The Iraqi government is struggling to overcome opposition at home and abroad as more than one million Shia pilgrims brave sniper fire to converge on the holy city of Kerbala for a religious festival.
The immense pilgrimage is, in effect, a show of strength by the 16 million Shia, some 60 per cent of the Iraqi population, which may turn out to be more important in the long run than the maneuvers of the political parties in Baghdad.
The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is under intense pressure from Sunni and Shia parties as well as from the US. Late on Sunday five leading politicians announced an accord on the release of detainees, the distribution of oil revenue and measures to allow former members of the Baath party to work for the government.
The US has been demanding that the Iraqi government meet a set of benchmarks which would indicate progress towards reconciliation between the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish communities. But it is unlikely that the new accords will be approved by parliament or, even if they were, can ever be implemented. A former Baathist returning to a Shia-run ministry runs the risk of being shot out of hand.
The government has deployed heavy security and introduced a partial curfew in Baghdad to prevent bomb attacks on pilgrims. In the past Sunni extremists, notably al-Qa’ida in Iraq, have launched deadly attacks on Shia pilgrims marching to their holy shrines, causing massive casualties.
Despite the security measures a sniper killed a pilgrim on Jadriyah bridge over the Tigris in the centre of Baghdad and gunmen hiding in an orchard south of the capital opened fire on another group, killing one and wounding three others.
The marchers are easy to identify. They carry bright green, red, yellow and pink banners and chant in unison slogans such as “We are the Shia” and “We are the sons of Imam Hussein, and the name of Ali is always on our tongues.”
The present Shabaniyah festival, which reached its high point in Kerbala yesterday, marks the birth of Mohammed al-Mahdi, the 12th and last Shia imam who disappeared in the ninth century and is expected to return as the redeemer.
These giant pilgrimages are part of the Shia religious tradition but also a display of their political might. Ever since the Shia triumphed in the two parliamentary elections of 2005 they have been nervous of the US taking power away from them as America is frightened of the growing power of Iran, the one great Shia power.
The Iraqi government of Mr Maliki is an alliance between Shia religious parties and Kurdish nationalist parties. It does not want to give up real power to the Sunni who dominated Iraq for centuries up to the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Mr Maliki has responded robustly to criticism from Senator Hillary Clinton who demanded that he be replaced because he cannot forge national unity. He said she and other Democrats should “come to their senses” and stop treating Iraq like “one of their villages”. He also extracted an apology from the French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, who had been quoted as saying that Mr Maliki had to be replaced.
It is unlikely that any replacement of Mr Maliki would do much better. The authority of the government is limited on the ground and control of security is largely in the hands of the US military. The government is also seen, with reason, as corrupt, incompetent and out of touch. Any new prime minister would have to reflect the demands of their Shia and Kurdish electorate.
The American use of massive firepower in civilian areas continues to anger Iraqis. According to the US military, they won a small victory when 30 insurgents attacked an American outpost near Samarra on Sunday leading to gun battles and the destruction of a house by a US jet. A US statement said 12 insurgents were killed and 14 captured. But Iraqi police and hospital officials put the number of dead at eight whom they identified as Mohammed Abdul-Wahab, his mother, wife and five of his young children.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.