The Shiites and the U.S. in Iraq

Apr 15, 2004

The following remarks were prepared by Dr. Nakash based on his presentation at the Woodrow Wilson Center April 12, 2004. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and in no way represent the views or opinions of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Shiite-U.S. Relations in Iraq

written by Yitzhak Nakash, Chair, Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, Brandeis University

When U.S. marines stormed into Baghdad a year ago, large sections of the Iraqi capital displayed unbridled enthusiasm for America. Cheerful residents shouted "Thank you George Bush." In Saddam city, home to 2 million poor Shiites, the Al Muhsin mosque re-opened after it had been closed for four years by the Baath. In a celebratory sermon, the cleric Amer Minshidawi told worshippers that after their liberation by American troops, it was the duty of Shiites in Iraq to teach the world that Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance, and love.

This Shiite good will toward the U.S.-led invasion was apparent during the first months of the occupation. Iraqi Shiites recognized the importance of adopting political pragmatism given the complex social reality in Iraq and the U.S. presence there. The significance of this attitude may be appreciated from the different Shiite response to the British occupation during World War I in comparison with their attitude toward the occupation during 2003. Unlike their earlier jihad against the British, which started in 1915 immediately following the British landing in Basra and culminated in the 1920 revolt, Iraqi Shiites initially avoided taking arms against the Americans, adopting a wait and see approach.

All Iraqi Shiite groups clearly recognized the importance of cooperating with the occupation authority in the period immediately after the war. Iraqi Shiites have disagreed, however, on how to engage the Americans and on the strategy to pursue in order to shape Iraqi politics. Thus, the young and activist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr viewed the interim-governing council appointed in July 2003 (and the twenty-five member cabinet selected by the council in September) as illegitimate and non-representative bodies, tainted by their association with foreign powers. Instead, he called for elections of a "popular government." By contrast, the senior clerics (led by Grand Ayatollah `Ali Sistani) gave the council their tacit support, paving the way for Shiites to join this Iraqi political institution. In joining the council, the majority of Shiite leaders broke ranks with the attitude of their coreligionists during the 1920s, who back then followed the rulings of the senior clerics and rejected employment under the British. This reversal demonstrates the determination of Shiites not to repeat the mistakes of the past, which undermined their position in the state between 1921 and 2003, and their realization that they need to share power with other groups as a condition to playing a leading role in accordance with their majority numbers in Iraq.

A year after the invasion, however, the gratitude of Shiites toward the Americans, and their tolerance of the occupation, have all but evaporated. The Coalition Provisional Authority is now locked in battles not only with Sunni insurgents in central Iraq, but also with Shiites loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr. The standoff with the Shiite insurgents is concentrated in Sadr City, and in a string of cities in southern Iraq. Sadr himself is now in the shrine city of Najaf, which is also the home of Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

The United States is facing a moment of truth in Iraq, the outcome of which will determine not only Iraq's political future but America's standing in the Middle East. Thus far, the Shiite uprising has been led by radicals associated with Sadr and his Mahdi Army--a militia estimated to be between 3,000 and 10,000 men. The moderates looking to Sistani, who form the bulk of the Shiite majority in Iraq, have still not joined Sadr's uprising. Nevertheless, it is clear that they are growing increasingly restive despite an edict issued by Sistani last Wednesday calling for restraint and a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

If unchecked, the uprising could evolve into a full-scale Shiite revolt. Such a development, on top of the fierce Sunni resistance, could lead to a surge of Iraqi nationalism with strong anti-American overtones. This, in turn, will make the U.S. position in Iraq untenable. A showdown between the Coalition Authority and Sadr will only exacerbate the current crisis and could lead to an all out revolt. A more sensible course would be to try to defuse the crisis through negotiations without either humiliating Sadr or allowing him to dictate the agenda in Iraq.

America's best bet now is Sistani--the preeminent Ayatollah who alone has the religious authority and the clout to rein in Sadr and steer Iraqi Shiites away from revolt. It is both in the U.S. interest, and in the interest of all Iraqis, that Sistani succeed in ending the stand off between Sadr and the Coalition Authority. If he manages to tame Sadr, Sistani would further consolidate his own power within the Shiite community. This would be a good outcome because Sistani's vision of a Shiite-led government in Iraq allows a fusion between Islamic and Western concepts of government.

Sadr and Sistani represent different generations and sensibilities as well as competing schools of thought within Shiism. The young firebrand Sadr derives his standing from the legacy of his father, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was gunned down by the Baathists in 1999. Like his father, Muqtada advocates activism. He seeks to establish an Islamic government throughout Iraq, using grass-roots mobilization. In Sadr's mind, politics should serve religion, and therefore he does not accept any degree of separation between religion and politics.

By contrast, the elderly and seasoned Sistani belongs to the quietist school within Shiism. Although he has a vision of what an Islamic government should be, Sistani is not inspired by Ruhullah Khomeini--the Ayatollah who articulated the idea that clerics should rule and implemented it in Iran. Sistani's emphasis is not on clerical rule but on ensuring government accountability and protecting religion. This is evident in his calls for direct elections to a national assembly, an institution that would check the actions of the government and the process of legislation in Iraq. Moreover, in a break with the current reality in Iran, Sistani has not called for a council of guardians to scrutinize the bills that would be introduced in the assembly. Indeed, the experience of the last year demonstrates that Sistani has recognized the complex social reality of Iraq with its substantial Sunni and Kurdish minorities, and tacitly acknowledged that there should be limits on clerical participation in state affairs.

It is a mistake to think of the current crisis as simply an attack by Sadr on the occupation. In fact, a crucial struggle is underway for the leadership of the Shiite community, its loyalties and its resources. Nevertheless, there is a real possibility that this struggle could end in compromise.

Sistani has the clout and political acumen necessary to reason with Sadr and reduce the risk of a Shiite revolt. For his part, Sadr has acknowledged Sistani's religious seniority, and he does not seem interested in defying Sistani--an act that would cause a rupture within Shiism. Sadr probably also realizes that an all out confrontation between the Shiites and the Coalition forces would end in defeat and tarnish Shiite dreams of leading the new Iraq. Sadr, therefore, could accept a compromise brokered by Sistani, provided it gave his movement a political future.

One possibility is for Sistani to invite Sadr for talks at his home in Najaf. Sadr's acceptance would signal his recognition of Sistani as the supreme Shiite leader, and it should be accompanied by a pledge that he and his followers in the future will be bound by Sistani's rulings.

A compromise will inevitably have to include a statement by Sadr renouncing violence and instructing his militiamen to return power in the cities under their control to the Iraqi police. In return, the Coalition Authority should not attempt to arrest Sadr or provoke him in the future. It should permit Sadr to reissue his newspaper, al-Hawza, which was closed down last month, provided it stops inciting Shiites against the occupation.

The Coalition should also let Iraqis handle for themselves the legal proceedings relating to the murder of the cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoei last April, widely believed to have been carried out by Sadr's supporters.

In addition, a compromise will require a commitment by all the major Iraqi groups--Shiites, Sunnis, and especially the Kurds--to set a date for dissolving their militias, including the Mahdi Army, as a precondition for restarting the political process. Without that, Iraq will become a second Lebanon, dominated by the politics of militias and arms. A compromise will also require an implicit recognition by all parties that Sadr's supporters will be allowed to participate in Iraqi politics, and elect representatives to parliament, like the Shiite organization Hizballah in Lebanon today.

The United States would need to give its tacit consent to such a compromise and accept its long-term implications. Also, the wisdom of sticking to the June 30 deadline for transferring sovereignty to Iraqis must now be candidly debated, both here in America and in Iraq. Coalition forces will need to provide security throughout Iraq in order to proceed with elections to the assembly, if possible by January 2005 as stated in the interim constitution signed on March 8.

Parts of the constitution would have to be renegotiated to give Sistani, who may be assisted by other senior clerics, the incentive to rein in Sadr. A working constitution would be one which clarifies the powers vested in the Iraqi presidency. The constitution would need to reflect broad agreement over the meaning of federalism in Iraq, and guarantee minority and women's rights, but without according veto powers to minority groups that would in effect paralyze Iraqi politics. This demand has been made repeatedly by Sistani and other moderate Shiites in the last few weeks.

For its part, the Bush administration would need to accept the prospect of an Islamic government mainly in the Arab-dominated parts of post-Baath Iraq--a government which would not necessarily take the form of a Shiite theocracy modeled after Iran. The administration must also reckon with the fact that the United States will not be able to impose a Jeffersonian-style democracy in Iraq. There are no conditions for secular democracy in Iraq today. Over the past year, we have witnessed looting and destruction, lack of security, as well as warfare, revenge killings, and civil commotion. We have also witnessed an occupying power unsure about its long-term goals in the country, and reluctant to commit adequate military and material resources to match its grand pre-war vision of Iraq as a model for democracy in the Arab world. Moreover, there is no form of civil society in Iraq today that can act as the nucleus of an Iraqi democratic system. The success or failure of people in gaining democracy is often determined by the role played by non-government organizations whose members are derived primarily from the middle class. The importance of the middle class lies in the resources it controls as well as in the degree to which it can push for democratic procedures. In its thirty-five years of rule, the Baath wiped out all forms of civil organization not controlled directly by the Party. Making things worse, twelve years of sanctions leading to the 2003 invasion have reduced the Iraqi middle class to bare subsistence. It will take years before a secular Iraqi middle class could reemerge and check the power of the religious groups, who took advantage of the power vacuum and are now the most vocal, organized, and politically mobilized force in post-Baath Iraq. The mayhem and political assassinations that followed the invasion have badly damaged American credibility and political authority in Iraq. The sweeping "de-Baathification" measures, which led to purging many qualified professionals who joined the Baath to secure government jobs, and the decision to dissolve the Iraqi army, have further undercut the reconstruction effort. These realities explain why a year after the U.S.-led invasion, Iraq is on the brink of a full-scale Shiite revolt.

I would like to conclude with an observation. In the past fifteen years there has been a shift of focus among Shiites in the Middle East from violence to accommodation. This trend, coupled with the desire of Shiites to carve out a political space for themselves, have become even clearer since 2001. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the threat to U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East has not emanated from the Arab Shiites, nor from an Iranian Shiite revolution that has lost its fervor, but rather from the growth of Sunni Islamic radicalism influenced by the Wahhabi-Hanbali school dominant in Saudi Arabia. To contain the spread of Sunni radicalism, the United States will need to build bridges to those Shiites in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world, who have attempted to fuse Islamic and Western concepts of government, as well as to the reformers in Iran. Despite the current violence in Iraq, there remains a narrow window of opportunity for achieving such a reconciliation. While Iraqi Shiites have thus far not joined the insurrection in swelling numbers, their coreligionists elsewhere in the Arab world and in Iran have been eagerly anticipating the outcome in Iraq. Success in Iraq is likely to foster the trend within Shiism toward accommodation and away from confrontation. Failure will generate renewed feelings of betrayal among Shiites as well as a brand of Shiite religious nationalism with strong anti-American overtones.

By seeking a negotiated solution to the current crisis--a solution in tune with the sociopolitical realities in Iraq--the United States could give clerics like Amer Minshidawi a chance to prove that an accommodation between Islam and the West is not only desirable, but also attainable.

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