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Mistrust defines Shiite-U.S. relations

Iraq's Shiites are at a crossroads in their rise from oppression to power and in their relationship with the United States.
Baghdad's Al-Rahman Mosque, planned for
Baghdad's Al-Rahman Mosque, planned for 15,000 Sunni worshippers under the regime of toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, is still unfinished. Shiites took control of the building after Saddam's fall.Joseph Barrak / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

As a dull winter sun nibbled away at the chilly morning, Hussein Lefta stood beside the Rahman Mosque. Before him, Shiite Muslim worshipers passed through an emerald green gate and shuffled across a stone-covered field. Behind him the giant gray shrine rose above Mansour, a mainly Sunni Arab neighborhood that was once home to the elite of the late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

Built to proclaim Hussein's glory, the mosque is one of the most visible symbols of his fall. Thousands of oppressed Shiites took control of the unfinished building following the U.S.-led invasion. On that day in April 2003, Shiites say, their history was reshaped, their politics reborn and their faith reinvigorated .

Lefta, 42, was among the many Shiites who thanked the Americans for their freedom. He dreamed that his community, Iraq's majority, would exert the political influence the Sunnis had long denied it.

Today, the mosque is still incomplete, as are Lefta's dreams.

"The Americans are afraid the Shia will take over Iraq," he explained.

Iraq's Shiites are at a crossroads in their rise from oppression to power and in their relationship with the United States. In a nation riven by violence and competing visions, they feel as if they have been handed the keys to their house but never allowed to settle down. Bitter personality rifts have undermined their ability to govern. And they have yet to bridge the growing divide separating them from the Sunnis and further deepened by Hussein's execution on Saturday.

As President Bush seeks a new strategy for Iraq, many Shiites express deep mistrust of the United States and its intentions. In U.S. efforts to engage Iraq's disaffected Sunnis, they perceive betrayal. And in U.S. pressure to dismantle Shiite militias, they see an attempt to weaken their bulwark against Sunni insurgents.

Against this backdrop, Shiite leaders have begun to push harder for more independence from their American backers. Most recently, the government ignored U.S. objections to hanging Hussein too hastily. He was executed four days after an appeals court upheld his death sentence.

Casting a shadow over discussions with Shiites such as Lefta is a despairing sense, inspired by centuries of oppression and suspicion of outsiders, that their community is handcuffed, effectively prevented from shaping its future.

Lefta's friend Wisam al-Taieb, 27, a gaunt Oil Ministry worker with dark, intense eyes, stood next to him at the mosque.

"What future?" Taieb demanded. "Now the Shia are suffering from a campaign of genocide. The Americans are in total control of our security forces. Our elected government does not have the power to move a single military unit. How do you expect me not to be pessimistic?"

Shifting attitudes
Under Hussein's government, Lefta, a tall man with a soft gaze, was among the millions of Shiites who were marginalized. He studied French in college, hoping to work for the government. But the jobs he sought always went to the Sunni elite, the favored class since the Ottoman Empire colonized Iraq. Today, Lefta doesn't speak a word of French.

Following the U.S. invasion, he was among the first Shiites to take over what was then known as the Grand Saddam Mosque, a majestic shrine with the appearance of a spaceship. They renamed it the Rahman -- or Merciful -- Mosque.

Around them, the Americans demolished the old order of Sunni domination. The occupation administration of L. Paul Bremer purged Sunnis from the army and outlawed Hussein's Baath Party while trying to restore the rights of Shiites and Kurds, the groups most oppressed under Hussein.

Still, educated men such as Lefta felt uneasy as they watched their fellow Shiites embrace the United States. He recalled the U.S. failure to support Shiites in their 1991 rebellion against Hussein. After the Americans toppled Hussein, Lefta said, "We were watching carefully what the new days would bring and what the future was hiding."

Ali Adeeb, a silver-haired, gray-suited Shiite lawmaker, has seen the shift in his community's attitude toward the United States. He pointed to the February 2006 bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra. "Before Samarra, when the Shiites used to be slaughtered they kept silent," Adeeb said. "Afterward, they exploded."

Shiite militias attacked Sunni mosques. Sunni leaders have accused Shiite death squads of hundreds of killings. "The Sunnis started to ask for rescue from the Americans, especially now that they have joined the political process and have become close to the Americans," Adeeb said. "This is when the doubts about the Americans began."

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad declared the Shiite militias the most significant threat to Iraq's stability, replacing the Sunni insurgency and al-Qaeda. Frustrated by the Shiite government's inability to govern and bring security, U.S. officials began pressuring Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to dismantle the militias. They zeroed in on the Mahdi Army of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, upon whom Maliki depends for power.

"They are attacking people at mosques, at stadiums," Lefta said, referring to the Sunni insurgents. "But the Americans overlook that. They concentrate on the militias. The militias are merely a reaction to the violence."

'A wrong reading'
Where Bremer alienated the Sunnis, an action now seen as having fueled the insurgency, Khalilzad sought to integrate them into Iraq's political process, a strategy that many U.S. officials hoped could lead to a way out of Iraq.

The ambassador has met with Sunni leaders from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and other states to enlist their support in isolating the Sunni insurgents. In November 2005, after U.S. soldiers found Sunnis being tortured in a secret prison run by the Shiite-controlled Interior Ministry, Khalilzad rebuked the Iraqi government.

Shiite politicians and analysts say Khalilzad is backing the Sunnis to limit the power of Shiites in the government. They say the United States and its allies, concerned about the growing influence of neighboring Iran's Shiite theocracy, will never allow an independent Shiite government, much less a religious one, to fully blossom in Iraq.

"We know the U.S. is under great pressure from Arabic and Islamic countries, who are Sunni," said Ridha Jawad Taqi, a member of parliament with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite party with strong ties to Tehran. "They fear the growing power of the Shia inside Iraq."

"The Americans have a wrong reading of Iraq," said Hasan Suneid, a member of the Shiite Dawa party and a close aide to Maliki. "And who is responsible for this reading? It is the diplomatic channel, that is, Khalilzad."

Suneid, an owlish civil engineer and poet who favors dark, crumpled Western suits, is among the many Shiite former exiles who owe their current positions to the U.S. toppling of Hussein. He now sees Khalilzad trying to engage Sunni insurgents and former Baathists. "I don't mind if the Americans are talking with our enemies," Suneid said. "But they should not change their strategy."

"Who are the secularists?" demanded Adeeb, the Shiite lawmaker, his eyes tightening. "The secularists are the Baath Party."

"It means the base of their thinking is not stable," he continued, referring to the Americans. "They are going to lose the Shiites. And they won't win the Sunnis back, because they attacked them at the beginning. So now both sides will lose confidence in the United States."

Michael McClellan, chief spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, said Khalilzad was aware of the Shiites' concerns but said it had not affected his ability to work with Maliki and other Shiite leaders.

"These issues often require compromises by the parties involved, and sometimes they do not like that," McClellan said in an e-mail. "This is true of both Sunnis and Shiites, but we do not favor one group over another."

Another turning point
From his wallet, Baghdad shop owner Abdul Amir Ali pulled out two yellowing black-and-white passport photos of his brothers. In the 1980s, Hussein ordered their executions, along with more than 100 other men from the northern town of Dujail, in retribution for an attempt on his life. One brother was 20, the other 23.

When Hussein was sentenced in November to death by hanging, Ali felt his loyalty to the Maliki government deepen. Like many Shiites, he had rejoiced when U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq -- "I behaved like a crazy man," he recalled. And he knows that without the fall of Hussein, he would have never seen justice for his brothers.

Seated in his shop, in the affluent, mostly Shiite neighborhood of Karrada, Ali and his brother Usama expressed concern that U.S. officials were pushing the government to allow thousands of purged Baathists who did not commit atrocities to resume their old jobs.

"This is a big mistake," said Usama Ali, 30, a stocky, bald man with a scratchy voice. "Saddam's people should not be allowed to participate in the political process."

The U.S. pressures and growing mistrust have emboldened Shiite leaders. They are demanding more autonomy and control over Iraq's mostly Shiite security forces, as well as urging U.S. forces to fight Sunni insurgents instead of Shiite militias, which are forging Shiite enclaves across Baghdad.

That worries Sunni leaders. "The U.S. needs to send a clear message: We will act toward Iraqis in a fair and equal way," said Ayad al-Sammarae, a prominent Sunni politician. "We can't punish one criminal and forgive another."

In October, in the government's strongest assertion of sovereignty yet, Maliki ordered U.S. forces to lift a blockade of Sadr City, the huge Shiite slum in Baghdad. For everyday Shiites, it was another turning point in their relationship with their liberators. "This is the first time he has stood up to the occupiers," Abdul Amir Ali said with pride. "It was like a victory for us when the Americans obeyed Maliki."

Still, Lefta feels "a second betrayal" coming. "The Shiite people dream of democracy, real democracy," he said, as men filed toward the Rahman Mosque's prayer hall. "But what is taking place is exactly the opposite. The Americans want to guarantee the minority at the expense of the majority."

Along the tall wall encircling the mosque compound, posters of Shiite politicians from the most recent U.S.-backed election predominate, save for one lone patch. There, squeezed between the Shiites, are images of two Sunni politicians, their faces obscured, their posters torn.