November 9, 2004


The coming of Shia Iraq: After 500 years of Sunni rule, Iraq's election will finally hand power to the Shia majority. (Bartle Bull, November 2004, Prospect)

Iraq's Shias have lived under mostly Sunni rule since their first imam, Ali, was deposed from the caliphate in 657, 25 years after the death of Muhammad. The Ottoman conquest in 1534 brought rule by local Sunnis in the service of the global caliphate based in Istanbul. When the British were given the mandate to rule in 1920, they relied on Sunnis. In 1932, when Iraq was granted independence, the British brought in a Sunni monarchy. Sunni officers overthrew the monarchy in 1958 and Saddam's Ba'ath party took over in 1968. (Saddam, already effective leader, became president 11 years later.) He ruled for 30 years with his Sunni clique of national socialists and tribal cronies. After these five centuries of subordination, there is today a wrenching urgency in Shia politics. The long wait may finally be over.

The Sunni position is equally inflamed by the past. After five centuries of rule, the Sunnis hate the sudden prospect of relegation to a parliamentary presence not much larger than that of Britain's Liberal Democrats. Iraq's Sunnis have already lost the material privileges - better jobs, places at universities, more services in their towns - that Saddam gave them for 30-odd years. Predictably, it is those who have lost most who are reacting most violently to the notion of ratifying these changes in January: senior party officials, clansmen from Saddam's home town of Tikrit, members high and low of Saddam's enormous apparatus of violence, residents of isolated Sunni pockets such as the Bermuda triangle towns.

A relatively orderly autumn means elections in January. For the Ba'athists and Salafis - the revanchist outlaws and the Islamist fundamentalists - who perpetrate Iraq's Sunni violence, such an outcome is unacceptable. Chaos is what they need.

Thus Sunni violence is more a matter of terrorism than of insurgency. It is Sunnis who carry out the spectacular, media-driven acts of violence: the car bombs, the suicide attacks on queues of police recruits or children celebrating a new sewage facility, the abduction of aid workers, the assassination of foreign workers like Ken Bigley who are helping to rebuild the country. For the Ba'athists and Salafis, tiny and electorally hopeless minorities within a larger Sunni minority, driving out the occupation is not the priority. It gives them their raison d'ĂȘtre, and in Falluja it has even given them salaries and uniforms. Their real target is the reconstruction of Iraq.

This should not be a surprise. For the Sunni extremists, and for the moderates who collude with their silent support, Iraq is a Shia country waiting to happen. Nobody - not the Baghdad government, the occupation, the UN, the Shias themselves - is explaining to them that "democracy" does not have to mean the "tyranny of the majority." Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the 74-year-old grand spiritual leader of the Shias, contributed to the Sunni fears this summer by insisting that the UN resolution laying out a framework for the occupation and the electoral and constitutional processes ignore Iraq's federalist interim constitution. He has since made noises about minority rights under a Shia-dominated democracy, but Sunnis remain profoundly worried.

The Shia violence in Iraq is very different from the Sunni version. It is truly an insurgency. Instead of targeting Iraqis, aid workers, lorry drivers and infrastructure, it targets occupation forces. The weapons of the Shia insurrection are Kalashnikovs and modified Katyusha launch tubes - rather than the car bomb and the camcorder. During the last Najaf siege, a British journalist and French documentary-maker were kidnapped by Shias in separate incidents in southern Iraq. Muqtada al-Sadr quickly secured their release. When Shias near Basra started attacking the oil pipelines, Muqtada's office in Najaf made them stop. The Shia rebels want the occupation out but they share the occupation's main objective: a stable, democratic Iraq.

Muqtada's forces are called the Mahdi army and the black they wear is the colour of the Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi. The last of the Shias' 12 imams, the Mahdi disappeared in an act of divine concealment in Samarra in the 9th century. His return, when it comes, will bring an age of justice.

Until then, Shiism must define itself by grievance. The faith began with the rejection, betrayal, and murder of Imam Ali by Muslim political rivals in the 7th century. Ali's followers claimed that Ali, as Muhammad's closest male relative, should have been ruler of the Islamic community. Thus for the next thousand years the world of Islam was ruled by a series of caliphs whose power the Shias considered illegitimate. According to the Shias, all but one of their 12 imams - Ali and his heirs - were murdered by the Sunni caliphs. The final imam was the only one to escape: the Mahdi, hidden by God, until whose return there can be no justice.

Awkward for the secular to acknowledge, but it is the Christian belief that there will be no justice on Earth until the Second Coming that made America uniquely resistant to the various utopian/dystopian statist projects of the Enlightenment, from the egalitarianism of the French Revolution to Nazism/Communism/Socialism. Sharing this faith with the Shi'a gives us more in common with them than with secular Europe.

What the Mullahs Learned From the Neighbors (KENNETH M. POLLACK, November 9, 2004, NY Times)

Beware the siren song of easy regime change. Throughout the 1990's, many Americans claimed that Saddam Hussein's regime was so hated by the Iraqi people that merely committing our foreign policy to regime change, arming a small band of insurgents and perhaps providing them with air support would be enough to topple the government. In the end, of course, it required a full-scale ground invasion to do so, and even the size of that effort has proved inadequate.

Similarly, there is good evidence that most Iranians want a different form of government, but there is little evidence that they are ready to take up arms against their rulers. Most Iranians simply don't want to go through another revolution. While Iranians on the whole are probably the most pro-American Muslims in the region, they are also fiercely nationalistic. Given our experience in Iraq, we should assume they would resist any effort by America to interfere in their domestic affairs.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 9, 2004 8:33 AM

I don't know, oj. The mythology of Islam, whether Sunni or Shi'a seems a rather potent environment for hatching "false" Imams bent on the more utopian aspects of their faith. What's up with Iran, after all. The Shi'a sect and Christianity appear to have little in common.

Posted by: at November 9, 2004 12:51 PM

Iran got sidetracked into a very unpopular form of rule by the clerics. It will be a brief mistake.

Posted by: oj at November 9, 2004 2:40 PM