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The political force that Washington fears in postwar Iraq
Who are the Shias?

May 9, 2003 | Page 8

LEE SUSTAR looks at the politics of Islam in Iraq.

SHIITE ISLAM is the biggest threat to democracy in Iraq--or so the U.S. occupiers want us to believe. "A vocal minority clamoring to transform Iraq in Iran's image will not be permitted to do so," Secretary of State Rumsfeld said on the eve of his victory tour of Iraq. Washington fears that the Shiite Islam clerics who run Iran will be able to exercise a strong influence in Iraq, where about 60 percent of the population are Shiites.

American neocolonial rulers were unnerved at the pilgrimage of one million Shiites to the holy city of Karbala in April, a tradition long suppressed by Saddam Hussein's Baathist Party regime.

Already, Shiite clerics have become the de facto political authority in many neighborhoods in Baghdad as well as the main political force in the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf in the south of the country. This has led even some opponents of the U.S. war to accept the idea that U.S. occupation is a lesser evil than a Shiite Islamist government, under which women's rights could be suppressed.

In fact, Washington has supported Islamists in past decades whenever it needed a bulwark against Arab nationalism and the left. In Saudi Arabia, the royal family has enjoyed U.S. backing since the 1930s even though it imposes laws based on the puritanical Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam, including bans on women from voting and driving, amputations for convicted thieves and more.

Even after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when the Washington-backed monarchy of the Shah was replaced by an Shiite Islamist government led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the U.S. provided military backing for Sunni Islamists in Afghanistan, including the wealthy Saudi businessman Osama bin Laden and the forces that would later form the Taliban.

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, however, Washington seeks to portray "Islamic fundamentalism" as a major force behind "terrorism." This view is mirrored by some on the left, who view Islamist movements a new form of fascism. They point to Islamists' right-wing politics and the fact that Islamists draw on a social base of the disaffected and impoverished middle class, much as Hitler and Mussolini did.

However, Islamists also find themselves in violent conflict with their repressive governments and their Western imperialist backers--with the Islamist-led overthrow of the Shah of Iran as the best example. Islamists can't be categorized as simply either fascists or anti-imperialists, but must be understood in terms of their contradictory social role.

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MODERN ISLAMIST movements took root in the early 20th century alongside nationalist movements against Western colonial rule. If the Islamists' appeal has broadened in the last half century, it's because secular nationalist governments degenerated into corrupt, dictatorial regimes that left the mass of the population impoverished .

The left in the Middle East, dominated by Communist Parties, was itself compromised by its support for the nationalist governments--often under pressure from Moscow in the old USSR, which sought allies in the region. Islamists emerged to fill the gaps, providing both urgently needed social services and a world view about the causes of the crisis.

Islamists, however, tend to splinter between those who undertake violent opposition to the regime and those who try to make compromises in order to exist. This reflects the fact that while Islamists challenge the narrow rule of state bureaucrats and crony capitalists, they don't aim to uproot capitalist social relations.

In Iran, for example, Khomeini put himself at the head of a massive social revolt against the Shah to capture state power, only to play a counterrevolutionary role and crush the workers' movement and the left.

Today, a young Iranian population impatient with poverty and lack of democracy is pressuring the president, a Shiite cleric, into making limited reforms that are opposed by hard-line conservatives--who are also Shiite clerics. The struggle in Iran will influence events in Iraq, the traditional heartland of Shiite Islam.

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SHIITES SPLIT from mainstream Sunni Islam following the death of Mohammed, whose prophecies and practices in the constitute the basis of the religion, in the 7th century. The key dispute was over who would succeed Mohammed as leader of Islam--and Shiites followed Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law, Ali in a dispute that was based on clan rivalries in the Arabian Peninsula.

Shiism stresses the succession of religious leaders, or imams, and the scholarship of clergy who interpret and spread the teachings of the sect, which today is embraced by about 10 percent of Muslims. Shiism became the official religion of Persia (now Iran) in 1501 as the ruling Safavid dynasty sought to counteract the influence of the Sunni Ottoman Turkish Empire.

In Iraq, the ruling Ottomans promoted Sunni Arabs as their local collaborators. Iraqi Shiism became identified with anti-Turkish sentiment and the cause of the oppressed and the poor--the exploitation of Shiite peasants by Shiite landlords notwithstanding.

When the British invaded Iraq in 1917 as part of their campaign against the Turks during the First World War, the Shiite majority cities of the South didn't resist. But when the colonial character of the British invasion became clear, Shiite clerics helped to organize the massive 1920 uprising against colonial rule--with some clerics even expressing sympathy with the Russian Revolution.

After the overthrow of the British-backed monarchy in 1958 and the rise of Baathist regime in 1963, the Shiite opposition increasingly turned to right-wing, anticommunist politics to challenge the supposedly "socialist" Baathists. Saddam Hussein responded by purging Shiites from the top levels of the Baath party and the government.

A decisive moment came in 1977, when security forces attacked the Shiite pilgrimage to Karbala, which led to mass protests. In response, Saddam ordered the execution of eight Shiite leaders.

After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, pro-Iranian Shiite groups carried out a series of bombings and assassinations, but were ultimately driven underground or forced to flee to Iran, where the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) is based.

During the long Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the Shiite population split between those who supported Iraq on patriotic grounds and a minority that sympathized with Iran--and Saddam deported tens of thousands of Shiites to Iran.

At the end of the Gulf War in 1991, a Shiite uprising drove the Iraqi government out of Karbala, Najaf and other Southern cities. But as U.S. troops stood nearby, Saddam Hussein's troops restored "order" by slaughtering thousands. For Washington, continued rule of Iraq by Saddam was a lesser evil than a breakaway state led by Shiites that could fall under the influence of Iran.

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THIS IS the key reason why Shiites didn't rush to welcome the U.S. invasion, despite their suffering under Saddam.

The U.S. tried to make a deal with the Iran-based SCIRI to mobilize its forces against Saddam Hussein, but relations broke down weeks before the war. Washington also tried to build up an acceptable Shiite opposition to Saddam in Sheik Abdel Majid al-Khoei, son of an anti-Saddam, anti-Khomeini cleric exiled in London. But Washington's plans were foiled when Khoei was assassinated by Shiite rivals upon his return to Iraq.

Now Washington is trying to use carrots to entice some Shiite clerics, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, while using a stick to beat others into line--with the military forcing SCIRI cleric Sayed Abbas to withdraw as de facto mayor of the city of Kut.

Nevertheless, the prevalence of anti-U.S. slogans on the Karbala pilgrimage highlighted widespread opposition to U.S. occupation among Shiites. Whether or not this is an indication of majority support for a Shiite Islamist government is another question.

The large Sunni minority--and many Shiites inclined to secularism--would oppose any attempt to build a strict Islamist state. It's also possible, however, that Shiite clergy and their followers could become part of a broad nationalist opposition to U.S. occupation.

Washington will therefore use the supposed threat of a Shiite dictatorship to justify a crackdown on any resistance to U.S. rule--such as militant trade unions and left-wing parties.

Democracy can never be imposed at gunpoint by the U.S.--as any Vietnamese will attest. That's why the antiwar movement should demand an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of U.S. troops--and self-determination for Iraq.

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