WASHINGTON, May 12 (UPI) -- Watching television images of Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim's triumphant return to the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, Monday, following 23 years of exile reminded me of another return by another exiled ayatollah to Iran some 24 years earlier: Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini's exultant homecoming to Tehran in 1979.
There are striking parallels -- and maybe even at times eerie similarities -- between these two events.
Al-Hakim chose Najaf, site of the revered Shiite Imam Ali mosque, to deliver his address to a massive welcoming crowd. It was also in Najaf that Khomeini's Islamic Iranian revolution originated.
The tortuous chain of events leading to the demise of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979 and igniting the bloody Iranian revolution that brought about the founding of the Islamic republic in Iran started in Najaf two years earlier, when Hajj Sayyid Mustafa Khomeini was murdered under mysterious circumstances.
The killing of the ayatollah's son was blamed on the shah's secret police, the SAVAK, and resulted in massive demonstrations in Iran that were harshly repressed by the shah's police and military.
These confrontations led to counter-demonstrations and killings on a larger scale, which in turn resulted in only more civil disorder and deaths until the "point of no return" was reached on Sept. 9, 1978. On that fateful day, a large crowd gathered in what is now known as Martyr's Square in the capital, Tehran. The death toll from clashes between the shah's security forces and demonstrators were reported to be in the thousands. Some say as many as 4,000 people died in Tehran and other cities as helicopter gunships were used to repress the demonstrations. This day became known as "Black Friday."
From then on, it was only a matter of time before the U.S.-backed regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi crumbled and was replaced by a strict theocracy with Khomeini as spiritual leader.
Rapidly degrading relations between the United States and the newly born Islamic republic reached a peak when the shah was admitted into the United States in October 1979. Eventually, this led to the storming and occupation of the American Embassy by Iranian university students, who were acting with Khomeini's blessing. American diplomats were held hostage for 444 days and American-Iranian relations continue to suffer to this day. President George W. Bush included Iran, along with Iraq, in his now infamous "axis of evil" speech to Congress.
Similarly, Ayatollah al-Hakim -- like Khomeini, a Shiite cleric -- who just returned a few days ago to Iraq, has been calling for the withdrawal of American and British forces from the country and the establishment of "a modern Islamic state."
Like Khomeini, he is highly revered by the people, and commands a potentially powerful following.
These are precisely the sort of language and actions that should cause great concern to L. Paul Bremer III, the new American civilian administrator of Iraq. Bremer and his team replaced Gen. Jay Garner as the senior civilian American overseers of post-Saddam Iraq. Bush administrator officials confirmed the changeover on Sunday.
In the weeks and months to come, Bremer and his crew will have their work cut out for them as they move to build an Iraq, "of the people, for the people and by the people of Iraq," as Bush declared in a speech on Monday.
Part of the problem Bremer will face stems from the fact that the people of Iraq are mostly Shiites -- about 60 percent. The Shiites were largely discriminated against and ignored by Saddam's regime, which was dominated by Sunni Muslims.
Al-Bakr, like many of his fellow coreligionists in Iraq, suffered greatly at the hands of Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party. Several members of his family were killed by Saddam's henchmen, as were about 200,000 Shiites following their failed uprising in the closing days of Desert Storm, in 1991, when promised U.S. backing failed to materialize.
The Shiites of Iraq are not about to forget Saddam's carnage, nor are they likely to regard the United States' abandonment lightly. Now the Shiites will want their say in running the country.
The last thing Bremer and the American military want is a confrontation with Iraq's Shiite community and a repetition of events that led to the establishment of an Islamic republic in neighboring Iran.
(Claude Salhani is a senior editor with United Press International.)