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Iraq: Shia Majority Hopes For Greater Share Of Power After Saddam

  • Charles Recknagel

Iraq's Shia Muslims compose the majority of the country's population, but the community has long been eclipsed by Iraq's more powerful Sunni Muslim minority. Some of the worst treatment of the Shia has come at the hands of President Saddam Hussein, who punished them severely for revolting in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War. Now, as talk of war between the U.S. and Iraq mounts, many Shia are looking to Washington for change.

Prague, 27 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq's Shia, long relegated to second place by Sunni-dominated governments in Baghdad, are increasingly looking toward Washington as their best hope for a greater share of power in the future.

The Shia, estimated to compose some 60 percent of Iraq's population, live mostly in the south of the country and share religious, but not ethnic, ties with Iran. Iraq's central governments, drawn from the more prosperous Sunni minority, have often sought to marginalize the Shia politically by claiming they have conflicting allegiances to Iraq and Iran, a charge the Shia reject.

Many Shias say official discrimination against them has reached a peak under Saddam Hussein, who has encouraged rivalries between Iraq's major groups -- Shia, Sunni, and Kurds -- as a way to diminish threats against his own regime.

Hussein, who is a Sunni by origin and bases his power on family and clan loyalties, has purged the Shia from the ruling secular Ba'th Party and excluded them from the bureaucracy and security forces. Iraq's elite armored fighting units, the Republican Guards, are almost exclusively composed of Sunni officers and soldiers. The poorly equipped regular army is made up mostly of Shia infantry with Sunni officers.

Now, as prospects mount for a U.S.-led military campaign against Saddam, Shia leaders outside of Iraq are developing ties with Washington to assure their place in any new order. The ties are being forged amid U.S. efforts to encourage Iraqi exile opposition groups to work together to build popular resistance to Saddam within Iraq and to promote a democratic and federal model for the country in the future.

The growing relations between Shia groups in exile and Washington surprise some observers because the most powerful of those groups are based in Iran -- which Washington considers a hostile state. Some of the groups -- notably the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) -- are militarily equipped and trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

Shahram Chubin, a regional expert at the Geneva Center for Security Policy in Switzerland, said that both SCIRI and Tehran have decided the armed Shia opposition group should cooperate with Washington to build its future influence in Iraq. "Since the Iranians do expect there will be a war, they want to have some influence in Iraq. And what better way to do it than through this one institution [SCIRI] that they have? Hence their willingness to have SCIRI go to London and talk," Chubin said.

SCIRI was a major player at last month's Iraqi opposition talks in London. The talks -- attended by U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad -- chose a council of 65 members to coordinate future Iraqi opposition activities. SCIRI named the appointees to the 33 percent of the council seats that were reserved for Shia Islamists, assuring its dominance of the Shia opposition movement.

Chubin said Tehran gave SCIRI approval to work with Washington because Iran -- while uneasy about being encircled by the U.S. in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and now possibly Iraq -- does not oppose toppling Saddam. "There is no inherent tension between American interests in postwar Iraq and Iranian interests in postwar Iraq, since they both want a stable, moderate, relatively well-integrated-into-the-region Iraq. It's only on the very broad things beyond that [that they differ] -- you know, will [post-Saddam Iraq] be pro-American or anti-Iranian?"

Iran's ties with SCIRI date back to the group's growth in the wake of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. During that conflict, Iraq's Shia fought loyally against the Iranians. But after the war, SCIRI's leader, Ayatollah Muhammad Bakir Hakim, recruited Shia from among Iraqi POWs in Iran to launch a resistance movement against Hussein. SCIRI is estimated today to have some 30,000 to 40,000 fighters.

SCIRI's recruitment -- as well as overall Shia resentment of Saddam -- grew following Baghdad's severe crackdown on the Shia uprising in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War. The crackdown included Saddam's forces bombarding Shia holy shrines in Najaf and Karbala as they routed rebels from those cities.

But if SCIRI is now strategically aligning itself with Washington, it remains unclear how much of a following the group has within Iraq itself. Many exiled Shias say Ayatollah Hakim is suspect in the Iraqi Shia community because of his close ties to Iran and that he is only one of many potential post-Saddam Shia leaders.

Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a Shia activist in London, said many Shia fear that SCIRI's Tehran connection will only perpetuate outsider perceptions that the Shia have divided loyalties. "Shias in general do not want SCIRI to be the sole representative of the Shia in Iraq because we do not want to go back to square one, whereby if [other Iraqi or U.S. officials] want to talk to the Shia of Iraq, they talk to them through Iran. This is our Achilles' heel, if you like. We have always been accused of being pro-Iranian, that our allegiance, if you like, is not toward Iraq but toward across the border," he said.

He also said that Shias do not trust any efforts by Iran to portray itself as a protector of Shia interests, partly because of bitter experiences during the 1991 rebellion. Many Iraqi Shia blame both the United States and Iran for failing to come to the aid of Iraqis revolting against Saddam's regime.

"[From] before the (1991) uprising to after the uprising, the Shia community has changed dramatically. [During the uprising,] the Shia were looking for Iran to help them and to intervene on their behalf to help them materially and logistically. But the Shia were disappointed and let down by Iran, as well as by the United States," al-Rubaie said.

He continued, "They were not given that help to the extent that Saddam and his Republican Guards bombed the shrines of the Shia, which is the most sacred thing for them, and the Iranians, who share the same [Shia religious] doctrine, the same respect for those shrines, they did not do anything."

Other Iraqi exiles say the Shia do not broadly support SCIRI because of its long-standing calls for an Islamic revolution in Iraq to create a state similar to the Islamic Republic of Iran. That state is based on the principle of supreme clerical authority over the government, something Iraq has never had.

Muhammad Abdel-Jabbar is a Shia politician and a leader of an Iraqi Islamic democratic party based in London. He said that SCIRI has recently stopped talking about creating supreme clerical leadership in Iraq in an apparent effort to distance itself from charges it is an Iranian creation. "Recently, they stopped talking about 'Velayat-e Faqih,' the supreme authority of the religious leader, and this might be considered as a gesture of distancing themselves from Iran," he said.

Abdel-Jabbar said many Shia politicians in exile like himself are now putting pressure on Washington to broaden the 65-member council created by the Iraqi opposition meeting in London. He said they want more room for non-SCIRI appointees, and that they are willing to accept the dominance of SCIRI only in the short term. "We would not accept this authority of the SCIRI [for a long time]. Just for this period of time we accept that just to maintain our unity. But after that we would say, look people, elections are the main factor which decides what is what inside Iraq."

At the moment, it is unclear to what extent the exiled opposition's coordinating council might be expanded. Many analysts believe it could be expanded from 65 members to 100 at an upcoming opposition conference to be held in northern Iraq. Reuters reported today that the conference, delayed repeatedly by security and visa problems, could be held in mid-February near the town of Irbil.

But even as Shia politicians in exile wrestle over representation issues, some observers believe that the most important future Shia leaders may come, not from abroad, but from within Iraq itself.

Those potential leaders could, among others, include members of the family of the widely respected Ayatollah Muhammad Sadek al-Sadr, who was assassinated by presumed agents of Saddam in Najaf in 1999. Al-Sadr's assassination sparked three days of rioting by Shias in several Iraqi cities, including Baghdad. He was regarded as a moderate who sought to keep up Shia morale by defying government bans on large Shia gatherings for Friday prayers. Baghdad banned the gatherings for fear they could be catalysts for Shia unrest.

If strong new Shia leaders do emerge inside Iraq, the current maneuvering between Washington, SCIRI, and other Shia leaders in exile may only be a prelude to far more intense political jockeying once the U.S. launches any action against Baghdad.

Washington has refused to say whether or not it will lead a military campaign against Iraq, but has said repeatedly that time is running out for the UN arms inspection process. U.S. officials have said that any campaign against Baghdad will remove Saddam's regime and replace it with a democratic, parliamentary government in which all of Iraq's communities can share power.