Shias are about to inherit Iraq, but the election tomorrow that will bring them to power is creating deep fears among the Arab kings and dictators of the Middle East that their Sunni leadership is under threat.
America has insisted on these elections–which will produce a largely Shia parliament representing Iraq’s largest religious community–because they are supposed to provide an exit strategy for embattled US forces, but they seem set to change the geopolitical map of the Arab world in ways the Americans could never have imagined. For George Bush and Tony Blair this is the law of unintended consequences writ large.
Amid curfews, frontier closures and country-wide travel restrictions, voting in Iraq will begin tomorrow under the threat of Osama bin Laden’s ruling that the poll represents an "apostasy". Voting started among expatriate Iraqis yesterday in Britain, the US, Sweden, Syria and other countries, but the turnout was much smaller than expected.
The Americans have talked up the possibility of massive bloodshed tomorrow and US intelligence authorities have warned embassy staff in Baghdad that insurgents may have been "saving up" suicide bombers for mass attacks on polling stations.
But outside Iraq, Arab leaders are talking of a Shia "Crescent" that will run from Iran through Iraq to Lebanon via Syria, whose Alawite leadership forms a branch of Shia Islam. The underdogs of the Middle East, repressed under the Ottomans, the British and then the pro-Western dictators of the region, will be a new and potent political force.
While Shia political parties in Iraq have promised that they will not demand an Islamic republic–their speeches suggest that they have no desire to recreate the Iranian revolution in their country–their inevitable victory in an election that Iraq’s Sunnis will largely boycott mean that this country will become the first Arab nation to be led by Shias.
On the surface, this may not be apparent; Iyad Allawi, the former CIA agent and current Shia "interim" Prime Minister, is widely tipped as the only viable choice for the next prime minister–but the kings and emirs of the Gulf are facing the prospect with trepidation.
In Bahrain, a Sunni monarchy rules over a Shia majority that staged a mini-insurrection in the 1990s. Saudi Arabia has long treated its Shia minority with suspicion and repression.
In the Arab world, they say that God favoured the Shia with oil. Shias live above the richest oil reserves in Saudi Arabia and upon some of the Kuwaiti oil fields. Apart from Mosul, Iraqi Shias live almost exclusively amid their own country’s massive oil fields. Iran’s oil wealth is controlled by the country’s overwhelming Shia majority.
What does all this presage for the Sunni potentates of the Arabian peninsula? Iraq’s new national assembly and the next interim government it selects will empower Shias throughout the region, inviting them to question why they too cannot be given a fair share of their country’s decision-making.
The Americans originally feared that parliamentary elections in Iraq would create a Shia Islamic republic and made inevitable–and unnecessary–warnings to Iran not to interfere in Iraq. But now they are far more frightened that without elections the 60 per cent Shia community would join the Sunni insurgency.
Tomorrow’s poll is thus, for the Americans, a means to an end, a way of claiming that–while Iraq may not have become the stable, liberal democracy they claimed they would create–it has started its journey on the way to Western-style freedom and that American forces can leave.
Few in Iraq believe that these elections will end the insurgency, let alone bring peace and stability. By holding the poll now–when the Shias, who are not fighting the Americans, are voting while the Sunnis, who are fighting the Americans, are not–the elections can only sharpen the divisions between the country’s two largest communities.
While Washington had clearly not envisaged the results of its invasion in this way, its demand for "democracy" is now moving the tectonic plates of the Middle East in a new and uncertain direction. The Arab states outside the Shia "Crescent" fear Shia political power even more than they are frightened by genuine democracy.
No wonder, then, King Abdullah of Jordan is warning that this could destabilise the Gulf and pose a "challenge" to the United States. This may also account for the tolerant attitude of Jordan towards the insurgency, many of whose leaders freely cross the border with Iraq.
The American claim that they move secretly from Syria into Iraq appears largely false; the men who run the rebellion against US rule in Iraq are not likely to smuggle themselves across the Syrian-Iraqi desert when they can travel "legally" across the Jordanian border.
Tomorrow’s election may be bloody. It may well produce a parliament so top-heavy with Shia candidates that the Americans will be tempted to "top up" the Sunni assembly members by choosing some of their own, who will inevitably be accused of collaboration. But it will establish Shia power in Iraq–and in the wider Arab world–for the first time since the great split between Sunnis and Shias that followed the death of the Prophet Muhammad.