Image: Iraq War Shiites
For the first time in decades, Shiite Muslims in Iraq are able to gather in the Shiite holy city of Karbala to mark the end of the 40-day mourning of the death of one of their most important saints, Imam Hussein. During the rule of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, such rituals were banned.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/28/2003 3:40:01 AM ET 2003-04-28T07:40:01

Soon after the “liberation” of Iraq, or more correctly, the collapse of organized resistance from the regime of Saddam Hussein, many in Iraq’s majority Shiite community began demanding not only their share of power in a new government, but also the establishment of an Islamic republic. Such developments evoke the specter of another Iran — an oil-rich, anti-West theocracy. What are the prospects that this might happen?

As Iraqis forge a new government for their country, poked and prodded by their American occupiers, inevitably there will be major differences between the factions that make up the population. No group is more important than the Shiite Muslims, who make up the nation’s majority at 60 percent of the population. They are 14 million strong and have had no voice in the political life of the country for more than three decades.

The size of the Shiite majority is even more pronounced when the Kurds and other ethnic groups, which are almost exclusively Sunni, are factored out of the equation. Among Iraqi Arabs, Shiites make up about 75 percent of the population.

As such, Shiite conscripts and families bore the brunt of the casualties in Saddam Hussein’s eight-year war with Iran and during the first Persian Gulf War against the U.S.-led coalition in 1991.

Not surprisingly, following the Iraqi defeat in the 1991 war, the Shiites were the first to rise up against Saddam, with help from Saddam opponents back by Iran. U.S. forces, however, failed to act on behalf of the rebellion and Saddam’s loyalists brutally defeated it. Saddam then launched a murderous campaign of retribution against the Shiites.

IRAN’S INTERESTS

The collapse of Saddam’s government earlier this month led to a similar vacuum that American forces have been slow to fill. CIA officers have been trying for years to develop cooperative relationships with Shiite clerics in southern Iraq, with very limited success. After the decision to go to war against Iraq, American special operations personnel attempted to contact these same clerics, and results of those efforts are yet to be seen.

Iran, however, appears to be making progress. As happened immediately after the cease-fire in 1991, Iran sent members of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Ministry of Intelligence and Security into the Shiite community to stir up anti-American rhetoric and generate calls for the creation of an Islamic state.

This is in addition to the infiltration of a large Iranian-backed Iraqi exile group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, along with their military wing, the so-called Badr Corps. The supreme council was the most important of the Shiite groups to boycott the meeting of Iraqi opposition groups organized by the United States on April 15 meeting in Nasiriyah.

The last thing Iran wants on its borders is a pro-Western government — be it a democracy or otherwise. As much as Iran hated Saddam Hussein, the conservative clerics who run the country, led by Ayatollah Khamenei, fear the prospect of being surrounded by states like Turkey, Jordan and Pakistan — all Muslim nations with a pro-Western orientation and deep cooperative ties to the U.S. military and intelligence agencies.

The next weeks and months will be critical to Iraq’s future as the forces of secular Islam vie with these Iranian-supported factions in the attempt to create a government that satisfies the widely disparate groups that make up the country.

SQUEAKY WHEELS?

In an Iraq liberated from Saddam, calls for an Islamic state are getting a great deal of media attention. This is particularly true now, during the religious periods of Ashura and the Karbala pilgrimage.

But the Shiites of Iraq are not a homogenous group. Although they are adherents of the same sect of Islam, there are geographic, tribal and socioeconomic divisions. Some of the Shiite leaders were pro-Saddam, while others are pro-Iranian.

Many of the Shiites favor the establishment of an Islamic state, while others accept the probability that a new Iraqi government will be more secular in nature to accommodate Sunni and Christian minorities. The most significant division is between clerics who favor the creation of an Islamic republic — and are supported by Iran — and those who favor a more moderate path, an inclusive state with strong Islamic influence.

Islamic scholars estimate that only about 20 percent of Iraq’s Shiites, or about 12 percent of the total population of the country, actually advocate the creation of an Islamic republic. This minority — largely the clerics — is very vocal and receives disproportionate media coverage.

The remainder of the population — most of the Shiite themselves, the powerful Kurdish groups in the north that have lived in autonomy for 12 years and the Sunnis in the central part of the country — favor a more secular state. In addition, there are a small number of Christians who must be considered. Iraq will certainly be a Muslim state, but not an Islamic theocracy.

TRUMP CARD

The true attitudes of a population just emerging from decades of tyranny are probably impossible to know yet. However, it should be remembered that nothing approaching an Islamic state would be regarded as an acceptable outcome by either the British or the Americans, who between them have over 200,000 troops in the region.

Nor would Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Russia, for that matter, smile at that prospect. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has already said that the new Iraqi government will be based on democratic principles and will not be an Islamic republic. He has the forces needed to back those words up, and more in reserve if he needs them.

The track record of the oil-rich Islamic republic of Iran is such that the emergence of a satellite on the ruins of Saddam’s regime would be viewed very darkly in the region. From the democratic Turks to the despotic Syrians, Iran’s neighbors fear that an Islamic state in Iraq could breath new life into the Islamic fundamentalist revolution that took over Iran in 1979 and, of late, has been deeply unpopular even among Iran’s own people.

Iraq’s Shiite community certainly contains elements that would like to revive the spirit of 1979. But there is every reason to believe that these elements are outweighed by those who seek something less rigid, and it is those elements that will find a friend in the two foreign powers now calling the shots in Iraq.

(Rick Francona, a CNBC military analyst, is a former defense attaché to Baghdad and Syria and author of “From Ally to Adversary: An Eyewitness Account of Iraq’s Fall From Grace.” )

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