Prague, 24 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The assassination of one of Iraq's leading Shiite Muslim clerics has brought tensions between the country's majority Shiite population and the ruling Baath party to their highest point since the Gulf War.
Iraqi security forces are now reported to have fully suppressed rioting that broke out in half a dozen cities for three days following the announcement last Friday that Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadek al-Sadr and his two sons had been shot by unknown gunmen in the southern city of Najaf.
The government said the killings were the work of foreign agents seeking to provoke unrest among the Shiites, which form 60 percent of Iraq's population. But Shiites universally blamed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The reason: al-Sadr is the third senior Shiite cleric to be killed by unknown gunmen in Iraq in the past year.
Iraqi opposition groups outside the country unanimously reported that dozens of Shiites were killed in clashes between Shiite civilians and security forces in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad and in some six Shiite cities and towns in central and southern Iraq. The Iraqi government has denied any clashes occurred, and independent confirmation of the extent of the unrest is not yet available.
Leith Kubba -- an expert on Iraq at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. -- says that mass unrest broke out over the killing of al-Sadr for two reasons. The first was the cleric's personal popularity. The second is long-standing anger within the Shiite community over what it sees as Saddam's deliberate policy of excluding them from any positions of power within the country.
"[Al-Sadr] was the only Shiite cleric who had some public role to play; he held Friday prayers; he developed direct access and contacts with other imams [religious leaders] of other mosques; he had nearly 3,000 students under his auspices. So ... people were attached to him because they saw him on a day-to-day basis [and] he played a role in their life. That is the reason people reacted."
Al-Sadr was considered by Iraqi Shiites to be one of the country's leading religious models for emulation. That title is bestowed by Shiites upon clerics who are recognized by their peers as exceptionally learned and who attract large numbers of religious students. The status gives its holder broad influence over the community, which looks to him for both religious and non-religious guidance.
Analysts say that Saddam had originally welcomed al-Sadr's becoming the Shiites' spiritual leader in 1992 after the natural death of his predecessor. One reason was Saddam's desire to encourage Iraqi nationalism. Al-Sadr's family roots are Arab, while Iraq's other leading Shiite cleric -- Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani -- is of Iranian descent.
But al-Sadr may have proved to be too independent-minded for Saddam, who has systematically eliminated rivals in Iraq whom he feels are growing powerful enough to threaten him.
Rend Rahim Francke -- an expert on Iraqi politics at the Iraq Foundation in Washington, D.C. -- says al-Sadr was prepared to acquiesce to some government restrictions but refused to relinquish his independence.
"In 1998, there were two assassinations of Shi'a models of emulation in Iraq and one attempted assassination and ... probably Ayatollah al-Sadr -- instead of being cowed and browbeaten by this -- may have felt it was his duty to give heart to the Shi'a community and give them some moral support after these assassinations."
A few weeks before his assassination, al-Sadr defied bans on leading Friday prayers in the preeminate mosque of the Shiite shrine city of Najaf. He also encouraged Shiites to try to break the ban on attending mosques in Iraq's other shrine city of Karabala. Saddam's government has traditionally banned such gatherings because they can attract tens of thousands of people and are highly emotional. Baghdad fears they could catalyze simmering Shiite unrest.
Shiite anger with the regime comes from the belief that it deliberately keeps them in the subordinate position they have historically held in Iraq, compared with the country's Muslim Sunni minority. Saddam -- a Sunni by origin who bases his power on family and clan loyalties -- has purged the Shiite from the country's ruling secular Baath party and excluded them from the bureaucracy and his security forces.
Rend Rahim Francke says that -- among the 15 provinces under the regime's control -- only one has a Shiite governor, even though 10 of the provinces have majority Shiite populations. She also says there are no more than eight Shiite generals in the army, while the Republican Guard and the intelligence services are devoid of Shiite officers.
The Baath regime's subordination of the Shiites was particularly severe in the late 1970s, when it ordered the deportation of at least 150,000 Shiites from Iraq. The deportees -- many from the community's leading merchant families -- were stripped of citizenship and trucked to the Iranian border, which they were ordered to march across. Since then, Saddam has appeared to follow a policy of periodically culling the Shiite leadership, beginning with the execution in 1980 of a cousin of al-Sadr, the Ayatollah Mohammad Bakr Al-Sadr.
Last weekend's protests are the most significant unrest Saddam has faced in the Shiite community since an armed Shiite revolt in southern Iran in 1991. That revolt followed the Iraqi army's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War against a multinational coalition that evicted it from Kuwait.
But analysts say unrest over the killing of al-Sadr is not likely to pose an immediate threat to the regime. Anger in the Shiite community has helped fuel several armed militant Islamic rebel groups, which are based in neighboring Iran and Syria. But the population at large feels too vulnerable to maintain unarmed protests against Saddam's security forces for long.
"It is very dangerous because without some kind of outside help, the Shi'a on their own could never stand up to the tanks and shelling and bombardment which Saddam is more than happy to use [against them]."
The Shiite community now must decide who will be their next spiritual leader. And that cleric will have to decide how he can guide the community and provide it hope without sacrificing his life in the process.