America Encounters the Shiite
The military campaign against Iraq was carried out with speed and determination. Overall, it was a giant success. Now, however, the United States is faced with an even more formidable task, that of nation-building in a country rife with ethnic and sectarian strife and traumatized by years of war and brutal state violence. The celebrations in the streets and the warm reception given to some American soldiers soon gave way to looting and chaos. The war is over. Reality is once again sinking in.
The United States has a great task ahead of itself. It is now the occupying power of a Middle Eastern country which includes a Shiite majority that comprises nearly sixty percent of Iraq 's population. America simply cannot afford to neglect this vast segment of Iraqi society. There have already been anti-American demonstrations from Shiite Iraqis, who though brutally repressed by Saddam Hussein, now oppose any American presence in their country. The most vivid expression of anti-American sentiment occurred in the holy Shiite city of Karbala , when over a million pilgrims performed the long-banned Ashura ceremony commemorating the martyrdom of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Many at the ceremony, while appreciative to be rid of Saddam Hussein, voiced their opposition to any continued American role in Iraq .
Some Shiite religious leaders have even voiced their support for the imposition of shari'a and the creation of an Islamic state in Iraq . Such sentiments, coupled with shouts of "Death to America !" have sent shockwaves throughout the media and the foreign policy establishment, with many accusing the Administration of underestimating the organizational strength of the conservative Shiite clergy. America and its allies went to Iraq to disarm the Ba'athist regime. The last thing that the United States desired and what it now most fears is an Islamic Republic of Iraq closely allied with neighboring Iran . Washington must make it very clear that it in no way will allow for an Iranian-style theocracy as a replacement for Ba'athism. This, of course, in no way precludes vast Shiite participation in the new Iraqi government.
During the course of the military campaign, the United States and Iran had a mutual understanding in which Iran would stay out of the war in exchange for American military strikes against the Mujahideen e-Khalq, an Iranian Marxist-Islamic opposition group that maintained paramilitary bases in Iraq as a staging ground for terrorist attacks against Teheran. With Iranian agents now entering Iraq and promoting many of the anti-American rallies, it would appear that the brief moment of tacit cooperation between Washington and Teheran has come to an end.
Those Shiite clerics most adamant about the promotion of Islam in a post-war Iraq do not represent all Shiite Iraqis, and especially not the large number of the more secular Shiite intellectual and professional class in Baghdad and outside Iraq . Likewise, there is nothing intrinsically anti-American about even the more religious members of the Iraqi Shiite community. Indeed, a number of Shiite mullahs have expressed a willingness to work with the United States. These religious leaders must be protected from violence from extremists in the Shiite community.
The intelligence community is rightly concerned that Iran, seeing the now porous border between Iraq and itself, has sent agents into Iraq to stir up anti-American feelings. There is something quite artificial, it must be said, about seeing newly liberated Shiite Iraqis chanting "Death to America!" This is an imported political statement, to be sure, but one that could lead to a spiraling cycle of mistrust between the American forces and the more religious Shiite. It is thus imperative that America find a way to maintain a working relationship between its military forces and the Shiite clergy, even if it is a private, behind-the-scenes accommodation involving less than savory deals. Interestingly though, Iranian state television showed very little footage of the procession in Karbala, indicating that Teheran's concerns are less religious and more political.
One must also keep in mind that, under Saddam Hussein, the Shiite were treated horribly and are now reasserting their rights. The brutality of Saddam's treatment of the Shiite was best demonstrated in the Iraqi Army's brutal suppression of the 1991 intifada. Saddam Hussein used much of the 1990s to drive a wedge between Sunni and Shiite, stoking fears of the Shiite majority among the less numerous, but politically powerful, Sunni minority. It is thus understandable that the Shiite would want to wield political power in a post-war Iraq. The balancing act is for the new Iraqi government to allow for the exercising of Shiite political power, without allowing for the Shiite domination over Sunnis, secular Arabs, and Assyrian Christians.
Much of the more extreme Shiite activism in Iraq, based on fear of political exclusion, could probably be assuaged if the Americans were able to simultaneously include more pragmatic Shiite clerics in the new Iraqi government and exclude the more reactionary, conservative elements, notably those in the pocket of Iran. Washington would be well advised to consult with Shiite exiles from Detroit and London, particularly those who have lived in the West for a time and have been able to synthesize their devout faith with Western democratic values. Secular Shiite opposition figures might also find a way to negotiate across the cultural divide that exists between the Americans and more religious Iraqi Shiite. Americans have a right to be wary of the creation of a religious state in Iraq, but should not be wary of Shiite Iraqis themselves. Indeed, they have their own traditions, separate from those of Persian Iranians. This limits Iranian influence.