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Rebuilding Iraq


Shi'ites quickly emerge as political force

By Thanassis Cambanis, Globe Staff, 4/27/03

BAGHDAD -- When the council of top Shi'ite clerics in Najaf decided to call for democratic elections and an end to the US military presence, they faced the daunting challenge of spreading their message in a country without phones.

The sheer organizational might of the clerics -- honed during decades of charitable work and dissident activity -- meant that within one day they were able to blanket Iraq's Shi'ite mosques with political-action kits, complete with English-language slogans and talking points.

Students from the Hawza, the center of Shi'a thought and base of its most distinguished Iraqi scholars, fanned out from Najaf across the country, taking the message to mosques across southern Iraq and throughout Baghdad.

Saddam Hussein's totalitarian police state obliterated every opposition political party. Only the network of Shi'ite mosques survived as an alternative center of popular power.

Now, in postwar Iraq, while exile leaders and dissidents scramble to create parties, they're miles behind the Shi'ite clerics, who by their sheer numbers and the respect they command have mobilized the country's only ready-made political organization.

The Shi'ites call for an Islamic state, and the clerics' bold early thrusts into Iraq's nascent political debate have stoked worries about civil war and even a religious revolution in a country still reeling from the US-led invasion and the Ba'ath regime's collapse.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday the United States will not tolerate an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq.

The question for the architects of whatever Iraqi government emerges is whether the Shi'ite religious leadership represents a threat to democracy, a turn to extremism, or simply the first blossom of civil society.

"I assume the Shi'ites will not work for the establishment of Shi'ite rule or an Islamic-style government like in Iran because they know the diversity of Iraq," said Jabir Habib Jabir, a professor of Islamic political thought at Baghdad University. "At any rate, the Americans would not allow it."

But Shi'ism is a force to be reckoned with. Iraq is the only country other than Iran with a Shi'ite majority. Roughly two-thirds of Iraq's population, or 15 million people, are Shi'ites.

Many of the clerics, with the Hawza's backing, have thrust themselves into the political debate during the past week, demanding free elections and the immediate departure of the US military.

"We represent power because the Shi'ites are the majority," said Sheik Ahmed al-Saaedi, a scholar at the Hawza. "We want a government that includes the Shi'ites."

Like many of the younger imams and sheiks -- some of them still studying at the Hawza in Najaf -- Saaedi said a new Iraqi government should include Sunni Muslims, Christians, ethnic Kurds, and other religious and ethnic minorities.

The Hawza's party line has been conciliatory: Iraq's government must be based on Islam, they argue, but needn't be a religious government. And, they vow, any Islamic government would respect Iraq's other religious and ethnic groups, including Sunni Muslims, Christians, and Kurds.

But other statements raise questions about their intentions. "Should we have an Islamic state?" said Sheik Jassem Al-Assadi, another scholar from the Hawza who led an anti-American protest in Karbala last week. "Only the people can decide."

Shi'ite clerics were among the few dissenting voices in Hussein's Iraq. They criticized the regime's restrictions on Shi'ite religious freedom, including the ban on the pilgrimage to Karbala, and were routinely tortured and imprisoned. The clergy also filled the social services gap in systematically deprived areas in Iraq's south and the slums around Baghdad, providing food and money to needy families.

That social role has endowed the Shi'ite clergy with great legitimacy, and many Shi'ites now look to their imams for political cues. They will consider guerrilla war against the US military, for example, only if their religious leaders urge them to.

Saad Jawad Abu Yasin, a political science professor at Baghdad University, said the Shi'ite clerics and the Hawza have been stoking anti-American sentiment among the faithful for more than a decade.

Since the first Gulf War in 1991, Abu Yasin said, clerics have told their Iraqi followers that sanctions, and later, the 2001 war in Afghanistan, were part of an American war against Islam.

"Fanaticism emerges out of such a situation," he said. "The mosques can easily manipulate these people."

For now, a united Islamic voice, including both Shi'ites and Sunnis, has emerged to demand that the United States leave.

"We want an Iraqi peace, not a peace forced on us by foreigners," said Sheik Mouwahad El-Adanni, an imam at Abu Haneefa al- Nu'man Mosque in Adhamiya, where last week anti-American protesters took to the streets after Friday prayers. "No to America, no to the occupation."

Adanni is a Sunni, but he has led calls for an Islamic government that would not discriminate between Sunnis and Shi'ites.

Some scholars, such as Abu Yasin and Jabir, dismiss fears about Shi'ite fundamentalism taking over Iraq. But others say they suspect that the clerics will build on their current unparalleled power base to transform Iraq into a theocracy.

"Right now the people of Iraq are very young and vulnerable politically," said Asattar Mohammed, a 38-year-old Shi'ite journalist who lives in Karbala. "I'm afraid of fundamentalism and extremism among the people."

An Islamic government, and in particular a Shi'ite government, could easily prompt a civil war by threatening the country's other religious and ethnic groups, Mohammed said.

"Iraq was always a secular state," Abu Yasin said. "Because of this history, the majority of people would oppose an Islamic state."

In Saddam City, the predominantly Shi'ite slum on the fringe of Baghdad, Sayed Raheem al-Aalak runs a veritable welfare office from his mosque, feeding more than 1,000 people in the neighborhood. He receives directives from the Hawza in Najaf on political matters, such as the talking points about the US occupation he waved at a visitor recently.

But his influence in the community -- and by extension, the credibility of the entire Shi'ite leadership structure -- is rooted in the local services he provides. The Shi'ite mosques have filled the vacuum created by Hussein's institutional neglect of poor Shi'ite areas.

Long before the Ba'ath government fell, areas such as Saddam City were systematically ignored. It was left up to the mosque to create a social safety net, repair power stations, and police their neighborhoods. Now that there's no government, men like Aalak find it natural to take a role more like a mayor than a cleric.

"Under Saddam Hussein, the Shi'ites suffered more than any other religion because we had power and educated people among us," Aalak said. "That created a threat."

Now, with Hussein gone, Aalak said, the Shi'ites are the only organized group that can handle administrative tasks such as running ministries. Aalak quickly added that he was only interested in guaranteeing security and freedom of religion for Iraq.

"We have no political aspirations," he said.

Other Shi'ite leaders do, however. Clerics have taken power in the cities of Kut and Karbala south of Iraq, and over time, the Americans who are designing a transitional authority in Iraq will have to find a way to integrate them.

In Abu Yasin's analysis, the real threat to stability in Iraq comes from generalized anti-Americanism, rather than specific Shi'ite nationalism.

"As long as the mosques are around, the Islamic feeling will be high," Abu Yasin said. "The protests will increase every day. America will have opposition from Shi'ite and Sunni alike. If the Americans continue with their ideas of imposing order, the more trouble they will face."

Thanassis Cambanis can be reached at

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