Comment: The Shia Factor

Although previously betrayed by the West, ordinary Iraqis still look for the removal of Saddam Hussein.

Comment: The Shia Factor

Although previously betrayed by the West, ordinary Iraqis still look for the removal of Saddam Hussein.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

For most of Saddam Hussein's iniquitous rule, the Iraqi people have been caught between a rock and a hard place - the rock of Western support for Saddam, and the hard place of the Arabs' silence about his atrocities. The West and the Arabs both bear responsibility for Iraq's suffering. Both bear a measure of responsibility for the current calamity - the likelihood of fresh military action - in face of which the Iraqi people are quite powerless.

As Iraq once again braces itself for war, the mood of many Iraqis - even in Iraq itself - is not the same as the mood in the Arab and Muslim street. The Iraqi people have suffered so much at the hands of Saddam Hussein. They do not have the luxury of saying an unqualified "no" to war.

Nobody likes war. It would surely have been possible, if it were not for Western blunders, to get rid of Saddam without war. Military action will represent the failure of Western diplomacy and the West's "civilised" institutions. But if Saddam stays in power, if he is let off another time, the damage would be enormous.

Ever since the creation of the modern state of Iraq, the Shias, who form the majority of Iraq's population, have been marginalised. The marja'iyya - the highest acknowledged authorities of Shias worldwide - enjoy great influence among the Shias of southern Iraq, and in the Baghdad slums where Shias live in appalling conditions, but play no direct part in the running of government.

This has been the exclusive preserve of the Ba'ath party, through which Saddam rose to power, for the past 35 years. After its successful coup in 1968, the Ba'ath moved quickly to secure sole control of the country and lost no time in putting into practice a well-thought-out plan to weaken the Shia establishment. Some tribal leaders were lured with oil money and the infrastructure of Shia theological schools was destroyed. In the first of many blows to the spiritual leadership, Mehdi al-Hakim, son of Grand Ayatollah Mohsen al-Hakim, was accused of being a spy. In the following years, thousands of clerics said to be of Iranian origin were expelled to Iran.

The regime put its hand on Shi'ism's most significant celebrations. It took vigorous measures to control Ashura, the re-enactment of the martyrdom of the Prophet's grandson Hussein, by setting up roadblocks that interfered with pilgrims and penalising even government employees who visited the shrines.

In the Iraqi media, which is officially controlled, the Shias were conspicuous only by their absence. You could see a whole programme on Najaf - site of one of the two most famous theological colleges in the Shia world - without seeing a turban. Clerics were edited out of every clip unless they were there to praise the government.

In 1973, the Ba'ath broke new ground in its persecution of the Shias by executing five Shia clerics accused of belonging to al-Da'wa, the largest of the Shias' underground political organisations. In 1975, the regime closed the handful of private schools owned by Shias in the name of "nationalisation". Shi'ism has never been recognised in the educational system of Iraq. The national curriculum teaches only Sunni Islam.

Persecution escalated with the Iranian revolution of 1979, reaching a shocking climax with the execution of Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr el-Sadr and his sister, Bint Huda, in 1980. Thousands of Shias were rounded up and any young person going to a mosque was immediately accused of belonging to al-Da'wa. Even Shias who became secular to avoid this persecution were targeted. Some were killed; others were expelled to Iran - among them the virtual entirety of the Shia merchants who dominated Baghdad's central bazaar.

In the 1980s, Iraqi Shias found themselves fighting their co-religionists across the border in Iran. When Grand Ayatollah abu al-Qasm al-Khoei refused to lend his support to the war, many of his closest associates were arrested. Saddam's fight against his own Shias was cleverly confused with the fight against Iran: to oppose the war was unpatriotic, Saddam said, conscripting huge numbers of Shia youth.

After Saddam's defeat in Kuwait in 1991, the suppression of the popular uprising against the regime in southern Iraq made clear, once and for all, Saddam's hatred of the Shias. The tanks that crushed the uprising carried the slogan "No Shias after today." Shia shrines were destroyed and the integrity of the Shia faith questioned. The old town of Kerbala was razed - homes, shops, shrines and religious centres. More than 100 of the Grand Ayatollah's staff were arrested. The Grand Ayatollah himself was detained, at age 92, and taken by force to military intelligence headquarters in Baghdad.

Three months after the uprising, when calm had been restored, a historic Shia mosque in the northern city of Samarra was bulldozed. Saddam was attempting to erase all traces of Shia identity - in every part of the country.

Today the number of Shia clerics in Iraqi jails almost certainly exceeds the number of clerics of any faith jailed anywhere in the world. More than 200 have been executed since the Ba'ath took power. Yet Saddam depicts himself as an Islamic leader. His son Odey Saddam Hussein, at the time when he was being touted as his father's successor, went as far as to claim that he himself was Shia, in a transparent attempt to ingratiate himself with this potentially powerful group.

In 1991, President George Bush the father urged the Iraqi people to rise against the tyrant - and they did, both in the Kurdish north and Shia south. But after asking Iraqis to overthrow Saddam, America permitted Saddam to use his helicopters to crush them in the no-fly zone designed to protect them. It allowed him to kill the Marsh Arabs with his tanks after telling him he could not kill them with his planes. It watched, without reacting, the draining of the marshes and the destruction of their unique ecology.

Despite this terrible betrayal, most Iraqis will welcome the removal of Saddam Hussein. The Shias will certainly welcome the chance to play, at last, the role they should be playing in Iraqi national life. The Shias are frustrated and angry, but should not direct any of their anger towards Sunnis: in post-Saddam Iraq, Sunni and Shia must live, and work, together.

In 1991, the Shias showed maturity. They directed their anger not towards other ethnic or religious groups, but towards the regime. They did not kill Sunnis; they killed those who had worked with the regime.

Iraq lies at the very heart of the Arab world. Stability in Iraq is key to stability in the wider region. To this end Iraq needs a Marshall Plan to reconstruct the county and provide economic stability. It also needs to take control of its own political life. Iraq has many talented people and a strong middle class who will keep the country running. America will not be able to control Iraq by military means for long.

We will be grateful for the removal of Saddam Hussein. But our gratitude will not last if America wants to stay long.

Yousif Al-Khoei is director of the Khoei Foundation in London.

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