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Monday | June 30, 2003

The Shia debate and wait

The most important decision in the occupation of Iraq is being made, not in Bremer's Cloud Cookoo land on the Tigris, but in Najaf and Sadr City.

Here's today's pronouncements from Viceroy Jerry

The attacks "are a sign of weakness," he said of those responsible for them, adding, "And I think we have to anticipate that as we succeed, we will continue to see attacks, and indeed you may find an escalation to terrorism as we go forward."

Of attacks in recent days on civilians cooperating with the allies, he said, "They may be targeting civilians as a way to intimidate people from working on reconstruction." But he added, "I'm not prepared to say we're entering a new phase yet."

Well, at least Viceroy Jerry's an optimist. He may see Iraq in a way no Iraqi, US soldier or reporter does, but at least he's hopeful. However, he's got a problem which makes daily ambushes look like a cakewalk. The Shia clerics, roughly divided into two factions, the Sadr faction, which is more radical, and the Sistani-Hakim faction, which has tried to wait for the US to decide on elections.

Let's not be fooled. Elections will place a Shia cleric or their supporter in charge of Iraq. Viceroy Jerry and his bosses in the Pentagon want nothing of the sort to happen. It's easy to be cavalier about this, and think they're chomping at the bit to kill some infidels, but the opposite is true. They know those mass graves are filled with dead Shia. They do not want another war. But colonialism is not acceptable. Which is why there's been no Shia action against the feyadeen or the volunteers. They know they can contain the threat of a irredentist Saddam movement, with or without US help. But they don't want the US to get too settled.

The Nerve Center

The Hikma Mosque ....... looks much like the slum's other 80 mosques. It is distinct, however, in that it is the nerve center of a movement trying to alter the traditions of Iraq's Shiite clerics, who have long eschewed politics -- exceedingly dangerous under Hussein -- for a spiritual calling.

.................. Within the seminary -- known as the Hawza -- they describe themselves as the "outspoken Hawza," a term propagated by Sadr himself.

"It is not possible for the Hawza to be silent before the people," said Mohammed Fartousi, the head of the Hikma office.


Sadr's men ....... dismiss his traditional, apolitical approach as weak at best, risking the interests of Iraq's Shiite majority at worst. They suspect that he favors Iranian students over their Iraqi counterparts and question where he spends the vast revenue he receives from the khoms.

Asked if Sistani had Iraq's best interests at heart, Shahmani paused, then said only, "That's a very difficult question."

Sistani and his allies -- including Mohammed Bakir Hakim, a lesser-ranking ayatollah who leads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a once-exiled group long based in Iran -- are no less dismissive. They stop short of even acknowledging Sadr's existence -- to do so would confer the kind of clout that, in their world, comes only from decades of rigorous, Aristotelian scholarship. Recognition of the success of Sadr's movement would, in effect, reformulate the very idea of what constitutes power within religious Shiite politics

Iraqi politics is factional, and always has been. The one thing that should be understood is that while the factions argue about the kind of government which should be elected or who should serve in it, they all agree with one central theme: self-government as soon as possible. Bremer's plan for a council is not only dead on arrival, it may be a trigger to spark total non-cooperation with the CPA.

Iraq cleric condemns US plans

Iraq's most senior Shia cleric has issued a religious ruling, or fatwa, opposing US plans to set up a council of Iraqis to draft a new constitution.
Ayatollah Ali Sistani called for general elections in the country to choose representatives of the Iraqi people instead.

The US administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, plans to set up a new political council as the next step towards a future Iraqi government, but BBC regional analyst Sadeq Saba says the Ayatollah's ruling is a serious blow to the American plans.

Despite the debate about the role of clerics in politics, it's clear that both factions are moving closer together on a fundamental opposition to any CPA-run council. And this is hardly limited to the Shia alone. The Sunni tribal chiefs and technocrats also agree that a CPA run council is unacceptable.

US officials want to pretend that the Shia clerics can be routed around and they can't. They command the loyalty of the majority of Iraqis and regardless of our opinions, these are educated, thoughtful people who are going to determine their future. Sadr's people are doing what the CPA was supposed to do, provide basic relief and limited security. Sistani and Hakim, while refusing to deal with the CPA, have given them a chance to do what they promised. Instead, they have suffered through three months of misadministration.

Time and again, Viceroy Jerry says one thing in the glib, company man way, favored inside the Beltway and the Shia clerics talk like serious men. They haven't rushed to kick the infidels out, or tell everyone to ignore them. They haven't acted like fanatics. But they are not men to be triffled with or ignored. Saddam came after them hard and failed. The US does not frighten them. It would serve us well to deal with these men before they decide to deal with us.

Just consider, guerrilla war in the Sunni belt is giving us fits. A Shia rebellion would start a war against the occupation we would be hardpressed to fight, much less win.

Steve Gilliard

Posted June 30, 2003 06:06 PM | Comments (38)


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