A Post-U.S. Iraq

Like Hizballah, the Mahdi Army will retain its military wing so long as the state cannot ensure security. That will guarantee that Iraq does not become a safe haven for Al-Qaeda, which is no match for the Mahdi Army.

With the Democrats given an electoral mandate to take a fresh perspective on Iraq, we should now recognize that the invasion was undertaken with little knowledge of the aspirations of the country's different groups. It would be a great shame if a significant change in policy were also made on the basis of ignorance of a major factor in the conflict: Islam.

And yet U.S. policymakers apparently cannot tell Sunnis from Shi‘a (Jeff Stein, NY Times, October 19). If Washington is to leverage opportunities in Iraq to eradicate Al-Qaeda and give democracy a foothold, a better understanding of Islam is vital.

As a result of ousting Saddam Hussein, a second Hizballah in the region has emerged, in the form of the Mahdi Army-which takes its name from an Islamic messiah (the Mahdi) expected to return at the end days to restore justice. Like Hizballah, the Mahdi Army will retain its military wing so long as the state cannot ensure security. That military capability will guarantee that Iraq does not become a safe haven for Al-Qaeda, which is no match for the Mahdi Army.

Although not sufficiently taken into account, the demise of Saddam has created a new Al-Qaeda stance, now directed against Islam itself, specifically Shi‘i Islam, no less than the U.S. "infidel." The suicide attack, a new spin on the Muslim understanding of martyrdom, is now an intra-Muslim affair, causing a bit of haywire among Muslims leaders who formerly argued for its legitimacy but now sadly realize its potential of being used against innocent Muslim life. The rise of the Mahdi Army, originating to protect the Shi‘a community, will have the unintended effect of clearing the country of international jihadists in a way the U.S. military cannot.

The Mahdi's name has been invoked in times of chaos when Muslims felt a palpable need for rescue and some figures, such as Moqtada Sadr, have assumed the mantle, garnering a religious-not merely political-prestige that in quieter times belongs to clerical scholars. But while Moqtada Sadr may harbor hopes of ruling as head of an Islamic state, so far he has been happy to pull strings from behind the scenes, like his Hizballah counterpart Hassan Nasrallah. However strong Sadr's backing, he has to compete with other elements within the Shi‘a community.

That Shi‘a community, meanwhile, has demonstrated the wherewithal and will to move in a democratic direction, even if not one we like. Elections have been enthusiastically pursued by Shi‘a communities in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, and, more significantly, the democratic principle has been incorporated into Shi‘a thinking. Iraq's democracy would be Islamic in style, legislating moral norms in synch with the local values but also respecting political freedoms-democracy with modesty. In the long-term, Iraq does not need Washington to establish democracy, if that is our goal. U.S. policymaking on Iraq, then, should not be driven by concerns for lack of democratic potential, but the effects that anti-Americanism, enhanced by our presence in Iraq, will have on our ability to mediate our interests in the Middle East. These would be better served not by attempting to impose democracy in our own image, but by taking the people of the region seriously.

Minority rights, not to mention the present cycle of sectarian revenge, remain a legitimate concern. The United States can seek assurances from the Shi‘a in this regard before departing, and it does seem the Shi‘a -dominated government is willing to share the national pie with the Sunni community, as witnessed by the recent decision to reinstate former Ba‘athi officials. Importantly, the development in Shi‘a thinking on a synergy between sharia duties and human rights could help put a stop to the use of Islam for terrorist purposes.

There are, of course, other concerns, such as Iraq's relations to its Iranian neighbors, which will exist, positively or negatively, regardless of what Washington does. Still, despite possible cooperation, there are too many disparate political interests, too much competition between the Shi‘a clergy, and too many cultural differences, to make a united front with Iran likely.

It is unlikely that a post-U.S. Iraq, if shaped by the likes of Moqtada Sadr as is likely, will be reassuring to Israel- no less, perhaps, than Hizballah. But the recent Hizballah-Israeli conflict demonstrates that the United States does no service to Israel by encouraging it to battle its foes in the region-rather, such an approach increases hostility to Israel and America. Regional acceptance of Israel is not going to be easy, but discrete means will be more effective than force or even conventional diplomacy.

There is a real intransigency about the "foreign" presence of Israel within the so-called abode of Islam-a term not found in the Quran and arguably a construct of an imperial age when caliphates, casting their power in religious categories, encouraged a Muslim worldview that associated territory and religion in ways that the revelation may not have intended. But there is also a realistic sense that the greater good would be served not by endless battle with Israel but its peaceful incorporation into a greater Middle East, when conditions are right. First and foremost, respect for the peoples of the region, including the recognition of Islam as indelible part of the Muslims' way of life, must be demonstrated by the United States.

To this end, greater attention to some of the specifics of Islam, as in the Shi‘a case, needs to be creatively incorporated into policymaking-perhaps through an independent state office charged with making knowledge of Islam available to U.S. diplomats. This would prove more constructive than trying to figure out how to convince Muslims to change into what we want them to be.