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Iraq: Shi'a Shrines Serve As Traditional Counterbalance To Baghdad

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Iraq's vast Shi'a Muslim community and its highly respected religious leaders look set to become a major political force in the post-Saddam Hussein era. This is especially true in the south, where two of their most revered shrines are located. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch spoke to regional experts about the role the holy cities of Karbala and Al-Najaf have traditionally played as counterbalances to the Sunni-dominated central governments that succeeded Ottoman rule. Prague, 14 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims converged this week on the Karbala shrine, in southern Iraq, to pay homage to one of the most revered heroes of the Shi'a Muslim faith.

The march marked the end of the 40-day mourning period commemorating the death of Imam Abu Abdallah al-Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who was killed in Karbala in the year 680 in a fight with troops commanded by the Caliph of Damascus.

For Iraq's some 12 million Shi'a Muslims, who make up 60 percent of the country's population, the event was first and foremost an opportunity to show their religious fervor after decades of repression under the regime of Saddam Hussein. But some influential religious clerics also tried to turn the Karbala pilgrimage into a show of protest against the presence of American and British troops on Iraqi soil.

With the collapse of Hussein's regime and the dissolution of the ruling Ba'ath Party, Shi'a mujtahids and ayatollahs have re-emerged as key sources of social and political power in the south. Located some 100 kilometers from Baghdad, Karbala belongs to the Atabat, or "thresholds," as Iraq's holy cities of Shi'ism are sometimes referred to.

Besides Karbala, the Atabat also includes the southern shrine of Al-Najaf, and the cities of Al-Kazimiyah and Samarra further north.

In addition to their religious character, these cities -- especially Karbala and Al-Najaf -- have been traditional centers of counterpower in Iraq's recent history.

Subhi Toma is an Iraqi-born sociologist who has lived in France for more than 30 years. He tells our correspondent the political character of Iraq's Shi'a shrines stems from the fact that they have always had a much better developed school network than the rest of former Ottoman-ruled Mesopotamia.

In addition, Toma says, Iraq's holy cities enjoyed a number of privileges that helped foster resistance to the Sunni-dominated governments that exerted power in Baghdad after the demise of the Ottoman Empire.

"In fact the opposition [of these cities] to central authorities was the result of privileges they had been enjoying under Ottoman occupation -- [notably] the fact that they were not required to provide soldiers [for the Ottoman army]," Toma said. "These cities were exempted from military conscription and, with the emergence of a centralized state that wanted to draft every [single male citizen], that became an important factor."

Following the end of World War I, the newly created League of Nations entrusted London with the task of administering the three former Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul, which were to form modern Iraq. The foreign mandate formally ended in 1932 when Iraq acceded to independence under the Hashemite monarchy.

In the south, opposition immediately began to form against the emerging Sunni-dominated Iraqi state and its British protectors. Protests and uprisings led by Shi'a religious clerics regularly broke out throughout the 1920s and were crushed by either the fledgling British-trained Iraqi army or the Royal Air Force.

Gareth Stanfield is a research fellow at the British-based University of Exeter's Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. He draws a parallel between the early years of modern Iraqi history and recent protests that have erupted in Karbala and other southern cities demanding the immediate withdrawal of the U.S.-led coalition forces.

"I think it does tie in quite strongly with the fact that the government of Iraq, in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire, was dominated by Sunni elites, British imperialism and by the Sherifians (Hashemites), which did effectively disenfranchise the Shi'a component of society," Stanfield said. "In that sort of time, I think, the Shi'a religious establishment was very traditionally minded and they opposed British imperialism, I suppose, in a quite similar manner as what is happening now, insofar as this is an external involvement and a non-Muslim involvement into the affairs of the community, which is a Muslim community. So really the similarities are quite striking with that in mind."

Confronted with the mujtahids' growing influence, Iraq's secular authorities in the 1920s and 1930s moved to erode their power base by co-opting Shi'a tribal leaders, granting them parliamentary seats and tax exemptions. Iraqi sociologist Toma said: "Indeed, [Iraq's shrines] had a role of counterpower. These cities and people originating from the Shi'a community, from the south, were instrumental in the resistance to British occupation and, later on, in the resistance to [Iraqi] central authorities [in Baghdad]. The monarchy had to give them a share of power to guard against any opposition [the Shi'a] could generate."

With the emergence of prominent lay political figures from within the Shi'a community -- some of whom became cabinet ministers -- the influence of the mujtahids further diminished. Many jurists trained in Sharia Islamic law chose to return to the world of jurisprudence and the focus of Shi'a protests progressively shifted toward combating underrepresentation in state structures.

Later on, however, the revival of Islamic organizations rekindled the influence of senior mujtahids opposed to the more-or-less open socialist orientations of the various regimes that succeeded the monarchy after 1958.

After the institution of the Ba'ath regime in the late 1960s, Baghdad's conflicting relations with Tehran provided ground for increasing repression against the Shi'a community. The Iraqi government expelled thousands of Shi'a across the border with Iran. Schools and universities were closed down, religious endowments were confiscated, and religious processions were outlawed.

Running parallel to this coercion, authorities in Baghdad continued to undermine Shi'a solidarity by dragging selected Shi'a clerics and tribal leaders into their network of patronage -- a trend that culminated after Hussein became president in 1979. During the 1980-1988 war with Iran, the secular Ba'ath regime succeeded in bringing the Shi'a clergy under stricter control, appointing some favored religious leaders to positions of authority and making Shi'a clerics salaried civil servants.

British scholar Stanfield believes the deposed Iraqi leader succeeded to a degree in subduing the influence of Shi'a mujtahids:

"[Hussein] was, actually, relatively successful because what he managed to do was firstly to associate those religious clerics that were opposed to him. He [also] managed to tar them with the brush of being associated with Iran, and Shi'a in Iraq [consider themselves] primarily as Iraqis. I think the notion of Iraqi nationalism [during the war] tended to outweigh Shi'a brotherhood with Iran. [Hussein] also managed to ensure that he got at least the tacit support of the Iraqi ayatollahs. He did it through patronage and extreme coercion, but I think there [was] an acceptance that there [was] a niche within the political system in which they could operate as long as they played by the rules. The rules obviously were extremely rigidly enforced but I think [Hussein] was successful in calming Shi'a tendencies down."

As Stanfield points out, this policy culminated with the crackdown of the 1991 uprising when divisions among the Shi'a community weakened the protest movement, thus facilitating the ruthless repression by Hussein's Republican Guard.

The downfall of the Ba'ath regime has cleared the way for the return of a number of Iraqi Shi'a clerics who have been living in exile in neighboring Iran. The most prominent of them is probably Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, the leader of the Tehran-sponsored Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

Al-Hakim, who is reportedly considering returning to his home country after more than 20 years away, has long called for the institution of an Iranian-style Islamic republic in southern Iraq.

Whether the influence of either SCIRI or its rival Al-Dawa (Islamic Call) organizations -- whose members have also been forced into exile by Hussein -- will outweigh that of domestic clerics in Iraq's Shi'a communities remains an open question. Signs of rifts between the two groups have recently emerged, with some local leaders questioning the legitimacy of the returnees.

All the same, sociologist Toma says no future Iraqi government will be in a position to ignore the re-emergence of Shi'a clerics as a secular political force.

"It is a factor that will have to be taken into account," Toma said. "I believe that whatever the power mechanisms that will emerge in Iraq, it will be impossible to ignore these movements, particularly the movement that has existed inside the country. For the past 10 days or so we have been witnessing a kind of repetition of what happened [during the civil war] in south Lebanon when domestic ayatollahs took control over schools and hospitals. Of course some would object that Iraq is going through a temporary crisis. But in other countries, temporary crises have led [ayatollahs] to fulfill social functions and subsequently remain an indispensable political force."

On 10 April, Shi'a cleric Sheikh Abdel Majid al-Khoi was murdered in Al-Najaf's central shrine, the tomb of Imam Ali, just hours after returning to Iraq after many years in exile.

A few days later, an angry crowd laid siege to the home of Ayatollah Ali Hussein al-Sistani in Al-Najaf, demanding that he leave the country. Order was restored only after armed Shi'a tribesmen entered the city and dispersed the crowd.

Toma believes vying for influence over Iraq's Shi'a community will continue to pit domestic and exiled clerics against each other until a new government -- which the U.S. has said should represent all components of Iraqi society -- emerges from the ruins of Hussein's regime.

"This mobilization will take spectacular forms," says Toma, "as each group will attempt to prove that it is more representative than the other."