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Iraq: Concerns In Washington Rise Over Shi'ite Calls For An Islamic State

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Protests by Iraqi Shi'ites have sparked concerns that the U.S. war for the "liberation" of Iraq may give rise to an Islamic state inspired by Iran -- hardly the American ideal of a free society. From Washington, RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports that U.S. officials insist the new Iraqi state must respect the rights of all ethnic and religious groups.

Washington, 22 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The sounds of freedom -- pilgrims chanting -- are ringing through Iraq. Ironically, they are sounds unfamiliar to the American ear.

After more than three decades of repression under former leader Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Shi'ite majority is reclaiming cherished religious practices that would have brought them persecution and even death before Saddam's fall just a few weeks ago.

Over the past week or so, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shi'ites -- many of them on foot over hundreds of kilometers -- have been converging on the cities of Karbala and Al-Najaf in a pilgrimage that was restricted for years under the former regime.

The gathering, which culminates tomorrow, marks the 7th century martyrdom of Hussein, a grandson of Islam's Prophet Muhammad.

Yet it could also symbolize the rebirth of Iraq's Shi'ites. Making up 60 percent of Iraq's ethnically fragmented populace, the Shi'ites look set to be a major force in a country that Washington wants to make a democratic model for the Middle East.

The question is whether Shi'ites want democracy as it is understood in the Western world, where separation of religion and politics forms the basis of representative government.

Kenneth Katzman is a Middle East expert with the U.S. Congressional Research Service in Washington. "The politicized Shi'ite Islamists, who maybe don't want to see a strong separation [of religion and state], appear to be ascendant right now," he said. "And it's not clear yet to me whether the United States is going to try to block their ascendancy or work with it in cooperation somehow. How that's decided will tell me how the future of Iraq plays out."

But Iraqi Shi'ites are themselves divided by rivalries and divergent loyalties as well as over the role of religious leaders in political life.

Shi'ite cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoi was murdered in Al-Najaf on 10 April -- apparently by Shi'ite rivals -- after returning from exile in London.

And Iraq's top Shi'ite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, temporarily went into hiding after armed gangs surrounded his house in Al-Najaf earlier this month. Al-Sistani reportedly favors Islamic clerics staying out of political office. But a young rival in Al-Najaf -- Moqtada Sadr, the 22-year-old son of a famous Shi'ite leader who was assassinated in 1999 -- is seeking a leading role for himself in politics.

Then there's SCIRI, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Based in Iran, SCIRI refused to join a recent U.S.-led meeting on forming an interim Iraqi authority. Its popular leader, Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, who is still in Iran, has urged American troops to leave Iraq as soon as possible.

Pilgrims heading to Karbala and Al-Najaf on 21 April carried portraits of al-Hakim, al-Sistani, Sadr's father, Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr, and other rival clerics.

Shireen Hunter directs the Islam program at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. She cautions against seeing Shi'ites as politically uniform.

"The same kind of tribal, clan, family, other connections that exist in the rest of Iraq exist also among the Shi'as," she said. "So, therefore, you might be both Shi'ites, you know, but you might hate each other's guts because your tribes are ancestral enemies, or your families have gotten into disagreement. This is one element that you have to realize."

Thomas Carothers agrees. An analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Carothers told a conference on Iraq last week that: "The Shi'as are hardly unified. There are many different currents or movements within them. Any kind of Shi'a government would be by nature a coalition government, which would have harder-line elements, softer-line elements, and moderates, and so by nature it would be a coalition which would be constantly shifting and breaking apart."

Still, televised images of pilgrims shouting that they want to be governed by the Hawza -- the major school of Iraqi clerics in Al-Najaf -- are certain to give some pause to Americans wondering whether the war to "liberate" Iraq -- as U.S. President George W. Bush phrases it -- hasn't in fact opened the floodgates to a possible Islamic state that is hostile to Western values and U.S. interests.

But if it has, that's nothing more than democracy, says Imam Hassan Qazwini, the head of the Islamic Center of America in Detroit. Qazwini tells RFE/RL: "Democracy means the choice of people. If people choose to have an Islamic government, I think then we have to respect that. If the people give a chance to an Islamic party to rule, then we have to respect that."

Ahmed Chalabi, a U.S.-backed exile who is a leader of the opposition Iraqi National Congress (INC), mostly agrees. A secular Shi'ite, Chalabi acknowledged on 20 April in Baghdad that Islamic parties will take part in the new government because they have large constituencies.

But Chalabi added that democratic systems should not persecute their minorities. He said Iraq needs a liberal, democratic constitution to prevent religious parties from establishing an Islamic state that runs roughshod over the rights of Iraq's other main groups -- the Sunnis and Kurds.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld expressed similar views yesterday. Both said at briefings that because democracy is not a winner-takes-all system, all of Iraq's ethnic and religious groups should have a say in a society that is fair, free, and open.

Rumsfeld was then asked whether the U.S. would accept what some Iraqi Shi'ite groups such as SCIRI appear to want -- that is, an Islamic state along the lines of Iran. Rumsfeld said: "I don't think that I would characterize what's going on in Iran as a democratic system. I don't think I would say that it fits the principles that I have just indicated. I think there are an awful lot of people in Iran who feel that that small group of clerics that determine what takes place in that country is not their idea of how they want to live their lives."

Some analysts worry that Iraq could end up like Afghanistan. There, a quick peace was reached after the war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda by leaving some warlords in control in the provinces. Meanwhile, the de facto authority of the new president, Hamid Karzai, does not extend far beyond the capital, Kabul.

Katzman of the Congressional Research Service says many places in the Shi'ite south of Iraq already appear to be coming under the control of Islamic clerics. Coupled with Kurdish autonomy in the north, Iraq could emerge as a "patchwork" of power centers, much like Afghanistan.

"It could be that Shi'ite Islamists rule from Najaf behind the scenes like [former Taliban leader] Mullah Omar ruled out of Kandahar behind the scenes," Katzman said. "It just happens de facto, it happens ad hoc. You could have an INC leadership in Baghdad that controls Baghdad alone, like Karzai controls Kabul and not much more."

Later this week, representatives of Iraq's different ethnic and religious groups will again gather under U.S. auspices to discuss the formation of an interim authority, the U.S. State Department announced yesterday.

The location of this second meeting, which follows last week's initial gathering in Al-Nasiriyah, has yet to be disclosed. Nor is it yet known whether SCIRI will again stage a boycott.