“The occupation force is primarily responsible for the pure blood that was spilt in holy Al-Najaf, the blood of al-Hakim and the faithful group that was present near the mosque. This force is primarily responsible for all this blood and the blood that is shed all over Iraq every day. Iraq must not remain occupied and the occupation must leave so that we can build Iraq as God wants us to do.”
The remarkable funeral oration by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, brother of Iraq’s most prominent Shiite cleric and political figure, the slain Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, might just prove the death-knell of the occupation and even the neocons’ whole world-changing project. Last month’s horrific car-bombing of the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, which may have taken the lives of up to 125 people, was itself, as the BBC put it, “a massive setback for coalition forces” regardless of who did it. But for the dead cleric’s brother, who (still) sits on Iraq’s U.S.-appointed Governing Council, to tell a crowd of half a million grieving Shiites Sept. 1 that occupation forces bear primary responsibility for all the bloodshed is perhaps an equal setback. Embarrassing, too, that two Shiite members on the 25-member puppet council (Mohammed Bahr al-Uloum and Mohsen Abdul Hamid) have stepped down over the Najaf episode. They like most Iraqis protest the lack of security, electricity and water resulting from the invasion. When even those most willing to cooperate with you start publicly dissing you—and bringing God into it—you know you’re in trouble.
Earlier, at the shrine of Hussein in Karbala, where al-Hakim’s coffin was placed for the night August 31, a cleric boomed through the loudspeaker: “Yesterday we faced the tanks of Saddam Hussein. Today the tanks of the Americans. We are not afraid of the Americans, who are not innocent of the blood of” al-Hakim. This couldn’t have sounded good to the occupying forces. Nor the chant of mourners marching through Baghdad, beating their chests: “We will humiliate Saddam, we will humiliate Bush” (New York Times, Aug. 31). Some perhaps remembered how Bush Sr., having encouraged the Shiites to rise up after the first Gulf War, left them stranded as Saddam’s forces slaughtered them in their thousands.
To date, the “coalition forces” have met with particular hostility in the “Sunni Triangle,” while enjoying more cooperation from the Shiites and Kurds. But the Kurds (who are ethnically distinct from the Iraqi Arabs, and while mostly Sunni also include some Shiites) may also be souring on the occupation. The new “foreign minister” appointed by the Governing Council, Hoshiyar Zebari (who is Kurdish), is already at loggerheads with the U.S. over plans to invite Turkish “peace-keeping” forces into Iraq, warning “it could lead to destabilization.” (The Turkish government has treated its large Kurdish population brutally, and has repeatedly engaged Kurdish guerrillas on Iraqi soil. While Washington might think it useful to deploy some Muslim troops in Iraq to prettify the occupation, the complexities of relations within the Muslim world seem lost upon it.) Again, when your own quislings, who stand between you and masses of (armed) angry people, start raising objections to your plans, you’re in trouble.
While the entire Iraqi population poses a problem for the “coalition,” the Shiites pose some particular problems. About 15% of the world’s billion plus Muslims are Shiites. They are the majority population in only five countries: non-Arab Iran (93%), which is half the Shiite world, and Azerbaijan (61%); and the Arab nations Oman (75%), Bahrain (65%), and Iraq (60%). The Shiite world thus cuts a swath down from the Caspian Sea to the Gulf of Oman and way up to the borders of Central Asia. There are also millions in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Turkey, and in South Asia. There are over twice as many Shiites in Pakistan (27 million) as in Iraq (11 million), and 26 million in India, although they represent fewer than three percent of the Indian population. Shiism (with smaller presence in Africa and Southeast Asia) thus straddles the Arab and Indo-Iranian worlds, and southeast Iraq is precisely where those worlds intersect. Iraq is the only sizeable Arab country with a majority Shiite population, and those Shiites have historical ties to neighboring Iran. There are almost two million Arabs on the Iranian side of the border with Iraq. During the Saddam years tens of thousands of Iraqis, including Shiite clerics, took refuge in Iran. In 1980, Saddam Hussein expelled 40,000 ethnically Iranian Shiites. Despite the brutal war between the countries during the 1980s, their Shiite communities, while differing in language and culture, enjoy close ties. The mullahs in Teheran (if they aren’t overthrown) will thus probably expect to have some say in Iraq’s future.
So of course, near term, will the U.S. occupiers, who indeed in Colin Powell’s words, demand the “dominant role.” Their attitude towards Shiism is conditioned primarily by the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The overthrow of the Shah resulted from the most genuine, mass-based revolutionary movement ever to occur in the Islamic world. Its spiritual leader was the Ayatollah Khomeini, but its foot soldiers included a wide ideological spectrum: the “Islamic Marxists” of the Mujahadeen Khalq; the Fedayeen; the Maoist Sarbederan; the pro-Soviet Tudeh; and of course the Shiite groups led by the clerics. Their revolution was quickly hijacked by the mullahs, who crushed the secular left. The Carter administration, shocked by the revolution, allowed the Shah (viewed as a murderous criminal by most Iranians) refuge in the U.S., and was thus confronted with the protracted “Hostage Crisis” ending only on the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration.
Of course, Shiism under the mullocracy was fundamentally no different from Shiism under the Shah, with which the U.S. picked no quarrel. But the Shah, placed in power by the CIA in one of its best-documented and well-known escapades in 1953, stripped lands from the mosques in his “White Revolution,” and otherwise alienated the Shiite clergy. With his fall, they obtained their revenge, creating the present regime, which has come to rival the Shah’s in its unpopularity. In any case, the “loss” of Iran was an incalculable blow to U.S. policy in the region, and subsequent U.S. policy towards neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq has to be understood in that light. The defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan somewhat reduced the bitterness of the Iranian setback, while U.S.-abetted Iraqi successes against Iran in the bloody 1980s war reduced the threat posed by the mullahs’ regime.
U.S. officials, analysts and journalists castigated the “Islamic fundamentalism” in Iran (a specific form rooted in Shiism) long before they attacked Sunni Muslim movements under that rubric. Indeed, while Carter was president, his administration actively encouraged (mostly Sunni) Islamic fundamentalists to wage jihad against the pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan, nurturing the very forces (such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar) that now confront the U.S.-installed regime in Afghanistan. As recently as 1996, Zalmay Khalilzad, one-time Bush adviser and now top U.S. representative in Afghanistan, was writing that the Taliban’s Sunni Islam did not pose a threat to the U.S. comparable to the Shiite variant of Islam found in Iran! But now the focus is on Sunni schools (like the Wahhabi, historically very hostile to the Shiites), while ironically the U.S. procurator in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer III, must try to win local Shiite support.
Problem is, maybe he can’t. He’s already stated very clearly that the U.S. will not allow an Iranian-type Shiite Islamic state. Not even if that’s what the local folks want. It would, he avers, be a threat to U.S. security. He’s telling the Shiites, in effect: We want your support. We really do. We want to work with you. Over half our handpicked local leadership team is Shiite. But we (like Saddam) insist upon a secular state. Unlike Saddam, we’d like two or more freely competing parties, committed to parliamentarism and free enterprise, just to make sure that all voices are heard, like in the American model political system. But the last thing we want is for you to link up with Iran.
So any Iraqis agitating for such a state, and, angered by the unending occupation and its manifest inability or unwillingness to meet popular demands (only some of them rooted in Shiism), motivated to join the growing resistance movement, will be tarred as “terrorists.” They will be “Shiite terrorists,” supported of course by the neighboring country and center of the Shiite world, Axis of Evil lynchpin, Iran. Meanwhile, supposedly “fanatical” aspects of Shiite religious practice (notably, the ritualistic breast-beating and self-flagellation) might be emphasized to dehumanize these particular “terrorists” in the low stooping American media.
Still, since Washington doesn’t want to alienate 130 million or so Shiites, we’ll be told that, no, of course, Shiism itself isn’t the problem. “We know that Shiism’s a religion of peace,” Bush will announce pleasantly to Shiite children invited to the White House to commemorate, say, the Yom Ashura holiday that marks the death of Hussein ibn Ali, as the Defense Policy Board discusses how to prevent another Iran. Meanwhile, the three million Shiites in Yemen, the 1.4 million Shiites in Lebanon (where in 1983 a Shiite truck bomber blew up a U.S. military barracks, killing 243 Marines), and the 1.3 million in Syria (which supports the Shiite Hezbollah organization in Lebanon) will be watching carefully. The 3.5 million Shiites in Afghanistan (mostly Hazzaras) have their own problems, but events in Iraq might affect their perception of the U.S. forces in their still unstable country. Most importantly, the 61 million Iranian Shiites will be watching how their coreligionists deal with the occupation of Iraq.
Meanwhile, work on the Bushehr nuclear reactor continues, and the U.S. as global hegemon has made clear that Iran must not follow in the footsteps of Israel, Pakistan and India in developing nuclear weapons, or if defiant, face the consequences. Imagine what might happen if either the U.S. or Israel (which bombed Iraq’s French-built Osiraq reactor in 1981 in an action condemned by the U.S. and the whole UN), were to conduct a “pre-emptive strike” on Bushehr, ostensibly to protect its (nuclear) self. Or if Israel were to re-invade Lebanon to crush Hezbollah. The Shiite world would not react well. Such actions might affect Yemen’s “anti-terrorist” cooperation with the U.S. and efforts to cultivate the 600,000 Saudi Shiites, who happen to live around the oil fields and whom some neocons wanted to exploit as allies against the Wahhabi-based regime in Riyadh, creating a client state Republic of Eastern Arabia.
So in the unfolding geopolitical drama, Shiites really matter, and as the Shah learned, when millions of them are out in the streets, they can indeed humiliate those who have humiliated them. The “Sunni triangle” causing U.S. forces so much trouble at present is a mere detail within the surrounding Shiite map. If (as many are predicting) Iraq’s Shiites rise up against the occupation, the neocon’s dreams might soon be reduced to rubble, like the mix of stone and wasted humanity they’re still cleaning up outside the mosque in Najaf.
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Note on the Shiite belief system: The key difference between Shiism and Sunni Islam is that the Shiites (who are divided into a number of schools) believe that a terrible historic injustice occurred in the early history of the Muslim community. After the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632, they believe, leadership of the emergent community ought to have passed to his son-in-law Ali. (This is the Ali entombed in the Imam Ali Mosque.) It didn’t. Ali’s son, the Imam Hussein, and 90 of his followers then perished in the battle of Karbala, fought against forces of the sixth caliph, in 680. Annual commemorations of this death, accompanied by dramatic mourning rituals, are believed to generate merit; Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter, will at the end of time gather the tears of the Karbala mourners’ into her apron, rewarding those who have shed them. Shiites believe that the Twelfth Imam, successor to Hussein, was hidden by God in a cave below a mosque in Samarra in 874.
He was only seven years old at the time; he remains there until God reveals him and he, the Hidden Imam or Mahdi, comes to guide humankind. In the interim, various figures have claimed to be representatives of the Hidden Imam or even the Mahdi himself. Most of the key religious figures revered by the Shiites died as martyrs; Baqr al-Hakim will be counted as another. Thus deep grief and sense of victimhood, a will to martyrdom, millenarian expectations, and the occasional appearance of charismatic leaders that build upon these feelings, characterize the Shiite faith. Surely some of the neocons, including a few brilliant academics, know all this, and only sheer arrogance can account for their expectation that the Shiites might, like the ridiculous and discredited Ahmad Chalabi, be drawn en masse to embrace their own re-colonization rather than attempt some eschatological breakthrough following years of victimization by the U.S., the UN, and Saddam.
The Anglo-American troops in the field, meanwhile (some of whom still really believe Iraq caused 9-11) can’t be expected to grasp the religious context, or the geopolitics of Shiism. If they did, going about their duties, they might have even greater cause for anxiety. For their sake, their families’ sake, the Iraqis’ and the world’s sake, they should (as the dead man’s brother urges) be brought home now.
GARY LEUPP is an an associate professor in the Department of History at Tufts University and coordinator of the Asian Studies Program.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org