When the Shiites Rise

Courtesy Reuters


The war in Iraq has profoundly changed the Middle East, although not in the  ways that Washington had anticipated. When the U.S. government toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003,  it thought regime change would help bring democracy to Iraq and then to the rest of the region. The  Bush administration thought of politics as the relationship between individuals and the state,  and so it failed to recognize that people in the Middle East see politics also as the balance of power  among communities. Rather than viewing the fall of Saddam as an occasion to create a liberal democracy,  therefore, many Iraqis viewed it as an opportunity to redress injustices in the distribution of  power among the country's major communities. By liberating and empowering Iraq's Shiite majority,  the Bush administration helped launch a broad Shiite revival that will upset the sectarian balance  in Iraq and the Middle East for years to come.

There is no such thing as pan-Shiism, or even a unified leadership for  the community, but Shiites share a coherent religious view: since splitting off from the Sunnis  in the seventh century over a disagreement about who the Prophet Muhammad's legitimate successors  were, they have developed a distinct conception of Islamic laws and practices. And the sheer size  of their population today makes them a potentially powerful constituency. Shiites account for  about 90 percent of Iranians, some 70 percent of the people living in the Persian Gulf region, and  approximately 50 percent of those in the arc from Lebanon to Pakistan -- some 140 million people  in all. Many, long marginalized from power, are now clamoring for greater rights and more political  influence. Recent events in Iraq have already mobilized the Shiites of Saudi Arabia (about 10 percent  of the population); during the 2005 Saudi municipal elections, turnout in Shiite-dominated regions  was twice as high as it was elsewhere. Hassan al-Saffar, the leader of the Saudi Shiites, encouraged  them to vote by comparing Saudi Arabia to Iraq and implying that Saudi Shiites too stood

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