The head of Iraq’s largest opposition group warned the United States on Tuesday that its military presence in post-war Iraq would not be welcome, and that any attempt to install a Pentagon general in Baghdad could be met with a “religious war.” Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim told MSNBC.com in an interview that Muslim fury over a long-term American occupation of Iraq would destabilize the Middle East.
HAKIM’S WARNING will come as no surprise to the Pentagon, which has kept its plans for post-war Iraq under wraps for fear of increasing tensions in the region ahead of a showdown with Saddam Hussein.
It is widely believed, however, that U.S. Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of the U.S. Central Command, will move to Baghdad and administer Iraq should the Bush administration proceed and succeed with its goal of toppling the Iraqi leadership.
Military planners believe U.S. forces will be needed inside Iraq for several years to stabilize the country while it holds democratic elections. But Hakim suggested that even a temporary U.S. military government, along the lines of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s role in post-war Japan, would undermine the Iraqi opposition’s efforts to transition Iraq to elected rule.
“Iraqi opposition forces can form a democracy,” said Hakim. “But if the United States installs an American general, this is against the idea of democracy.”
MAJORITY INFLUENCE As the leader of Iraq’s Shia Muslim exile community, the ayatollah’s words hold weight. His political organization, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, is influential among Iraq’s majority Shia population. Numbers vary, but most experts believe the Shia make up about 65 percent of Iraq’s population. For decades, Saddam’s dictatorship, run by rival Sunni Muslims, has oppressed the Shias. Dissent is quickly snuffed out through murder and torture.
Among the half-dozen Iraqi opposition groups, Hakim’s council is the most significant.
Hakim, wearing the black turban of Shiite clerics said to be descended from the Prophet Mohammed, is at 63 years old broadly respected by Shias in Iraq for his long opposition to Saddam. His father was a legendary Shia leader. Six of his brothers were murdered by Saddam’s security agents, some as revenge killings for Hakim’s opposition activities.
The ayatollah said he supports using American military might to oust Saddam, and his council has participated in U.S.-backed meetings of the Iraqi opposition in recent months.
“We should cooperate in the field of democracy,” but an American military presence after Saddam is gone will offend “national sensitivities,” he said.
“Installing an American general in Baghdad will have very dangerous consequences,” the ayatollah continued, “and Muslim countries will refuse any foreign administration of Iraq. This could start a religious war in Iraq and neighboring countries.”
‘VIOLENCE AND TERRORISM’ Hakim did not suggest that his council, which receives most of its support from Shia-ruled Iran, would pose a threat to American military in Baghdad. But he said that even the appearance of a U.S. occupation of Iraq would destabilize Iraq and the region.
“This will open the door to violence and terrorism against the United States. This extremism will be very dangerous to Iraq and its neighbors,” he said.
Iraq’s Shia majority, which numbers some 60 percent of Iraq’s 23 million population of Shias, Sunnis, Kurds and Turkomens, will play an active role in the country’s political future, Hakim said. For that to occur, he acknowledged, there is a need for American help in Iraq’s transition to democracy. “The correct method for change is to help the Iraqi people make the change themselves.”
But Hakim discounted the Pentagon’s position that Iraq cannot rebuild without significant U.S. troops filling the security vacuum left by Saddam’s departure. Iraqi security affairs must be handled internally, he said.
“The Americans will not be able to control the social disorder that will arise after installing an American general in Baghdad,” he said.
MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in Iran.