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Analysis: Shiite power rises in Iraq

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst

WASHINGTON, April 7 (UPI) -- A Kurd and a Shiite emerged Thursday as the rulers of a nation that for more than 80 years has been regarded as a pillar of the Sunni Arab Muslim world. Will it work? Maybe.

There was one embarrassing snafu after veteran Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, the new president of Iraq, was sworn in and gave his inaugural speech in Baghdad. He walked offstage without introducing his two vice presidents and his new prime minister. Talabani had to come back 10 minutes later to rectify the error. Angry Shiite members of the National Assembly seethed that it was a snub.

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In fact, Talabani's Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari is expected to weld the new power in Iraq's still-forming coalition government. The United Iraqi Alliance he leads represents the 60 percent majority population in Iraq and runs half the National Assembly. It is expected to dominate the new government.

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But communal skins are razor-thin in Iraq and the slightest slight can easily be magnified into a political crisis. The Shiite majority has effectively been powerless, persecuted and acted upon for almost all the last half a millennium, ever since the Sunni Ottoman Empire seized Iraq early in the 16th century and then held it after a series of ding-dong wars with neighboring Persia, or Iran.

A few years after the British Empire conquered the lands of Mesopotamia during World War I and reformed them as the kingdom of Iraq, the Shiites tried to claim the rights of self-determination preached by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson at the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference.

The British reaction was ferocious. The Shiites were crushed after a rising that cost thousands of lives. For the next three and a half decades, until the British were finally driven out of Iraq after the 1958 military coup that massacred the nation's Hashemite king and his family, the Shiites were effectively politically powerless. Political power resided with a Sunni landed elite, tribal chiefs and a Sunni Muslim-dominated army.

Even through the 35 long dark years of the Second Baathist Republic from 1968 to 2003 that was dominated by Saddam Hussein, the Shiite majority had to obey or suffer the consequences.

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Thursday's appointment of Jaafari as prime minister, therefore, brings a new dynamic to Iraq and, indeed, to the entire Middle East. It is not the fact that a Kurd -- Talabani -- will rule over a Sunni Arab minority. One of the greatest military heroes in Arab history, the dashing 12th century Saladin, who ruled Syria and Egypt and recaptured the holy city of Jerusalem from the Crusaders, was a Kurd.

For that matter, even before the era of direct colonial rule, mainly by Britain and France, it was not uncommon for much if not all of the Middle East to have foreign rulers. Most of the Arab world was ruled for more than 400 years by the Turkish Ottoman Empire, originally nomadic tribal invaders from Central Asia. Mehmet Ali, who re-established Egyptian independence in the early 19th century, was Albanian and his dynasty ruled Egypt for a century and a half until its last king, Farouk, was deposed by a military coup in 1952.

However, the fact that Jaafari, a Shiite, now rules Iraq could have enormous regional repercussions. It may lead to renewed confidence and militancy in Shiite religious and political groups throughout the Middle East.

Jaafari's United Iraq Alliance looks to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani as its political as well as religious mentor. Sistani has been quiet, politic, cautious and shrewd since Saddam was toppled. But two facts about him stand out. He remains a citizen of the Islamic Republic of Iran and in the two years since U.S. forces liberated Baghdad, he has never once officially met any U.S. representatives.

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Jaafari's emergence as prime minister is being welcomed in Washington as a further confirmation of the wisdom of U.S. policy to push ahead with holding the Jan. 30 parliamentary elections and as a giant stride toward the goal of establishing a peaceful, stable, constitutional state in Iraq friendly to the United States. That may yet happen.

But Jaafari's emergence as the first Shiite leader of Iraq in its history may also be seen part of a very different process -- the rise of a new, militant, politicized and revolutionary Shiism articulated and shaped by the late Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran.

This was the process that also led to the rise of Hezbollah, the Party of God, among the Shiites of Lebanon, a process that transformed the most passive and unthreatening group in Lebanon to the most militarily formidable and dangerous guerrilla force the Israeli army has ever faced -- and one that it has never conclusively defeated.

It remains to be seen how effective Jaafari will be as prime minister. On the one hand, he faces appallingly complex and dangerous challenges. On the other, he has a clear popular political mandate behind him as the first ruler of Iraq since the tyrant Saddam was toppled who can make that claim. In any case, his government too is by necessity going to be a transitional one. Iraq's permanent constitution is expected to be completed and be ready for ratification by August and new elections are to be held in December.

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Whether Jaafari succeeds or fails -- and rules for only months or many years -- the genie of Shiite political power in Iraq that has been released with his appointment will not go quietly back into any bottle. It is out to stay. And it may not remain compliant with the wishes of its American masters either.

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