have received a proportionate share of Iraqi revenues under the UN-administered oil-for-food program, Iraqis in the vast southern zone have sufferedgreatly from a decade of sanctions. Saddam is entirely willing to let them suffer.

SouthernIraq is holy to all Shiite Muslims. Until the 1950s Shiites from as far away as India traveled to southern Iraq to bury corpses in holy soil that also holds the tombs of the Shiite religion's seventh century founding martyrs, Ali and his son Hussein.

Shiite Muslims would be the largest voting bloc in any democratic Iraq. This is a principal reason why Saddam has suppressed Shiism.

In recent years he has picked one cleric after another to lead the Shiite community, only to see each one defy him - and be murdered quickly thereafter. In a shooting spree beginning in 1998, one top Shiite cleric after another was gunned down. Iraq's last grand ayatollah, Mohammed Sadiq al Sadr, was murdered with his two sons on a road near Najaf. Another powerful cleric, Hussain Bahr al Uloom, died in mysterious circumstances last year.

It is Shiites who have most consistently fought Saddam Hussein since 1991, when Shiite clerics called for an uprising. In 1996 a Shiite group attacked Saddam's eldest son, Uday, and crippled him.

Americanofficials have long been reluctant to work with Iraqi Shiites out of fear that they might be too close to Iran, where the Shiite faith predominates. But Iraqi and Iranian Shiites are not close.

Iraqis are Arab and Iranians are Persian. With some exceptions, the two groups follow distinct and sometimes hostile forms of Shiism - Akhbari in Iraq, Usuli in Iran. Akhbari Shiism has never promoted political rule, while the Usuli school produced the politically active caste of priests that is a distinctive feature of Iranian Shiism.

Iraqi Shiites demonstrated their independence from Iranian Shiites in 1980 after Iraq invaded Iran. A CIA report noted in 1991 that Iraq's Shiites rejected Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's concept of political rule by a supreme religious leader and "remained loyal to Baghdad during the eight-year war with Iran." Iraq's most important Shiite clerics survive in exile in Iran today. Only in August did Bush administration officials meet with the brother of the Shiite leader Mohammad Baqir al Hakim, head of the influential Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is based in Tehran. For the most part the Bush administration continues to work with Sunni opposition groups. The State Department is closer to the Iraqi National Accord, while the Defense Department is closer to the Iraqi National Congress, which is far more active in Washington.

Iraqi Shiites in exile in London and Tehran are seeking reassurances that after Saddam they would for the first time enjoy their fair share of power. American officials and others need assurances that any Iraqi leaders would protect minority rights and not try to turn all or even part of Iraq into an Islamic state.

Leaders of the Kurdish minority recently told American journalists that a unified, representative Iraq is what they want.

One possibility is a decentralized state with considerable regional autonomy, including the division of oil revenues to ensure adequate budgets for provincial development. This could be the only way to keep the nation together. But getting there would require talking directly to leaders of all three population groups.

No plan will work that does not take into account the nearly two-thirds of Iraqis who are Shiites.
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