I was in Iraq in April 1991 when government security forces crushed the Shia uprising against Saddam Hussein’s regime, killing tens of thousands and burying their bodies in pits. I had been expelled from Iraq to Jordan at the start of the rebellion in March and then, to my surprise, allowed to return, because Saddam wanted to prove to the world that he was back in control.
I was taken along with other journalists to see Grand Ayatollah al-Khoei, the vastly influential spiritual leader of the Shia in Iraq and elsewhere, who was being held in a nondescript house in Kufa in southern Iraq.
He lay on a couch looking all his 92 years, surrounded by Iraqi security men who were hoping that he would condemn the rebellion.
I asked him what he thought of it. For some minutes I thought he had not heard my question, but then, speaking in a low gasping voice, he said: “What happened in Najaf and other cities is not allowed and was against God.”
His words were deliberately ambiguous, but I had no doubt that he was speaking of the hideous vengeance being exacted by military units loyal to Saddam, the killing of Shia men, women and children regardless of whether or not they had taken part in the uprising.
The Shia had risen up against Saddam in the final days of his defeat in Kuwait by the US-led coalition. While they were not expecting full-scale foreign support, they did believe that the coalition would stop Saddam using his remaining tanks and helicopters against them. But the US conflated the Iraqi Shia with Iran, where the Shia are the overwhelming majority, and had decided that it was not in American interests to see the rebellion succeed.
Coalition forces stood aside as Saddam’s tanks, with helicopters overhead, smashed their way into Shia cities like Karbala, Najaf and Basra, and then began their mass executions.
Three decades later, the US and its allies are still making the same mistake, treating the millions of Shia in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and Afghanistan as if they were Iranian agents.
Down the centuries, the Shia have been one of the most savagely persecuted religious minorities; they fear today that in the wake of the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, they are once again being demonised, as Donald Trump denounces all who oppose the US in the Middle East as Iranian proxies.
Yousif al-Khoei, the grandson of the grand ayatollah and the head of the London-based Al-Khoei Foundation, told me that the confrontation between Iran and the US was already leading to “the rise of anti-Shia sentiment”. He receives many calls from non-political but very worried Shia who hear what they interpret as crude anti-Shia propaganda being spouted in Washington.
“The threat to demolish ‘cultural sites’ in Iran was shocking to hear from a US president,” said Khoei. “Ordinary Shia express fear that this may mean attacking our holy places and institutions where faith and culture are intertwined.” He told me how young Shia are angered by potential “gross violation of the Shia faith” by US threats to holy sites and shrines that have only recently been targeted by Isis. “We are still recovering from the losses Isis inflicted on the Shia,” he said.
One of the most significant developments in the Middle East since 1945 has been the rise of the previously marginalised and impoverished Shia communities in many – though not all – of the region’s countries, above all Lebanon and Iraq, the latter becoming the first Shia-ruled state in the Arab world since Saladin overthrew the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt in 1171.
Yet American and British politicians too often treat the rise of the Shia as if this was purely the outcome of unjustifiable Iranian interference. Western leaders find it convenient to adopt the anti-Shia propaganda line pumped out by Sunni states like Saudi Arabia, which persecutes its own Shia minority, and Bahrain, which has an even more oppressed Shia majority.
In both countries, Shia demanding civil rights are punished as terrorists and alleged proxies of Iran. Often, the Sunni authorities are convinced by their own propaganda: when the Bahraini government, backed by Saudi troops, crushed the Arab Spring protests on the island in 2011, Shia doctors in a nearby hospital were tortured to make them admit that they were receiving orders from Iran, though a high-level international investigation found no evidence of Iranian involvement in the protests.
After the US and British invasion of Iraq in 2003, its military commanders were paranoid about alleged Iranian plots to foster resistance to the occupation. In fact, it needed no fostering, because neither Shia nor Sunni wanted Iraq to be occupied by a foreign military force.
Old propaganda claims have resurfaced over the last week about Iran assisting the predominantly Saudi 9/11 bombers or enabling an IED campaign against British troops in southern Iraq, as if Iraq at that time was not knee-deep in discarded munitions.
Such self-serving conspiracy theories, whether they are being peddled in Washington, London, Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, are counterproductive. They foster a sense of Shia solidarity that is to the benefit of Iran. We saw this over the last week, as anti-government protests in Iran in 2019 were replaced this year by crowds numbering millions jamming the streets of Iranian cities to mourn General Soleimani, that very same government’s top military commander.
At the heart of Shi’ism, more than in most religions, is martyrdom, and Soleimani is now being elevated in the eyes of Shia – and not just in Iran – to the status of a warrior martyr who died fighting for the faith.
The triumphant Iraqi army commanders I saw in the wrecked Shia cities of Iraq in 1991 all tried to persuade me that the Iranians had been the driving force behind the rebellion. Much the same nonsense is being uttered today about an Iranian hand being behind anything the west and its allies do not like in the Middle East.
When they claim to be targeting Iran, they are in practice targeting the Shia community as a whole – a mistake for which both they and the Shia are likely to pay a high price.