Periodic marches in Baghdad by Iraqi Shi'ites demanding an Islamic state underline one of the main tensions in Iraqi politics -- the disagreement between secular and Islamist parties over what kind of society Iraq should be. An RFE/RL correspondent in Baghdad spoke with a representative of one of the best-organized religious groups, the Shi'ite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).
Baghdad, 5 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) is the main political party of Iraq's Shi'ite Muslims, who make up some 60 percent of the population.
Ahmad Ali al-Hafadgi is a member of SCIRIs organizational committee. Speaking to RFE/RL from SCIRIs headquarters in Baghdad, he said his group would implement an Islamic order in Iraq if it obtains a majority in any future election for a sovereign Iraqi government. "We call to enforce the Islamic order. Some other movements have a similar point of view because the majority of [Islamic movements in Iraq] are Shi'a," he said.
SCIRI calls for the imposition of Islamic law, or Shari'a, in Iraq and for Islamic religious leaders to decide important questions of state based upon interpretations of religious principles.
The group was formed in 1980 by an Iraqi Shi'ite cleric, Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, who fled to Iran after being tortured for political activities by the former regime of Saddam Hussein. Now a grand ayatollah, al-Hakim waged a 20-year war against Hussein, fighting against him in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and later routinely conducting cross-border guerrilla operations in predominantly Shi'a southern Iraq.
Al-Hafadgi is vague in explaining just what an "Islamic order" would mean in Iraq, perhaps because he is sensitive to U.S. concerns about SCIRI's agenda and the group's ties to Tehran. He said, without elaborating, that the political system in Iraq would be different from that in Iran, where Muslim clerics have the upper hand in all state and public affairs.
Instead, he said SCIRI is due to publish its program soon and explain. He declined to comment on what imposing Shari'a in Iraq would mean for women's rights, as well as on what punishments might be instituted for alcohol use, thievery, adultery, and other behavior often strictly regulated under Shari'a law.
The Bush administration has repeatedly ruled out any Iranian-style theocracy for Iraq and charged Iran with seeking to meddle in Iraqi politics. But U.S. officials have left the door open to Islamic participation in Iraqi politics and even an Islamic government, provided it is democratic. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell recently told U.S.-funded Radio Sawa that "democracy can co-exist with any faith."
Al-Hafadgi said, if in power, SCIRI would rule in a democratic way and "would allow the Sunni, the Kurds, and other religious minorities to worship god in their way." But he insists that Muslim society is fundamentally different from the West and that Western-style secularism would not fit Iraq.
"There is no difference between politics and religion [as it is present in the West] in our point of view. Who said that politics should be secular? Islam is a religion of work and politics," al-Hafadgi said.
Asked about the organization's relations with other secular political parties in Iraq, SCIRI officials say their group is ready to share power in a parliamentary system while working toward an Islamist future. Washington has included SCIRI along with other former exile political groups -- and the two Iraqi Kurdish factions -- in leadership talks on Iraq's future.
Asked specifically about SCIRI's relations with the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a leading secular party co-founded by Ahmad Chalabi, al-Hafadgi said the groups can work together. "Will we abolish Chalabi's party if we win the election [for a future Iraqi government]? It is not possible because we will have a civil war and the Americans will return," he said.
At the moment, it is unclear how much of a governmental role U.S. officials are prepared to turn over to any Iraqi political groups in the near future. The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) recently reversed an earlier plan to convene a national conference of Iraqis to choose representatives to work with the authority in an advisory role.
CPA chief L. Paul Bremer is reported to have told Iraqi political groups that U.S. officials will instead select members for an advisory council some six weeks from now. U.S. officials have said privately that the council could advise the authority on economic and political issues and appoint advisers to Iraqi ministries to work with the ministries' U.S. overseers. Many analysts believe any fully sovereign Iraqi government could be at least a year or more away.
Al-Hafadgi is quick to say that SCIRI has no problems with the U.S., who overthrew their mutual enemy, Saddam Hussein. But his group -- and other Iraqi parties -- have strongly criticized the CPA's cancellation of the national conference.
He said the U.S. has failed to set up the kind of post-Hussein government that Iraqis had envisioned. "We don't have any problems [with the Americans, but] it was the Americans who did not fulfill their promises. They did not establish the coalition government as we have agreed with them," al-Hafadgi said.
Another point of disagreement between SCIRI and the U.S. is the future of 10,000 SCIRI fighters, the so-called Badr Brigade. The U.S. has demanded they give up their arms and disband as part of a general disarmament of the Iraqi citizenry. U.S. forces recently declared a two-week amnesty period in which Iraqis can turn over weapons in an effort to improve law and order in the country.
Al-Hafadgi said the situation in Iraq is too unsafe now to disband the Badr Brigade, but that in the future the fighters will become "some kind of a peaceful humanitarian organization." He said he can "swear by all gods that the members of the Badr Brigade did not threaten anybody in Iraq and did not put a gun at someone's head."
It is too early to measure the success of the weapons amnesty. But U.S. soldiers patrolling Baghdad at night are still being shot at, in the majority of cases with light arms.
SCIRI is the most powerful Shi'a political force, but not the only one. Al-Da'wah al-Islamiyah (Islamic Call), once an integral part of SCIRI, is today an independent force. Other Shi'a groups have coalesced around other prominent Shi'ite clerics.
Baghdad's Shi'a are well-informed about SCIRI and say it is an organization respected for its fighting and sacrifice during Hussein's rule.
Nadgi, a Shi'a, is a vendor in central Baghdad. He told RFE/RL: "The biggest sacrifices that the Iraqis made in the days of Saddam were committed by SCIRI members. [People] who were executed during Saddam's rule were [mainly] the supporters of SCIRI."
The mood is completely different among the Sunnis. Hussein, who sells car parts in Baghdad, is a Sunni. He said the Shi'a were never in power in Iraq and with God's help, never will be.