Washington's nightmare scenario is that the Shiites, largely excluded from power since the accession of the Baathists in 1968, will assert themselves politically and by means of democratic elections gain political power and establish a theocracy. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has already ruled out such a possibility, but it is debatable how the U.S. could actually defer such an occurrence. What leaves the situation for the moment relatively fluid is that the Shiite clergy is divided between those who fled westward, those who stayed home and those who went to Iran.
Ironically, Saddam Hussein also feared the Shiites, regarding their political loyalty as suspect. Saddam ordered his forces in 1977 to attack hundreds of pilgrims trekking between the major Shiite shrines at Karbala and Najaf, killing many. Saddam again repressed them after Operation Desert Storm when Shiites, aided by army deserters and fighters from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, revolted. Following the failure of the uprising, many Shiite clerics fled the country to exile in Qom, Iran, a rival to Najaf as a center of Shiite learning. Saddam remained so nervous of their loyalty that in May 2000 pilgrimages to Karbala were forbidden, with troops opening fire on pilgrims on the road who refused to turn back.
Muslims watched with anxiety as preparations began for Operation Iraqi Freedom, focusing on the military threat to the two holy cities of Karbala and Najaf. Karbala has more than 100 mosques and 23 religious schools, with Imam Hussein's shrine as the city's centerpiece. Najaf has a population of 560,000, and Muhammad's son-in-law, Imam Ali bin Ali Talib, is buried in the Imam Ali mosque. Iran's Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini spent 1964-78 in exile in Najaf. For Shiites, the two towns rank nearly equal with Mecca and Medina in holiness. U.S. Central command chief Gen. Tommy Franks ordered coalition forces to avoid both cities and declared them "no-target" zones.
Shiite cleric Seyyed Abdul Majid al-Khoei was killed in Najaf at the Imam Ali mosque on April 10 shortly after returning from London where he had lived in exile since 1991. Al-Khoei's father was the Grand Ayatollah Abul-Qasim al-Khoei, leader of Iraq's Shiites. The ayatollah subsequently died in mysterious circumstances under house arrest in 1992 and was succeeded as grand ayatollah by Mirza Ali al-Sistani. Al-Khoei's nephew Jawad said six people were killed in the tumult, including a U.S. Special Forces officer assigned as a bodyguard; the officer's colleagues apparently remained outside the shrine as a mark of respect. The perception of al-Khoei as a U.S. puppet was strengthened by the subsequent admission by Washington that it had channeled $13 million dollars to him.
While al-Khoei returned from the West, Ayatollah Seyyed Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, SCIRI deputy leader, arrived to a hero's welcome on May 10 from Iran, attended by thousands of his supporters. Al-Hakim was far less accommodating to coalition interests than al-Khoei and said, "We refuse to put ourselves under the thumb of the Americans or any other country, because that is not in the Iraqis' interest." Al-Hakim in his final sermon in Tehran the day before his return proclaimed, "There is no time now for me to talk to you in detail about the future of Iraq, but I tell you the future of Iraq belongs to Islam."
Al-Sistani seems for the moment to be treading a middle ground, but is nonetheless increasingly commenting on political issues. On May 27, he issued a fatwa prohibiting the killing of former Iraqi officials or Baathists involved in torturing or arbitrarily arresting Iraqis. U.S. observers could take slight solace in the fact he opted for courts deciding, stating, "It is up to courts to decide (whether or to impose a death sentence)...And they must be set up first."
Shiite mosques are moving into the vacuum created by the fall of Saddam's government and mosques are now providing many essential services, from education to food. The Bush administration however, rather than involving itself in repairing Iraq's societal infrastructure, is fixated on Iraq petroleum industry as its highest priority while also claiming Iran is seeking to take political advantage of the situation, using SCIRI as a stalking horse. It is a charge that Tehran hotly denies. The potential of such a confrontational policy for regional destabilization far beyond Iraq is immense. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates all have substantial Shiite minorities. For many Iraqis, the United States and Britain increasingly look more and more like occupiers solely interested in exploiting the nation's energy reserves, while clerics tend to their flocks' social needs. Last month's gathering of a million pilgrims in Karbala to celebrate Arbain should be a sober reminder to Washington and London that if both ignore that country's pressing needs, alternatives exist to replace the dictatorship that they toppled two months ago.
John C.K. Daly is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.