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Monday | July 21, 2003

The Shia debate

By Steve Gilliard

While there is no clear agreement on how to deal with the Americans, the Shia are debating which kind of future they want.

"I don't think America would want to be occupied by Iraqis," Sabih said at a sermon on July 11. "We receive orders from the Hawza [religious scholars]. When they say we should be martyrs, we will. But we are waiting now to see what will be."

The question of what will be is creating a duel between mullahs in Iraq and dividing the Shiite community, which makes up more than 60 percent of the population. While there are signs that more moderate views are prevailing - with key Shiite leaders engaging in the new US-created governing process - the collapse of Saddam Hussein has unleashed a swirling free-for-all of religion and politics.

The results of this Shiite debate matter to US forces, which come under attack up to 25 times each day across Iraq. Most assailants, US and British officials say, are diehard Sunni Muslim Hussein loyalists.

But any concerted anti-US military push by the majority Shiites could unravel the occupation. Conversely, the Shiites can play a critical role in stabilizing Iraq, if they embrace US reconstruction and governance plans.


Privately, Hakim's aides go further in discussing the Shiite divisions, and say they hinge on how to deal with the Americans, how to turn the Shiite majority into real political power, and how to strike a balance between religion and politics. They also talk about the best way to aim for an Islamic state, or one that at least deeply respects Islam.

"Those who want to push us to take on the Americans these days will be restricted," says one Hakim aide, making a jibe at Sadr. "But if they think they are the most powerful, they will make a mistake, because no one will follow them."

Sadr's answer is based on the influence of Ayatollah Kadhim Husseini Haeri, a hard-line cleric based in Iran's holy city of Qom.

"Sadr's people always want to be at the forefront, the leaders of this nation," says an Iraqi Shiite observer from Karbala. "They want to be close to the Iranian experience, and to Hizbullah, which made something for the Shiites in Lebanon," the observer says. "But Iraqis don't want to replace one dictatorship with another. Most Shiites want democracy in Iraq, but in a peaceful way."

The Shias don't want a war, and a lot of Sadr's bombast is for effect, but they know charismatic leaders have a power beyond their message. Hakim and Sistani are older, wiser and want to take power from the US using elections. Sadr wants elections as well, but like many young people, has no patience. The difference is tactical, not political. All agree that the US has to go. How is the only matter of debate. Seeing a bunch of divisions there misses the points where they agree and that is going to be far more of a problem for Viceroy Jerry and his team than Sadr's footstomping.

Posted July 21, 2003 12:57 PM


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