The Coming Islamic Republic of Iraq?

The weekend uprising by Shiite Muslim militias against the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq creates more uncertainty about US/British plans to turn over authority in July to an interim Iraqi regime. Whether this can be done without bringing on a ferocious civil war is more than ever in doubt.

The recent events led by the followers of young al-Sadr are among the predicted, yet unintended, consequences of the US-led war in Iraq. As a result of the downfall of the Baath regime in Iraq there emerged a fearsome Shiite Muslim geopolitical bloc that will dominate the political life in the Middle East for many years. Religious Shiite groups and militias in Iraq have recently stepped into the gap resulting from the collapse of the Baath Party, especially in the sacred shrine cities.

With the collapse of a regime dominated by Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, Iraq’s Shiite majority now aspires to claim political dominance for the first time in the modern history of the country. The Shiites of Iraq, already the second most powerful force in Iraq behind U.S. forces, are now openly/ and militantly resisting foreign intervention.

In a generally religious country, religious leaders belonging to the Shiite sect have a particularly firm grip on rank-and-file believers. It is clear that the Islamist movements will play a major role in the future of Iraq’s politics, particularly among the Shiites. The Shiite majority is going to play an important part in Iraq, and the Shiite clergy is going to play an important part in Shiite politics.

The Sadr movement wants an Islamic republic in Iraq, even if not one exactly like the one Ayatollah Khomeini established in Iran. Like most other Iraqi Shiite clerics, Muqtada wants the Americans out of Iraq as soon as possible. He says, according to one report, that “We refuse occupation. If the Americans become occupiers, yes, we have to go to jihad. The Shiite taught the world jihad, and the Iraqi people gave millions of their sons to Saddam Hussein. If they were to defy the Americans, they would not find it hard to give millions more.”

It seems that twenty-five years after Ayatollah Khomeini outmaneuvered Iran’s religious and political establishment, his spiritual disciples in Iraq are attempting a similar clerical takeover. Within the increasingly volatile conditions of post-Saddam Iraq, where the American occupation of Iraq is new and unsteady, the power of the Shiites emerges as one of the wildcards.

Dr. BULENT GOKAY is Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Director of European Studies Programme at Keele University in England.