The Shiites Under Occupation

The members of the Shiite majority of what is now Iraq have longstanding grievances against the minority Sunnis and the rulers that have promoted them. From the Abbasid caliphate near the end of the first millennium to the domination by the Ottoman Turks and the brief British mandate after the First World War, the Shiites were an embattled majority. After the British created Iraq from the remains of the Ottoman Empire, they entrusted sovereignty to Faisal, an imported Sunni king. Saddam Hussein, from a Sunni clan, singled out dissident Shiites for extremely brutal treatment. Now the Shiites’ luck may be about to change.

Although the American victors associate Shiism mainly with the Islam of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran and with Hezbollah, they seem to have accepted that Shiites will have significant, if not dominant, representation in a future Iraqi government. During Jay Garner’s brief viceregency, the Americans hoped to win over Shiites by promoting pro-US Shiites like Ahmad Chalabi and Iyad Alawi. But both these former exiles are resented by the Iraqis, who endured the humiliation and terror of Saddam Hussein’s rule. Chalabi and Alawi do not defer to the clerics who dominate the worldly and spiritual affairs of most Shiites. Naturally, there is debate over the decision in early June by Paul Bremer, Garner’s civilian successor, to dissolve the seven-man council, of which Chalabi and Alawi were part, that was supposed to plan an interim government. The decision has increased fears of open-ended American colonization, but the change in attitude toward Chalabi and Alawi has been a positive development. It has partly allayed apprehensions that the Americans will repeat the mistakes of the British mandate, when local partners were selected on the basis of their friendliness to the colonial power instead of their popular support. Shiite leaders cannot be introduced, blooming, from a climate-controlled greenhouse. They will emerge from the detritus of Saddam Hussein’s rule.

To test this assertion, you need only visit al-Sadr City, the Shiite-dominated suburb of Baghdad, at the time of the weekly sermon outside the important al-Mohsen mosque. Most of al-Sadr City’s more than two million inhabitants are Shiite, and the families of most of them come from Shiite-dominated cities in the south. In conversations about future Iraqi leaders, these people don’t mention Chalabi or Alawi; back in the 1970s many of them venerated Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr, who was executed by Hussein in 1980. The Baghdad Shiites later transferred their allegiance to Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was no relation to Muhammad Baqr, but shared some of his ideas. In 1999, Muhammad Sadiq was assassinated along with two of his sons; Saddam was suspected immediately of ordering them killed. (It is thought that Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr was executed in 1980 because he advocated Iran-style revolution. It is also said that Muhammad Sadiq was killed because he renounced an earlier arrangement with Saddam. These, however, are prevailing perceptions, not incontestable facts.) The day after Muhammad Sadiq’s death …

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