London, April 26 — Millions of chanting, breast-beating, self-flagellating pilgrims converged this week on the holy city of Karbala in an unprecedented explosion of popular feeling. All those who witnessed the passion and frenzy of this extraordinary scene – and even those who could only observe it on television – could not fail but be awed and amazed.
The Shias were expressing their long-suppressed devotion to the Imam Hussein, slaughtered at Karbala in AD 680, but they were also celebrating their deliverance from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, their thirst for revenge for past sufferings, and their determination to take their destiny into their own hands.
Leaflets signed by the hawza, the Shia clerical establishment at Najaf, declared: “We want a government that represents all Iraqi people, a government with an independent will.”
Yet the huge Karbala demonstration was not, by all accounts, an overt political event – or at least not yet. It was still essentially an expression of religious community identity.
The key question in Iraq today is whether this mass expression of Shia fervour will be translated into an organised political movement demanding an end to the American presence. Were it to happen, the Americans could find themselves in real trouble. The genie may already be out of the bottle.
The U.S. faces a formidable dilemma in Iraq. If it allows Shia militancy to flourish unchecked it will, in effect, be handing power in due course to a Shia Islamic revolution on the Iranian model. Yet if it seeks to repress the Shias by direct military rule, it could find itself confronting a mass popular uprising with unpredictable consequences.
Such a Shia revolt could pose a major problem for the U.S. Extremists would mobilize the street with Islamic and nationalist slogans. The mobs could prove unstoppable. And any attempt to stop them could result in bloodshed on both sides – and no doubt in a precipitate departure of U.S. forces.
The millions of Shias who live in southern Iraq, and in the sprawling suburbs of Baghdad itself, are not an inchoate mass of people without structure or leadership. In the south, tribal influence is predominant. In the principal Shia cities, such as Karbala, Kazimain (a suburb of Baghdad), Najaf and Basra, popular committees, militias and community networks of all sorts are springing up.
This week’s immense convergence on Karbala demonstrated the clerics ability to move the street.
This was the dilemma the British faced when they occupied Iraq after the First World War. They were at first welcomed by the Shias of southern Iraq who saw them as liberators from the oppression of Sunni Turks. But when it became clear that the British were there to stay, the Shias began to oppose British rule, and in 1920, the whole of the Shia south erupted in a violent revolt, the first of several uprisings, which the British only subdued with great difficulty.
Today, it seems clear that the Shias want political power in Iraq – if not exclusive power for themselves, then at the very least a Shia-dominated government in which Sunnis and Kurds would have subsidiary roles. If the U.S. recognizes this aspiration and initiates a dialogue with leaders of the community, the Shias will demand true democracy on the basis of ‘one man, one vote’, as any such system would guarantee them a monopoly of power because of their demographic weight.
So whether there is a popular revolt or a relatively peaceful progress towards democracy, many Shias believe they are in a ‘win-win’ situation.
Iran is watching the unfolding situation in Iraq with extreme attention. It is impossible to overestimate Iran’s interest in the fate of the Iraqi Shias, with whom they have centuries-old historic ties, or the enormous significance for Iranian Shias of the holy sites in Iraq.
Iranian influence, however, is likely to be indirect rather than direct. It would not want to encourage the emergence in Iraq of extreme Shia forces, seeing that this could trigger a hostile U.S. reaction, not least against Tehran itself. Already targeted by the U.S. for its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran has no interest in a further worsening of relations with Washington.
Iran would prefer the emergence of a democratic Iraq in which Shias would inevitably predominate. As Iran’s Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi told the French daily Le Monde: “I believe the Americans are committing a strategic error in installing an American government in Iraq, however temporary it might be. The Iraqis will see this as a humiliation. They are perfectly capable of choosing their own government.”
The three main Iraqi Shia organisations who opposed Saddam Hussein are all backed by Iran. They do not necessarily see eye to eye, but they are likely to make common cause in pushing the U.S. out of Iraq and taking control of the country.
They are the Jama’at al-‘Ulama (a grouping of pro-Iranian Iraqi clerics based in Qum), the Tehran-based Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq headed by Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, and the Da’wa party.
Of the three, the Da’wa is the most formidable because of its militants’ long experience of surviving underground in Iraq in opposition to Saddam Hussein. The U.S. would have little difficulty crushing the armed militia of the Supreme Council – the so-called Badr brigades — but would have a much harder task against the Da’wa, with its shadowy network of intelligence agents and trained killers.
The Da’wa is said to have three branches, based in Tehran, London and Damascus, not entirely at one with each other. Of the three, the Tehran-based leadership is the most active.
Since the foundation of the modern state after the First World War, when the British put Prince Faisal on the throne, Sunni Arabs have run the Iraq government, dominating both the military and state institutions. Today they are considered the “guilty party” because they formed the core of Saddam Hussein’s regime. But it is unlikely that the now-shattered country can be put back on its feet without the help of Sunni elites.
In fact, it seems plausible to predict that the U.S. will soon be wooing the Sunni Arab community and will be seeking out prominent members to counter-balance the weight of the Shias and help to counter any challenge they might pose. But, just as Shia personalities, brought back to Iraq under American patronage after years of exile abroad, may not have much credibility in the rough-and-tumble of present-day Iraq, so too any such Sunnis would need to be well known in Iraq and have local support.
The sort of potential Sunni leaders the U.S. would need are likely to be men with an existing power base in the country, able to rally the grass-roots – perhaps even an ex-army general able to gather other army officers behind the new regime.
So far, the Pentagon has run the show in Iraq. The retired U.S. general Jay Garner, who has been given the top “pro-consular” job, is said to be the personal choice of U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But some observers suggest that if the Shias rebel and if the U.S. military proves unable to handle the security situation, the Pentagon may have to move aside and allow an enhanced role for the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency.
The U.S. is just at the beginning of its pains in Iraq. It needs to restore basic services, get the population working, and the oil flowing. It needs to reform the banking system and stabilise the currency. It will in due course have to tackle the politically sensiti
ve matter of Iraq’s massive external debt.
At the same time it must seek to isolate Iraq from outside interference, suppress dissent, root out enemies (who will undoubtedly attempt to complicate its task) and oversee the rebuilding of Iraq’s political structures and institutions as well as its civilian infrastructure.
It may be doubted that the hawks in Washington, who pressed so eagerly for “regime change” in Baghdad, truly understood to what gigantic responsibilities they were committing their country.
The U.S. cannot walk away from Iraq. It has sought an imperial role and must assume it. As the British discovered in their time, handling the Shias may well prove the toughest task of all.
Globalvision News Network
© Copyright 2003 IANS India Private Limited, New Delhi. Posted on Religioscope with permission.