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.1 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, thousands of mourners gathered outside the al-Mohsen mosque (in what was then called Saddam City), and government paramilitaries opened fire on them.

According to local observers, at least one thousand people were killed in this and other incidents in the township, and many thousands of others were executed and imprisoned.2 Now the residents of al-Sadr City declare their allegiance to the politics of Moqtada al-Sadr, a surviving son of Muhammad Sadiq. They also acknowledge the spiritual direction of Ayatollah Kazem al-Ha’eri, one of the most respected Shiite clerics, who is said to be planning his return from exile in the Iranian seminary town of Qom. Unquestioning allegiance to an illustrious family name does not always produce good leaders; unlike his father and earlier namesake, Moqtada is a junior cleric, and is known as a hothead. (I met him only briefly—a fat young man working on his computer in his cleric’s turban and gown.)

At the beginning of April, American officers brought Abdel Majid al-Khoi, the son of another eminent former ayatollah and a man they were backing, to the shrine city of Najaf. On April 10, he was murdered. He had been escorting into the shrine its former custodian, a loathed Baathist who had thrown himself on his mercy. It may be that al-Khoi tried to protect the custodian, against whom Moqtada al-Sadr is said to have harbored a personal grudge. Moqtada was blamed for the killing, a charge his supporters vehemently reject. Whatever the truth, Moqtada hardly conforms to the model of future Iraqi leaders that some Americans naively thought they could put in power. They would not have been reassured by his visit to Iran at the beginning of June, in which he met senior members of the clerical regime. The pro-American secularists they would prefer to deal with are hard to find. Roused by America from their political limbo, Iraqis are enjoying the freedom to reject the political and social choices that the US wants them to accept.


On May 16, outside the al-Mohsen mosque, I heard a cleric called Kazem al-Abadi demand in a sermon that the next Iraqi government be representative—he didn’t explain just what that meant but he called for unity between Shiites and Sunnis, and asserted that religion and politics are the same thing. He issued some specific edicts, too, threatening death for any prostitute, pimp, and liquor dealer who didn’t renounce his or her profession within one week. He promised he would identify looters who didn’t return goods they had stolen. Throughout his speech, al-Abadi referred to the clergy as if it were a monolith for which he was authorized to speak; the Muslims I talked to there came away with the impression that al-Abadi’s words had been approved by senior clerics, including Ayatollah al-Ha’eri in Qom. The tens of thousands of men who sat listening didn’t seem shocked that al-Abadi was issuing what amounted to death sentences. For most Shiites, such ultimatums have great authority because the clergy are seen as men of wisdom, almost omniscient. Furthermore, they argue, protecting public health and morals is what the clergy are for.

After the prayers that followed al-Abadi’s sermon, I visited the house of Hassan al-Naji, the imam of the local mosque. As I waited for our meeting, al-Naji handed out small pieces of paper, chits that can be redeemed for cash from al-Abadi’s representatives. A newspaper I saw in his office, Sound of al-Sadr, announced plans to construct new houses, financed by the clergy, for the families of people who had lost their lives to Hussein’s repression. I asked al-Naji about the blue-uniformed policemen I had seen standing around the mosque, some of them holding AK-47s. They’re not police, he corrected me, but volunteers. Al-Sadr City, he claimed, now has 50,000 such part-time volunteers, some of them assigned to specific mosques, others to whole neighborhoods. Not all of them, it seems, are armed.

Despite a vicious spasm of anti-Baathist revenge killings, everyone agrees that the clerics have made al-Sadr City more secure than the areas of Baghdad under direct American control, where violent crimes and robberies continue unabated. (It is too early to say whether Bremer’s apparent determination to control Iraq more tightly and particularly to reduce crime will meet with success.) Al-Naji told me that the clerics of al-Sadr City had rejected an American suggestion that they join with US troops to police the district. When I asked him about the clergy’s influence, he said, “We issue orders to the people, and they obey.”

For as long as Iraq has no efficiently functioning authority, the claim of Shiite clerics to be the natural arbiters of human affairs for most Iraqis will go unchallenged. Some of these clerics say they are in favor of a kind of Islamic democracy. Their popular legitimacy, they say, is attested to by the crowds that turn out for Friday prayers, and by the flow of supplicants to their doors. They may benefit as well from their associations with the al-Sadr name and from having survived Hussein without fleeing into exile. They have immense authority. Thanks in part to Saddam Hussein and his suppression of independent thought, the people of al-Sadr City are credulous and uneducated. When judging a statement or an opinion, however absurd it may be, they tend to use one criterion: the authority of the teller.

I asked al-Naji about the American failure to stop looting. He said that the occupying forces had brought with them Saudis and Kuwaitis so that they might loot and plunder Iraq’s resources. He claimed that the US had, moreover, shipped five thousand Iraqi exiles to Hungary before the war, for “instruction in the most advanced looting techniques.” As he was handing out his paper chits, al-Naji turned to me and said, “If the Americans were doing their job, I wouldn’t have to give these out.”

Al-Naji’s contempt for the occupiers illustrated, I sensed, his unease at having been delivered from a great enemy by a slightly lesser enemy. For many of the Iraqis I talked to, it seemed that there was something emasculating and unsatisfying about the largely rhetorical freedom that had been conferred on them. And yet that freedom, especially if it is followed, as the Americans insist it will be, by a more participatory kind of liberty, is far from worthless. However ineffective the current US administrators may be, they have not, so far, tried to prevent people from speaking their minds. Al-Naji is enjoying rights that few of his clerical predecessors have known.


Despite their rhetoric, the politically minded clerics and their followers understand this. They also realize that if the occupiers were suddenly to leave, the country could fall into deeper chaos. Even supposed radicals are biding their time. When, on May 19, several thousand Shiites marched in Baghdad, foreign journalists who observed the march disagreed on what message its organizers were trying to send. Some anti-American statements were heard, but probably the march illustrated little more than the ability of some Shiite groups—in this case, supporters of the al-Sadr political tradition—to get people into the streets. Although they made vague demands for self-determination, speakers avoided calling for resistance to the occupiers. No senior cleric seems ready to emulate Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi al-Shirazi, who in 1920 declared service in the British administration to be a violation of religious law. (This edict helped prepare the way for an armed insurrection a few weeks later.)

For the moment, compromise is more likely than confrontation. Since the months preceding the war, the US’s main Shiite interlocutor has been the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), led by the cleric Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, who was for years based in Tehran, and has recently returned to Iraq. The council is now the most important counterweight to the al-Sadr group. Its military wing, the Badr Brigade, which may have as many as ten thousand members, has expressed its readiness to comply with a US order to disarm, but many guns are likely to stay hidden. Despite its disappointment at the dissolution of the seven-man council, the SCIRI has promised to stick to a policy of avoiding confrontation with the occupiers.3 Another group of Shiites, the Islamic Call Party, recently reversed its earlier unwillingness to cooperate with the Americans, but some of its supporters have misgivings. The main Shiite groups are formulating positions, and much can change. To find out more, I went to Najaf, the resting place of the Imam Ali, and the Vatican City of Shiite Islam.


Having spent more time than I care to remember in Iran’s religious citadel, Qom, which has grown prosperous and fat with government patronage, I was surprised by the squalor of Najaf when I arrived there in mid-May. The streets were filthy and the buildings were decaying, I was told, even before the American occupation. Hussein’s government, locals said, deliberately deprived the city of electricity for long periods during the summer, when temperatures rise to over 130 degrees Fahrenheit and ceiling fans make a big difference. This and other measures, they said, were punishment for the Shiite uprising in March 1991, following Iraq’s defeat in the first Gulf War. Responding to a radio broadcast in which the elder George Bush called on Iraqis to “force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside,” the citizens of Najaf rebelled along with other Shiites across southern Iraq.

That year for more than a week, Najaf was free of Saddam Hussein’s control. Ayatollah Abu al-Qasem al-Khoi, Majid’s father and the top grand ayatollah among Shiites at the time, put aside his reluctance to get involved in politics and gave his blessing to the formation of a committee to maintain the peace after a period of looting and lynching. But the Americans were alarmed by reports that Iran was trying to hijack the revolt with a view to turning Iraq into a Shiite Islamic Republic.4 On March 26, 1991, Bush said he would no longer support the rebels, and US forces, who had entered southern Iraq, prevented them from seizing military supplies from government stores. Within a few days, forces loyal to Saddam Hussein, allegedly including the People’s Mujahedin, had taken over both southern Iraq and northern Iraq, where the Kurds had started a rebellion of their own. The insurgents who took refuge in the shrine in Najaf were fired upon and the shrine was damaged. Subterranean tombs, the resting places for Shiites from around the world, were torn apart, ostensibly because rebels were hiding in them. Many of the mass graves now coming to light across the country are thought to contain the bodies of Shiites who were arrested after the rebellion was put down. Hussein later insulted the Shiites by publicizing a bogus family tree alleging his own descent from the Imam Ali, who is recognized as the founder of the Shiite sect.

Saddam Hussein may have exaggerated the importance of clerics to the uprising, but the events of 1991 seem to have reinforced his determination to eliminate the seminaries in Najaf. If you talk to seminarians, you will hear gruesome stories about clerics who were imprisoned, tortured, or executed on suspicion of having participated in the revolt. More than one hundred associates of Ayatollah al-Khoi are said to have disappeared. Other senior clerics were prevented from seeing their followers. Until Hussein’s fall, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who was generally recognized as Shiism’s senior ayatollah after al-Khoi’s death in 1992, was reluctant to leave home because he risked being assassinated. People who came to his house to pay their Islamic taxes and tithes were often harassed or arrested. Ayatollah al-Sistani’s religious rulings had to be smuggled out of Najaf. For more than a decade, he was in the awkward position of being both Shiism’s premier ayatollah in the world—a position that requires uninterrupted contact with fellow clerics and the faithful—and a recluse.

According to seminarians I spoke to, the city had between seven thousand and ten thousand clerics during the 1970s; since then, they estimate, the number has dropped by at least two thirds. An associate of Ayatollah al-Sistani’s, Muhammad al-Haqqani, told me that Najaf now has a mere four mojtaheds—very learned clerics, invariably ayatollahs, who are deemed qualified to exercise their judgment in applying Islamic ordinances. (Qom, on the other hand, has dozens of such clerics.) Some seminarians are said to have acted as informants to Saddam’s secret police; they melted away when the invasion started. (One group of seminarians I met recalled a fellow student who, having attended the seminary for eight years, dropped out when it became known he had a high position in the security apparatus.)

Now that classes are beginning to resume, these students are being supplemented by returning exiles who have been living in Qom. It will be fascinating to see how the seminary will be reconstructed. A central question will be whether Najaf will take back from Qom its former preeminence as a seat of Shiite learning. (My suspicion is that it will, because of its more impressive history and sanctity, but that this will take time.) One thing is clear: now that the seminary has been freed of suffocating Baathism, personal and doctrinal differences are already making themselves felt.

Inside one of Najaf’s oldest seminaries, I heard supporters of the al-Sadr family accuse backers of the Ayatollah al-Hakim and his SCIRI followers of spreading “lies” about Moqtada’s part in al-Khoi’s murder. In the southern city of Basra, which is now being administered by the British, Moqtada’s local representative told me he blames al-Hakim’s Badr Brigade for failing to support a revolt that took place in 1999, when the brigade was based in Iran. On May 12, following his return from exile in Iran to the shrine of Najaf, al-Hakim delivered a speech to an estimated thirty thousand people at the shrine in Najaf in which he not very subtly made a bid for the position of the senior ayatollah in a united seminary. He made clear that he wanted a status even higher than that of the Ayatollah al-Sistani. (His supporters responded with a slogan that people used to chant in honor of Saddam Hussein: “With our soul and our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you, al-Hakim.”) He tried to appeal to Iraqis who were neither Shiites nor Muslims. “People ask me whether I represent the Shiites. I reply: ‘I defend all Iraqis.'”

As far as I can make out, however, al-Hakim enjoys less popularity among urban Shiites than the leaders of the al-Sadr group, but he is influential among some Shiite tribes. On the banks of a salt marsh outside Basra, I met the members of one tribe, the Shaghanba, who said they were strongly for him. Further inquiry revealed that the Shaghanba had deserted en masse from the armed forces during the war with Iran, taking refuge in freshwater marshes that used to cover much of the lower Tigris and Euphrates basins. There they were recruited by the Badr Brigade, which was then active in subversion and sabotage—and also, according to members of a rival tribe, kidnapping and banditry. The Shaghanbas’ loyalty to al-Hakim survived Saddam Hussein’s retribution, which included the destruction of a vast region of marshland and confining tribespeople behind dikes.

Despite such pockets of support, al-Hakim faces difficult obstacles. First, there is the matter of his title of grand ayatollah, which he conferred on himself while he was in Iran. It is, in the eyes of many clerics, invalid. His relations with Iran are too close for many people’s taste. He is protected by Iran-trained goons, unshaven men wearing Western-style suits, who remind Iraqis of his debt to Iran; so do the mass-produced posters, printed in Iran, that lined his serpentine route to Najaf from the Iranian border.

Al-Hakim, it is true, is not the only Iraqi political cleric who has good relations with Iran. The Ayatollah al-Ha’eri, whom Moqtada’s supporters proclaim—again in defiance of the consensus favoring Ayatollah al-Sistani—to be Shiism’s senior ayatollah, is close to Iranian conservatives. But he may be showing signs of independence; he is said to have refused a request by Ayatollah Khamanei, Iran’s supreme leader, that he join forces with al-Hakim. All in all, it is al-Hakim’s dependence on Iran that is most obvious. It diminishes the heroic aura that surrounds his family, which lost twenty-three members in the struggle against Saddam Hussein.

Ideologically, there is little difference between al-Hakim’s SCIRI and the al-Sadr group. Both assert the clergy’s central importance to the workings of government; with some ambiguity both stop short of advocating Iran-style theocracy. Spokesmen for both groups claim to support the “guardianship of the jurist,” the tendentious interpretation of Shiite theology that the Ayatollah Khomeini used in order to justify clerical rule. But they concede that this is unsuitable in a country that, unlike Iran, contains a very substantial Sunni minority. It may be that there are Shiites in both groups who favor Iran-style clerical rule and are silent for fear of being excluded by the US from joining an Iraqi government—whenever that may be formed. They may be nervous, too, that they will provoke American demands that the occupation be prolonged until acceptably secular leaders are in place.

For all the controversy that the politically active clerics have recently generated, the seminary at Najaf has long been dominated by a tradition of political quietism, holding that clerics should not get directly involved in politics. Represented by Ayatollah al-Khoi before his death in 1992, this tradition is now being continued under the leadership of the Ayatollah al-Sistani. According to al-Sistani’s close associate Mohammed al-Haqqani, “The clergy absolutely should stay out of politics, in order to retain its purity.” But it seems to me that his words do not amount to an endorsement of secular government; most Iraqi Shiites believe that religious beliefs should guide legislation, and would regard a government that had not been blessed by the clergy as illegitimate. Rather, al-Haqqani is advocating the abstention of clerics from public office, and an aloofness from the dishonesties of politics. Responding to my question about the Ayatollah al-Hakim and his return from exile, al-Haqqani replied, “The empty drum makes the loudest noise.”

When I asked him why Ayatollah al-Sistani has not spoken out more explicitly, al-Haqqani advised me not to mistake silence for inaction. “He’s leading his people, but without noise.” I understood this to mean that al-Sistani is using his influence to encourage political restraint among other clerics, and to ensure that rhetorical opposition to the Americans does not spill over into violence. In May he issued a religious edict forbidding revenge killings of Baathist officials. He has had a well-publicized meeting with one of Iraq’s two main Kurdish leaders, thus underlining his support for a unified Iraq. As the grand ayatollah, recognized as such by Shiites throughout the world, he has the kind of religious authority to which al-Hakim and al-Ha’eri can only aspire. His political authority is starting to be tested.


When he took power in 1979, Khomeini was faced by quietists, who made up the majority of clerics in Qom. But he outflanked them, steering the clergy toward an unprecedented engagement with public life, and he eventually installed clerics in positions of authority throughout the government. None of Iraq’s current clerical leaders has Khomeini’s combination of political and theological charisma. His emotional hold over Iranians, whom he helped goad into revolution from exile, was more powerful than the tribalist loyalty that Iraqi Shiites might currently feel for al-Hakim, Moqtada al-Sadr, or al-Ha’eri. When Khomeini returned to Iran after fifteen years of exile, most of which he had spent in Najaf, he was greeted by a vast throng of more than a million people. He immediately announced the formation of a “government of God.” When al-Hakim arrived in Basra, his first port of call after he crossed the border into Iraq, he was met by an estimated 40,000 people. His immediate ambitions are more modest.

Although they have no one comparable to Khomeini, the members of Iraq’s clergy currently enjoy the same sort of popularity that the residents of the seminary at Qom had after the Shah’s fall. But even Iraqi theocrats know that corruption and abuse of power have led to a dramatic decline in the prestige of the clergy in Iran. The two thousand–odd Iraqi clerics who were exiled in Qom, and who are now returning home, have witnessed this decline, and are presumably considering ways to avoid a similar fate. But senior clerics have yet to announce their ideas on how, if at all, the views of the clergy, with their claim to speak for millions, can be harmonized with the demands of elective democracy.

Iraq’s American administrators are introducing ambiguities and delays of their own. Now that he has abandoned his plan to set up an interim government, Bremer intends to appoint an advisory council, with perhaps as many as thirty members, that would help the Americans to run the country for an indefinite period. If he can successfully form such a council, Bremer may be able to attract a wider spectrum of Shiite leaders; but he would be well advised not to try to impose American ideas of secularism on them. Donald Rumsfeld’s threats to deal vigorously with Iran-style theocrats are needlessly provocative. Iraq’s large ethnic and sectarian minorities are much more likely to steer the country away from clerical rule.

One challenge for the Shiite groups—especially those, like the SCIRI, that have a long association with the US—will be to convince their supporters that they are not being strung along by American officials who have no intention of handing over power. This, in turn, may put increasing strain on the ability of potential conciliators like Ayatollah al-Sistani to keep the more politically ambitious Shiite leaders from asserting themselves. We know little about his appetite for struggle; it may not equal that of Moqtada al-Sadr.

Partly thanks to American vacillation, the radicals now have the upper hand. At the beginning of May, two Christian liquor dealers were shot dead in Basra in broad daylight. The killings, local people think, were carried out by Shiite groups to warn other violators of Islamic injunctions, and to demonstrate the considerable impotence of the British troops who have reluctantly taken charge of policing the city. (Since then, more than one hundred liquor dealers in Basra are said to have stopped doing business.) Doctors in Basra complain that unqualified hospital administrators have been appointed on the strength of their Shiite faith, while young men have started threatening women who walk the streets without the Islamic head-covering.

Such appointments and such threats were unheard of during the period of Saddam Hussein. Now that he has gone, and no effective governing force has emerged, they will increase in all urban areas where Shiites are well organized. Such tendencies will be reflected at a national level by discussions on, for example, the Islamic content of a new Iraqi constitution. The US administration will eventually have to face the main question raised by its proclaimed desire to bring democracy to the Middle East. What if that democracy threatens to bring to power people whose ideologies, and behavior, contradict the ideals and arrangements promoted by the US?

—June 18, 2003

This Issue

July 17, 2003